In an American novel, I found this sentence, but I don’t understand the exact meaning of "living in refusal". The man here, who in the past worked as an engineer, is a Jew living in the USSR, and he lost his previous job because of discrimination.

He had applied for a job as an elevator operator in a hospital, but he was waiting to hear about that. Such menial jobs were quickly filled by Jews living in refusal, all of them with specialist degrees.

  • 3
    As Daniel says in his answer, living in refusal is a phrase coined to describe the situation in the USSR. The word refusal has been around for hundreds of years, but it refers to the action of denying a request, not to an ongoing state that results from that denial.
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 10:52

1 Answer 1


This isn't an idiom, it's a specific thing to that time and place.

In Soviet times, the authorities routinely denied visas to those wishing to emigrate, in particular to Jews wanting to leave for Israel. Those who were refused permission were known as refuseniks and were subject to a number of sanctions, in particular loss of high-status jobs - as your quote shows, they often ended up doing menial jobs like operating elevators or sweeping streets.

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    It may worth mentioning that those were "exit visas" required to leave the USSR. I noticed that that's a somewhat alien concept to many foreigners, as not so many countries have exit visas.
    – Headcrab
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 2:28

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