Refusenik (אסיר ציון, asir tzion, "zion prisoner"; מסורב עליה, mesorav aliyah, "one who is not allowed to perform aliyah"; отказник, otkaznik, from "отказ", "refusal") was an unofficial term for individuals, typically but not exclusively Soviet Jews, who were denied permission to emigrate abroad by the authorities of the former Soviet Union and other countries of the Eastern bloc. The term refusenik derived from the "refusal", handed down to a prospective emigrant from the Soviet authorities. Over time, "refusenik" has entered colloquial English usage for any type of protestor.
A large number of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas to leave the Soviet Union, especially in the period following the 1967 Six-Day War. While some were allowed to leave, many were refused permission to emigrate, either instantly or their case could languish for years in the OVIR (ОВиР, "Отдел Виз и Регистрации", "Otdel Viz i Registratsii", English: Office of Visas and Registration), the MVD department responsible for provisioning of exit visas. In many instances, the reason was given that these persons had been given access at some point in their careers to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave.
During the Cold War, Soviet Jews were presumed a security liability or possible traitors. To apply for an exit visa, the applicants (and sometimes their entire families) often had to quit their jobs, which in turn would make them vulnerable to charges of social parasitism, a criminal offense.
Many Jews encountered institutional antisemitism which blocked their opportunities for advancement. Some government sectors were almost entirely off-limits to Jews. In addition, Soviet restrictions on religious education and expression prevented Jews from engaging in Jewish cultural and religious life. While these restrictions led many Jews to seek to emigrate, requesting an exit visa was itself seen as an act of betrayal by Soviet authorities. Thus, prospective emigrants requested permission to emigrate at great risk, knowing that an official refusal would often be accompanied by dismissal from work and other forms of social ostracism and economic pressure.
A leading proponent and spokesman of the refusenik movement during the 1970s was Natan Sharansky. Sharansky's involvement with the Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Group helped to establish the struggle for emigration rights within the greater context of the human rights movement in the USSR. His arrest (on charges of espionage and treason) and trial contributed to international support for the refusenik cause.
Refuseniks included Jews who were desiring to emigrate on religious grounds and Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel for national/Zionist aspirations and relatively secular Jews desired to escape an undercurrent of the state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Also, large numbers of Volga Germans attempted to leave for Germany, Armenians to join their diaspora, Evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, and other ethnic and religious groups tried to escape persecutions or desired to seek a better life.
The coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s and his policies of glasnost and perestroika, as well as a desire for better relations with the West led to major changes. Most refuseniks were then allowed to emigrate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the decade, the term "otkaznik" largely passed into history.