The Jew who betrayed Jews
The initiator of the notorious court case on Brodsky’s social parasitism was the member of the people’s guard Yakov Lerner. He followed and persecuted the poet for several years, accused him of not wearing a hat during winter and “sipping cocktails”. Lerner also put several more bohemians on trial. In 1973 he was caught for black market racketeering and sentenced to six years in jail.
The case of Joseph Brodsky is not just about the outrageous trial and the subsequent public denunciation of the poet and bohemians close to him. Above all, it is a case of fervent public activism in the person of Yakov Lerner, who was responsible for launching the Brodsky case.
Yakov Lerner worked as an assistant at the State Mining Construction institute. He was described at his job as a pernickety, bilious man, constantly finding fault with his fellow workers, and constantly making denunciations. He greeted Khrushchev’s “people’s guard recruitment” with enthusiasm, and put together a group of eight people, and spent almost all his free time maintaining public order in the city.
His first sensational case was the unmasking of a group of religious Jews who gathered in an apartment and studied Hebrew and prayed. Despite the fact that Yakov Lerner was a Jew himself, he broke up the group several times with his division, and then informed on them to the police. As a result of his vigilant efforts, the head of the group, Belotserkovsky, was exiled from Leningrad.
Lerner lived in the building next to Brodsky. He decided to “re-educate” the poet. He visited him and told him he had to become a Soviet person. When the persuasions did not work, he initiated the publication of the article “A Sub-literary Drone” in “Vecherny Leningrad”. Lerner wrote of Brodsky that “this young man intentionally dresses extravagantly: he wears velvet pants and doesn’t wear a hat in winter”. He also reported that “Brodsky spends his time unusually. He gets up late, and then walks to Nevsky Prospekt, where he likes to flirt with the young salesgirls of a bookshop. In the evening he is in a café or restaurant, and sips cocktails, often in the company of people with the nicknames “Jeff” and “Jack”, and also girls, who always wear glasses and always have a shock of disheveled hair.”
Deciding to play on patriotic feelings, Lerner said that Brodsky had almost committed treason when he visited his friend Shakhmatov in Samarkand. After meeting an American at a hotel, Brodsky gave him sheets of poems of his friend for publication abroad. Then Brodsky and Shakhmatov went to the airport, where they allegedly planned to hijack a plane and fly abroad, but then they decided that it was too far, and they did not have enough fuel.
How did Lerner find out about Brodsky’s adventure in Samarkand? He talked to his friends, enemies and acquaintances, and gathered compromising information on him.
Lerner declared that the company of parasites that Brodsky was a part of were not just anti-social elements, but criminals and outcasts. Shakhmatov in Samarkand was sentenced for hooliganism. Geikhman was also a criminal, and the portrait of Shveigolts, a hooligan who did not wish to work (and had been summoned to the police station several times) was hung up on the notice board of the people’s guard. According to Lerner, Slavinsky drank vodka and frittered away his time, while Marianna Volnyanskaya had abandoned her elderly and weak mother for a bohemian lifestyle, and had sexual relations with a female friend, a devotee of yoga and mysticism. Lerner concluded that judging from this group, Brodsky could not be re-educated.
The article did not lead to any practical consequences. And then in December 1963, Lerner went to A. Prokofiev, the head of the Leningrad branch of the Writers’ Union, and asked him to organize a public trial with the presence of city writers. But Lerner was also unsuccessful here. The Leningrad branch of writers, of course, gave an “artistic assessment” of Brodsky’s poems: “His works are inspired by boredom and laziness, their distribution among impressionable youth corrupts their souls.” But as Brodsky was not a member of the writers’ union, it was not possible to put him on public trial.
Then Lerner went to the prosecutor of the Dzerzhinsky district. The prosecutor took an interest in the case, and brought in the KGB – it made a fine, morally instructive story for Soviet youth.
Later both Brodsky’s supporters and neutral parties noted the irrepressible passion of the people’s guard in relation to Brodsky as a characteristic and unpleasant phenomenon of public life in those years. Admitting that he did not know Brodsky at all, Alexei Surkov, the first secretary of the USSR Writers’ Union, announced that if there really were compromising materials, then Brodsky should be put on trial for anti-Soviet activity. However, Surkov opposed organizing a farcical trial of the parasites. He wrote to the general prosecutor Rudenko: “The people’s guard looks extremely strange against the background of this trial, and their behavior evokes associations that I can not bring myself to talk about.”
Others also wrote about the excessive zeal of the people’s guard led by Lerner. According to a collective letter from Grudinina, Etkind and Dolinina, “Lerner was a fanatic who stopped and searched any suspicious passer-by, and intimidated and blackmailed the people he stopped.”
But Lerner was not calmed down by the trial of the “parasite” Brodsky. During the trial he sat in the hall every day and recorded the behavior of those present. After the trial, he informed on three members of the Leningrad writers’ organization, Grudinina, Etkind and Admoni, who he believed behaved boorishly in defending Brodsky. The head of the writers’ organization Prokofiev gave all three of them a dressing-down.
Yakov Lerner and his people’s guard were the scourge of “anti-social elements” in Leningrad. In total he was responsible for exiling around 20 people from the city, and over 10 people received jail sentences. Lerner’s activity stopped in 1973. He was arrested and sentenced to six years in jail for extorting large sums of money from black-market sellers.
“Lerner was sitting on the defendant’s bench. I walked past him. When he saw me, Yakov Mikhailovich put his fingers together in the form of a prison grill and said clearly: “Rein, I’ll put you in jail”. But this time he was being put in jail. Incredible things were coming to light. He had never served in the army. He had spent part of his military service in Samarkand, where he was an assistant at a hospital (before this he had told everyone that he was a war veteran). Even back then he was accused of stealing hundreds of sets of bedding and underwear.
Lerner had never received any awards. All his orders and medals were fake. He got blank award sheets from somewhere and simply filled them out with his own name (he even awarded himself the order of Ushakov of the 1st degree, which was awarded for naval victories).
Lerner often resorted to cheap cons (for example, he conducted a fake inventory at a shop, and afterwards demanded slippers and a singlet afterwards, as a bribe). But he also tried cons that involved many thousand rubles, supposedly allocating apartments on behalf of the Leningrad party committee. And he found clients for these cons, deceiving them for large sums of money. He kept a firearm and ammunition at his dacha. He was also a marriage con artist, with a total of around ten wives, and received money from each of them, as to avoid scandals he sometimes had to return the money that was extorted from his victims.
Yevgeny Rein and Joseph Brodsky
There were also some other charges, you couldn’t list them all. He received a sentence of six years. To no avail, he said that all the charges brought against him meant nothing compared with the benefit that he had brought to the state, by taking part in the ideological battle against dissidence. The court was deaf to this side of his activity, and Yakov Mikhailovich finally went to jail.
But half a year later I met Lerner in Moscow at large in the editorial office of the “Nedelya” weekly on Pushkin Square. As soon as he saw me, he came up to me and started a friendly conversation as if nothing had happened. Furthermore, he made me an offer, from which I understood that his activity had not changed at all.
‘Do you want an American car?’ he asked. ‘A diplomat is leaving the USSR and wants to sell his Lincoln. It’s almost new. It doesn’t have any documents, but I can get the documents for you soon. If you want it, then give me an advance.’
He died in Leningrad in the 1990s. At his first trial his adult daughter appeared as a witness. When the judge asked her how she was related to the accused, she did not reply, and only started weeping loudly.”
Photographer Asher Svidensky: Story is the only thing that matters
The 25-year-old photographer on his inspiration, Mongolia and secrets of capturing a good image
Our Jewish Hollywood: 5 facts about Mel Brooks, alive and loving it
The master of parodies and farce who became famous thanks to Hitler, wrote rap lyrics and left a six-finger handprint on the Walk of Fame
Our Jewish Hollywood: 5 facts about Marty Feldman, the young Frankenstein
The author and screenwriter who was a vegetarian, smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and could act with his eyes