"The threat of people leaving was an existential one," he said. "The leaders didn't believe their own propaganda at the end, but they needed the people to believe."
In the 1970s, Connie became a target of Soviet propaganda herself. She began receiving hundreds of letters from citizens who'd been told by the KGB to tell her how wonderful their lives were. She had to sign for each envelope. Eventually, she told her confused and concerned postman the whole story. The letters kept coming for five years.
Connie, now 74 and recently widowed, was one of 12,000 who traveled from Philadelphia to Washington for the December 1987 rally. Like so many other American Jews at that time, the suburban housewife and mother of three didn't want to stand by silently as she believed her parents' generation had done during the Holocaust. In the process, she found her voice.
"I became a very independent young woman," she said. "My raison d'être for the rest of my life is to get this story out."
Threats of Siberia
The Smuklers were in this fight with others across the country, including Joel and Adele Sandberg of Miami, who raised their three kids in the Soviet Jewry movement.
People gathered in their home for meetings. When refuseniks got out and went on speaking tours, they'd stay in the Sandberg home. The kids were schlepped to protests whenever a Moscow-based circus, symphony or ballet came to town.
The Sandbergs enlisted the help of people outside the Jewish community. They armed hundreds of tourists with letters, books and jeans and sent them to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and gather information. Selling a pair of jeans on the black market could feed a family for a month. The case histories of refuseniks were published and distributed to media, members of Congress and activists worldwide.
Joel, a 69-year-old ophthalmologist, was active in a group that tracked prisoners' health and made sure refuseniks got medicines they needed. When they learned the Soviet regime was forcing some refuseniks into psychiatric hospitals, having deemed them crazy for wanting to leave, they made noise.
"At one point," he said, describing the lengths they'd go to help someone in need, "we sent over a heart valve with a congressman."
In 1975, leaving their 6, 4 and 2-year-old kids with grandparents, the couple made their only trip to the Soviet Union.
Their unintended last stop was Kishinev (now Chisinau), the capital of Moldova.
After passing through a group of KGB men keeping watch outside an apartment building, they climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Mark Abramovich, the leader of the city's refusenik community.
"We are friends from Miami," they said. They had arrived unannounced and were the first American visitors to Kishinev in more than a year.
Abramovich opened the door. "Are you afraid?" he asked.
"No," Adele remembered answering ("Of course, I was scared to death," she admitted later.)
"I, too, am not afraid," he answered. "Come in."
Over the course of four nights, Abramovich brought refuseniks to the apartment to meet with the couple. When the Sandbergs would leave, an escort would take them back to their hotel and point out the plain-clothed KGB agents. "See that lady on the bus? She's KGB."
Then it happened. The morning they were leaving Kishinev for their next stop, KGB agents stopped them as they left their hotel room with their luggage. The men led them to a small room in the hotel. They took their passports and said they'd be deported to Siberia. They were scared but believed the threat was empty. There were plenty of stories of Americans being tossed out of the Soviet Union, but none of outsiders being sent off to Siberia.
For 10 hours, the Sandbergs were peppered with questions. The three officials wanted to know who sent them, where they'd been, who'd they'd seen.