Ronnie Corbett: supported the event at which Misha Voikhansky spoke
By David Ashforth 6:00PM 12 JUL 2016
ON A freezing Monday in February 1986, Misha Voikhansky walked onto the Riverside Terrace outside the National Theatre in London and began to read a list of names. After each name a red carnation was thrown into the nearby courtyard.
There were 9,000 names on the list and some famous ones followed Voikhansky to read them out in support of the event that playwright Tom Stoppard had organised. There were politicians including Neil Kinnock, Ken Livingstone, David Owen and David Steel, and celebrities including Ronnie Corbett, Dennis Norden, Melvyn Bragg and Twiggy.
The names they read out were those of refuseniks, Jewish residents of the Soviet Union harrassed and punished for asking to be allowed to leave for Israel or elsewhere.
Stoppard had been campaigning on behalf of Soviet dissidents since the mid-1970s and knew Voikhansky well. It was partly thanks to his efforts that Voikhansky was in England that day and is now, extraordinarily, riding at Catterick (5.30). When Dr Misha Voikhansky has his next ride, it would be wonderful to see Stoppard, all four of whose grandparents died in concentration camps, there to watch him.
Misha’s mother, Marina, was a very brave woman. She was a Russian psychiatrist who fled Russia in 1975 after protesting against the abuse of psychiatry to punish dissidents, including her husband Victor Fainberg, one of those subjected to forcible treatment for fabricated mental illness. Fainberg inspired Stoppard’s 1977 play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which was dedicated to him.
Marina reached England but her previous husband, fearful of losing his job, as Marina had done, did not object to the Soviet authorities’ refusal to allow their nine-year-old son, Misha, to join her. It was a way of punishing Marina. Misha lived in Leningrad with Marina’s mother.
Stoppard met Marina and became president of the Free Misha Campaign, whose supporters included Yehudi Menuhin, Harold Pinter and Joan Baez. In 1977 he visited Misha, who wrote bold, unanswered letters to the authorities. “I beseech you to let me go to my mother. What an injustice it is if a son is not allowed to live with his mother.”
The case was raised several times in the House of Commons. In 1978 Foreign Office spokesman Evan Luard told the House, “The government have raised this case with the Soviet authorities on a number of occasions and will continue to do so.” In 1979 Misha was finally allowed to leave.
In 1992 he qualified as a doctor and now practices at a surgery in a suburb of Birmingham. Normally he would be working on a Wednesday but this week Dr Voikhansky, nearing 50, will have his second ride, again on his own horse, Natalia.
Voikhansky did well on his first ride at Redcar in May and today’s race is for inexperienced amateur riders. All are far more experienced than Voikhansky and with Natalia taking a big step up to a trip she is not bred to stay, victory is unlikely. Yet it will still be a triumphant success. Well done, Misha. I salute you and your mother.