Politics & Policy

Being Sharansky

On Russia, Israel, ‘Reaganite readings’ . . .

The other day, someone asked me how old Sharansky was, and I said, “Oh, about 55.” (In fact, Sharansky is 57, born in January 1948, a few months before the modern Israel.) My friend was surprised that Sharansky was so young. The ex-Soviet dissident, now a key Israeli, has been famous and important for a long time. He was only 25 when he applied for his exit visa, and not long after that he became the face of the “refuseniks.”

In his astoundingly great memoir, Fear No Evil — published in 1988 — he recounts the day of his release, when he was delivered into the hands of the American ambassador to West Germany, Richard Burt.

All I remember from my talk with the ambassador is how astonished I was that he was only thirty-nine. “You made your career so quickly,” I said.

“Well,” he replied, “you’re also very young and made a career quickly.”

“Yes, but in my case the KGB helped. I trust that your achievement had nothing to do with them.”

Sharansky spent nine years in the Gulag, a harrowing time in which he demonstrated what resistance is. More than 400 of those days were spent in punishment cells; more than 200 were spent on hunger strikes. His refusal to concede anything to the Soviet state was almost superhuman. This was true to the very last. When they relinquished him to the East Germans, they told him to walk straight to a waiting car — “Don’t make any turns.” Sharansky zig-zagged his way to that car.

Once in Israel, he might have sat back to be the hero, but the swim of events would not allow him to do so, and he entered politics. At the beginning of May, he resigned from the cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in protest of the prime minister’s “disengagement” plan — Sharansky considers it reckless. He is now associated with Jerusalem’s Shalem Center. Last fall, Sharansky came out with his second book, The Case for Dem­ocracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. It applies lessons gleaned from the Cold War to the current conflict — it is very, very hard on advocates of “stability.” President Bush read the book while it was still in galleys. He then met with Sharansky in the Oval Office. Later, the president told the Washington Times, “If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky’s book.”

I spoke with the author recently, while he was visiting New York. We spent about half our time on the Soviet Union — and Russia — and half on Israel. First, the Soviet Union: Did he ever think it would collapse?

“I was absolutely sure it would collapse. All of us dissidents were sure it would fall apart, because we saw how weak it was from the inside.” In 1969, a friend of his, Andrei Amalrik, wrote a book called Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (Nineteen eighty-four was the big Orwell year, of course.) Amalrik died “in some very strange car accident,” says Sharansky — this was in France, in 1980. Amalrik was therefore deprived of the chance to see how it would all turn out. In any event, when Sharansky was in prison and 1984 came around, “The KGB guys were telling me, ‘It’s 1984, and your friend is not here, but the Soviet Union is: It will exist forever.’” Not quite. Sharansky retains from Amalrik a compelling image: A totalitarian society is like a soldier who must point his gun at a prisoner 24 hours a day, every day. Eventually, his muscles will tire, the gun will start to sag, and the prisoner will escape.

In Sharansky’s view, the three most important people in defeating the Soviet Union were Andrei Sakharov, Scoop Jackson, and Ronald Reagan. Each man shook the regime, in ways both diverse and related. What about Gorbachev?

“Of course it was good that he came to power,” says Sharansky. But people inflate his role, as the former general secretary himself does. “He wanted to save the Communist system, and he gave a little bit of freedom to Soviet citizens. But he was a true Communist, and the Communists never understood that there is no such thing as a little bit of freedom: Give people a little, they will take everything.” In the West, Gorbachev is seen “as this great, historic figure, who started a process of transformation”; in the Soviet Union, “we knew him to be the one trying to stop it.”

And what about Solzhenitsyn? According to Sharansky, his contribution was twofold. First, “he severely undermined the regime, by exposing the truth about it to all the world.” After The Gulag Archipelago, it was harder for the West to apologize for the Soviet Union. And in the empire itself, “he increased the number of doublethinkers.” Doublethinkers? Ah, yes. Sharansky sees totalitarian societies — “fear societies,” he also calls them — as containing three groups of people: the “true believers,” who are committed to the regime; the dissidents, who are in open opposition; and the “doublethinkers,” who may talk and act one way, but think another — they have their doubts. This third group is large and vital.

I wonder whether Sharansky ever thinks about Russia — keeps abreast of its problems, worries about its fate. He answers, “First of all, Russia is a very important part of my own history, and the history of many Jews. Second, it’s a country where many Jews still live. And third, it’s a country that plays a very important role in the world” — and in the current debate over democracy. There is a fourth point, too: “Some of the people who were the biggest influences on me were Russians, starting with my teacher, Sakharov.” (The Case for Democracy is dedicated to his memory.) And who could do without the literature of Russia, especially that of the 19th century? But Israel and the Middle East present enough problems.


In recent months, Sharansky has squared off with a giant of Israeli history and politics, Ariel Sharon. Interestingly, Sharansky — born Anatoly Sharansky, you remember, and now Natan Sharansky — once called himself Natan Sharon. This was with his fellow Jewish activists in the Soviet Union. A generation before him, an uncle emigrated to Palestine, taking the name of Sharon.

I inquire whether Sharansky sees the prime minister as a tragic figure. “There is, in fact, something tragic about Ariel Sharon,” he responds. Of course, Sharon’s overall record cannot be gainsaid: He was pivotal in the Yom Kippur War, and “of the prime ministers I have worked with, he is by far the most knowledgeable, about everything connected to Israel.” Moreover, “he has great respect for my past, and an interest in it, and he gave me full support in my role of coordinating the struggle against anti-Semitism. He is one of the few who think all the time about world Jewry, anti-Semitism, Jewish education — these things are important to him.” But he has always been skeptical that “the other side” can liberalize and democratize, at least in time to do Israel any good.

Like others, Sharansky casts the disengagement as “an act of desperation” — even many of its supporters describe it as such. In Sharansky’s telling, Sharon very much wanted to complete the peace process, but was stymied by the Palestinian leadership. So he decided to disengage, to draw a kind of line, on his own, or on Israel’s own: a line that would be firm. “He sat us down and said, ‘I want to stop this vicious cycle. This will do it. It will be very painful, but then Palestinian problems will be Palestinian problems. If they have unemployed, if they don’t have a normal life — then it’s their problem. The world will not pressure us. We’ll have ten years, five years, without the pressure of the world, during which time we will strengthen our position, and hope for stability.’”

And how did Sharansky respond? “I said, ‘You don’t have ten years, you don’t have ten days. To the contrary, the world will continue its pressure, and increase it: because you made it legitimate to dismantle settlements in exchange for nothing. They’ll say that, if you gave up 20, you can give up 100. And if the Palestinians continue to fight, it’s only because you didn’t dismantle enough.’” Sharansky believes that “we have paid a big price, as a result of terror. We defeated them militarily, and now we’re making a big concession. This is not a process — it’s completely one-sided. And it has caused a terrible rift in Israeli society.” Consider this, too: Hamas has already used the disengagement in its propaganda, citing it as proof positive that terrorism works.

And yes, George W. Bush is behind the plan. “You can’t expect the president of the United States to be more Zionist than Ariel Sharon.” But Bush shares with Sharansky the view that no real peace is possible while conditions of tyranny exist.

Sharansky met with Reagan quite a bit — some of his stories about the late president are priceless — and he has a grasp on President Bush. “Reagan called a spade a spade, and his policy was based on instinct, not on some grand strategy. But his instincts were absolutely right, and that’s why he made history. He’s the one who put Communism into the grave.” Then this outlook — the linking of human freedom and security — “was fully abandoned by the West, including by America during President Bush’s father and certainly during President Clinton.” Bush 43, however, is in the Reagan mold.

“I talked to Dick Cheney, back in January 2001, before the swearing-in. I had known him when he was in Congress. I talked to him about bringing back the linkage between security and democracy, and about the mistakes of Oslo. Cheney didn’t say a lot, but he was listening.” I point out, “Cheney is known as a good listener.” Sharansky: “Yes, but Clinton’s a great listener, too — he is so understanding. But then he does nothing.” Sharansky holds that Bush’s call for a democratic leadership among the Palestinians is historic, hugely consequential, and overlooked. “This is a return to the ideas that Reagan was expressing: ‘Our security depends on their freedom.’” This remains, however, a minority view in the world.

Speaking of the world: How does Sharansky feel when it calls his state an oppressor, and when it calls him an apologist for this oppression — a hypocrite who suffered persecution himself but now metes it out to others? Sharansky gives a quick shake of disgust, then cites an early Zionist, Ahad Ha’am, who argued that the blood libel actually worked to the advantage of the Jews. Worked to their advantage? How is that possible, given the violence and mayhem that this libel caused? “Because a Jew can know that the whole world can believe something that is nevertheless an absolute lie. I still know Russians who believe [the blood libel]! The world may say we’re a Nazi-type state, that we’re a big human-rights violator, that we committed atrocities at Jenin — and it’s all false.”

Sharansky continues, “When I moved from the Soviet Union to a free society, it reminded me — and it still reminds me — how great a democracy is, and that it has a unique record in war. I propose to friends in Europe and America that they compare the records of their own countries as democracies in war to Israel’s record.” Sharansky fears no such comparison.

I ask the annoying question of whether Israel will make it. “Yes, of course. I’m an optimistic person. In the Soviet Union, the KGB guys often told me, ‘You will not make it out alive.’ And I sometimes had doubt that I personally would survive. But I never had any doubt that our struggle would succeed.” Sharansky is similarly optimistic about the survival of Israel: but it would be nice if Israelis did not have to “fight time after time for the right to have their own state. I remind you of what I said in my resignation letter: Not only are we making a tragic mistake [in the disengagement], we are also missing an opportunity of historic proportions,” given the liberalizing winds now whistling through the world. Sharansky does not believe in safety absent freedom.


Some people regard Sharansky as a providential figure, spared death in the Gulag to perform his work now. What does he think? “I long ago stopped asking myself whether God gives us a mission or we give ourselves a mission, in an effort to be worthy of God.” He recalls the prayer that he invented for himself in prison, and mutters a little of it: “Grant me the strength, the power, the intelligence . . . and the patience to leave this jail and reach the Land of Israel in an honest and worthy way.”

At the close of our conversation, I ask him about his Psalm book. Does he still have it? A pocket book of Psalms was given to him by his wife, Avital, a few days before he was arrested. He went through hell to hang on to this book. The authorities often deprived him of it. Once, he went on a “work strike,” entailing several months of the punishment cell — until he got that book back. In another period, “I took my Psalm book and for days on end . . . recited all one hundred and fifty of King David’s psalms, syllable by syllable.” (I quote from Fear No Evil.) For a while, he was able to study the Bible, Old Testament and New, with a fellow prisoner, a Christian named Volodya.

We called our sessions Reaganite readings, first, because President Reagan had declared either this year or the preceding one (it ­wasn’t exactly clear from the Soviet press) the Year of the Bible, and second, because we realized that even the slightest improvement in our situation could be related only to a firm position on human rights by the West, especially by America, and we mentally urged Reagan to demonstrate such resolve.

One other thing about the Psalm book: It “was the only material evidence [through the nine years] of my mystical tie with Avital.”

Toward the very end of his ordeal, at the airport in Mos­cow — Sharansky had no idea what was happening to him — he refused to board the plane before they gave him back his Psalm book. In front of photographers, he dropped to the snow, yelling for it. They gave it back to him. Once aboard — when they told him he was being released — he recited the Psalm he had always designated for his liberation day, Psalm 30: “I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.”

Anyway, back in New York, sitting in a hotel dining room — I ask whether he still has the book. He grins a little, reaches inside his jacket, and produces it. There it is, this tiny book, big as life. Apparently, he has it on him always, the way one carries wallet and keys. Has he ever been in danger of losing it (I mean, lately)? “Sometimes I forget where I’ve put it, and it becomes more of a problem with age.”

What Sharansky will not lose is his sense of purpose and right; it causes him to zig-zag through life along a very straight path.

– This article first appeared in the July 4, 2005, issue of National Review.



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