The worsening situation in Iran translates into a dramatic increase in HIAS caseload. At year’s end, more than 1,400 Iranian Jews await processing to enter the United States. 


Despite glasnost, the number of Jews granted exit visas remains very low.

Refusenik Anatoly Shcharansky is released from prison and exchanged in Berlin for two Soviet spies. He immigrates to Israel and soon after changes his name to Natan Sharansky. Dissident Andrei Sakharov is released from internal exile in Gorky and is allowed to return to Moscow.

In April, the world’s worst nuclear accident occurs in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl. Radiation severely contaminates a 20-mile radius around Chernobyl. Lower levels of radiation spread into Western Europe. Although the initial reaction by Soviet authorities is denial and obfuscation, the nuclear plant accident becomes an impetus for Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization program.


At a summit meeting between the leaders of the two superpowers in Reykjavik, Iceland, Ronald Reagan announces that human rights issues will be prioritized in discussions. For the first time, the Soviets agree to place the topic on the agenda. However, the emigration issue ultimately takes a backseat to arms control negotiations, which stall over Soviet opposition to the U.S.’s Strategic Defense Initiative.


  • Jewish emigrants from the USSR: 914
  • Soviet Jewish immigrants to US: 641
  • Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel: 201

Looking Back

The Soviet government codifies many of its most restrictive emigration policies in a series of amendments to regulations scheduled to take effect in the following year. Reinforced are the policies of approving invitations from abroad only from “first-degree” relatives (parents, spouses, children, siblings) and of not allowing those with knowledge of “state secrets” to leave. The law remains vague on the definition of “state secret.”

Several well-known and long-standing refuseniks are allowed to leave, including Ilya Essas, an organizer of religious study groups in Moscow. The number of refuseniks and Jewish dissidents in prison decline, even as arrests of activists continue to take place. A young musician named Alexei Magarik is arrested in Tbilisi, charged with drug possession, and sentenced to three years.

Forty-two refusenik scientists and scholars attend a seminar in Moscow commemorating the 850th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides.