Underground seminars became a form of the Soviet Jews' struggle for national self-determination. In the late Seventies, seminars on Jewish history and Judaism operated in Leningrad; chemist Lev Utevsky and school teacher Grigoriy Kanovich, a socialist dissenter, ran them. Mikhail Beizer, who participated in those seminars, recalled: "Every Sunday, dozens of people gathered either in the one-room apartment of the Kanovich family in Pavlovsk… or in the similar little apartment on Culture Avenue, 27 (wits dubbed it Jewish Culture Avenue) at Grigoriy Wasserman's, who became a constant lecturer on religion, too. Those regular meetings continued in spite of pressure by the KGB and inspired a feeling of self-respect and national pride in the students".
Most of the seminars' participators were "otkazniks" but not all of them. The pressure of the authorities increased. In 1981, activist of the seminars Yevgeniy Lein was arrested; the accusation was fabricated. Kanovich and Utevsky left for Israel. Other participants of the seminars were sometimes arrested for days or beaten in the street (like G. Wasserman or S. Furman). They were threatened with reprisals against their children, they were dismissed from their job; in their meeting places, raids were undertaken and all those apprehended were photographed and their names were written down. Because of the persecution by the KGB, it became difficult to gather in apartments. Nevertheless, the seminars run by Yakov Gorodetsky continued operating for some months more. M. Beizer read lectures on the pre-Revolutionary history of the Jews in those seminars. However, by the autumn of 1981, the KGB had suppressed the seminars.
So, M. Beizer thought up another way of working, excursions to Jewish places in Leningrad. The excursions began in the winter of 1981-1982 and continued for one and a half year. During the excursions, M. Beizer broached the most topical themes of Jewish history. His narratives - right on the street; sometimes, on Nevsky Prospect - awakened a sense of national pride in listeners and helped to overcome the fear. When the excursions became widely popular, the KGB began to undertake raids. However, by that time, M. Beizer had already collected the materials that became the base of his book The Jews in Petersburg, which was published in Jerusalem in 1989. Chapters of the book were published in the Leningrad Jewish Almanac.
In the spring of 1982, the home Judaic seminar sponsored by M. Beizer began operating; it was restricted to those who wished to study Jewish history and culture seriously. The seminar gathered once a fortnight (except for summer holidays). The participators were obliged not only to listen but also to deliver reports. As M. Beizer recalled, "Primarily, I regarded it as some kind of School of Iohanan ben Zakkay in Yavna. Since the popular seminars had been dispersed, we had to hide somewhere, to save the knowledge and to prepare the new teachers to teach others. Gradually, the seminar began to fulfil some other functions, too". There were 10-15 constant participants in the seminar.
Natalia Yukhneva, a well-known Russian ethnographer, was a constant participant in the seminar. They gathered mostly in the room that M. Beizer rented on Rubinstein Street, or at the Romanovskys or at the Makushkins. The main rule of the seminar was the mandatory preparation of reports by rotation and typing its text (or the article based on it) for publishing it in LEA. It was forbidden to use the seminar for self-publicity or to bring foreigners there (many did to get support from abroad). Because of the last prohibition, the seminar survived for a long time, although the KGB watched all its activists.
Sometimes, experts from other cities took part in the seminar. Sometimes, Muscovites appeared - historian Leonid Praisman and ethnographer Igor Krupnik. Arkadiy Zeltser came from Byelorussia. N.V. Yukhneva invited Galina Starovoitova and the latter told of the Subbotniks and Gers she met in her ethnographic expeditions. The seminar considered various problems of Jewish history - the history of the Petersburg Jewish community, the history of Jewish book-printing, the Holocaust, the problems of biblical study and many other things. Later, some of its participants began the professional study of Jewish history and culture. Others found in the seminar a place to feel their origins; it awakened their national feeling. Because of the publications in "LEA", the works of the seminar were known to all Leningrad (and not only Leningrad) Jews.
The underground library of Jewish books and journals (generally, old ones) was the base for the seminar's operating. Yelena Romanovskaya and Tatiana Makushkina run it and worked there constantly. Its governing body was the Public Council that included M. Beizer, A. Taratuta and other leaders of the "otkazniks". Both participants in the seminar and "LEA" authors and many other Jews (not only otkazniks) used the materials of the library. In 1987, M. Beizer left for Israel. Beizer's comrades in the Jewish movement continued his work. Veniamin Lukin, Ilya Dvorkin and Avrum Dyomin started another seminar. In 1989, scientific research was continued at Petersburg Jewish University.
Excursion of M. Beizer. The early Eighties. Photo