Zisels, Yosyf

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Zisels, Yosyf [Зісельс, Йосиф], b 2 December 1946 in Tashkent, Uzbek SSR. Physicist, engineer, Jewish and human rights activist, political dissident. Zisels was born to parents who settled in Tashkent after they were evacuated from Bessarabia during the Second World War. In 1947 his parents then left Tashkent for Chernivtsi. In 1964–5 Zisels studied briefly in Kishinev, Moldavian SSR, and in 1965–9 he was a student of physics at Chernivtsi University. He graduated in 1969, served in the Soviet Army in 1969–70, and began working as an engineer at the Chernivtsi Radio-Television Centre in 1971.

Zisels began his dissident activity in 1968 by distributing samvydav materials, and in the early 1970s he started to support the efforts of many Jews to leave the USSR for Israel. Although Zisels never showed a personal interest in leaving the Soviet Union, he considered freedom of emigration to be a basic human right. In August 1972 he was expelled from the Komsomol for his statements and actions in defense of Soviet Jews who were trying to emigrate. Zisels also became increasingly involved in the general human rights movement in the USSR; in the mid-1970s he was part of a network that aided the relatives of imprisoned dissidents, and he regularly submitted materials to the Chronicle of Current Events, the main human rights journal in Moscow.

Initially Zisels had few contacts with other dissidents in Ukraine. Instead, he maintained close ties with members of the human rights community in Moscow who later put Zisels in touch with fellow activists in Kyiv, Lviv, and elsewhere in Ukraine. Zisels developed a special interest in the abuse of psychiatry for political purposes, and from 1976 onwards he began to consistently gather information about the victims of such abuse in Ukraine. In February 1977 he was warned of the possible consequences of continuing to engage in ‘anti-Soviet activities’, but although the KGB proposed that he apply to leave the USSR for Israel, Zisels rejected this proposal. In 1976–8 Zisels developed increasingly close ties to other dissidents in Ukraine. Aware that the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG) was barely functioning following the arrest and imprisonment of almost all its original members, in August 1978 he offered to join the UHG and was accepted as a ‘non-declared’ member. Soon afterwards, following two searches of his home in late 1978, Zisels was arrested on 8 December 1978 and charged with slandering the Soviet state. On 5 April 1979 the Chernivtsi oblast court sentenced him, in accordance with Article 187-1 of the Criminal Code (CC) of the Ukrainian SSR, to 3 years’ imprisonment in enhanced-regime labor camps. Zisels served his sentence in Sokyriany, Chernivtsi oblast, and was punished several times for his ‘non-conformist’ behaviour while imprisoned. Zisels became a declared member of the UHG in October 1979 and was released from imprisonment on 8 December 1981.

Zisels did his best to renew his human rights activities despite the oppressive atmosphere in Ukraine in the early 1980s but he had limited success. He was re-arrested in Chernivtsi on 19 October 1984 and charged with slandering the Soviet state in conversations with fellow prisoners while serving his previous sentence. On 10 April 1985 Zisels was sentenced, in accordance with Article 187-1 of the CC of the Ukrainian SSR, to 3 years’ imprisonment in severe-regime labor camps, and served his sentence in Lviv and Nizhnii Tagil, RSFSR. In January 1987 Zisels was offered early release from imprisonment if he agreed to refrain from further political activity, but he refused and was released in October 1987 after completing his sentence in full.

After returning to Chernivtsi Zisels was active in the local Jewish community (he established the first officially recognized Jewish community organization in Ukraine). He also renewed his general human rights activities, first in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group as well as its successor the Ukrainian Helsinki Association, and later in the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh).

In 1989 Zisels was involved in the creation of the Federation of Jewish Communities and Organizations of the USSR and became its co-chairman. From 1991 onwards Zisels served as president or co-president of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, and from 1999 to 2018 he was the executive vice-president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. In 2002, at the founding congress of the Euro-Asiatic Jewish Congress, he was elected chair of its General Council, and served as its vice-president 2002–14. Zisels is the executive vice-president of the Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine, created in 2002, and co-founder (2008) of the Museum of the History and Culture of the Jews of Bukovyna. He is an active member of the ‘First of December’ Initiative Group, and a member of the advisory councils of several European and international Jewish organizations. Zisels’ priorities include monitoring and commenting on the human rights situation in Ukraine, fostering improved inter-ethnic relations in Ukraine, and promoting the identification of Ukraine’s Jews with the Ukrainian state. He is the author of numerous articles and the following books: Esli ia tol'ko dlia sebia (If I Am Only for Myself, 2000); Esli ne seichas… (If Not Now… 2006); and Rozsudy moi pomysly (Judge My Thoughts, 2021).

Hospody, Ty vidkryiesh usta moi: Iosyf Zisel's u rozmovakh z Izoiu Khryslins'koiu (Kyiv 2017)
Zinkevych, Osyp, ed. and comp. Ukrainska Hel'sinks'ka Hrupa 1978–1982: Dokumenty i materiialy (Toronto and Baltimore 1983)

Ivan Jaworsky

[This article was written in 2021.]

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