Natan Sharansky looks the same as he always has — and he is a welcome sight. So is Avital, his wife. She came out of the Soviet Union before he did — a good twelve years before. She campaigned for the release of her husband, who was in the Gulag. I tell her, “I remember watching you on Nightline and other programs.” Her husband remarks, “The biggest mistake the KGB made was letting Avital out.”
From what I can tell, they have a tender, warm relationship — truly spousal.
We are sitting in a coffee shop here in Jerusalem, with mutual friends. The Sharanskys are known in this shop, as I understand it, and basically left in peace. In other places, Natan would be surrounded. “By admirers and autograph-seekers?” I ask. No, he answers: By people wanting him to return to politics.
This is a turbulent season in Israeli politics. (When is it not, really?). There has been one election in April and there will be another — a re-do, so to speak — in September.
Let me provide a brief reminder of who Natan Sharansky is: He is one of the hero-dissidents of the Soviet Union, a leading “refusenik,” which is to say, a person who was denied the right — refused the right — to emigrate to Israel. After nine years in the Gulag (1977 to 1986), he was released, and allowed to come to Israel. He wrote a memoir, one of the great prison memoirs ever: Fear No Evil. He eventually entered Israeli politics, reaching high levels. Later, he was the head of the Jewish Agency, a huge non-profit that is devoted to a strong Jewish identity.
There are people who regard Natan Sharansky — for his courage and eloquence in Soviet days; for his perpetual advocacy of freedom and democracy, for people everywhere — as one of the great figures of the age. I am one of them.
I wrote about Sharansky at some length in 2005, when I interviewed him. For that piece — “Being Sharansky” — go here.
He was born in 1948, the same year as modern Israel. His name was Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky. (“Natan Sharansky” came when he landed in Israel.) He was a math whiz and a chess whiz — I mean, really good. Not like the best kid in the neighborhood. Like, extraordinarily good. Here in the coffee shop, I ask him, “How’s your math?” Good, he answers. He finds that he can do calculations and work out problems in his head that younger people cannot — because they have relied on computing devices.
Sharansky and Charles Krauthammer often played chess together. Krauthammer once told me of how he teased Sharansky. “No fair,” he’d say. “You spent nine years in the Gulag, goofing off, working on your chess, mentally, while the rest of us had to go out and make a living.”
I have recently interviewed Vladimir Bukovsky, another great Soviet-era dissident. Let me quote something I wrote about that:
“Do you have a lot of math?” I ask Bukovsky. “Yeah,” he says. “I love math.” I say, “Must be something in the Russian water. Russian kids seem to be math whizzes.” This is a misimpression, says Bukovsky. “It’s like chess,” he adds. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, the Russians are so good at chess!’ To begin with, it’s the Jews who are so good!”
I bring this up with Sharansky — who makes an interesting point: Jews often exercised their minds in yeshivas (schools that focus on religious texts). In places where these institutions were denied — e.g., the Soviet Union — maybe Jews channeled these energies into chess?
He and I talk about dissidents and science. Sharansky himself was a prodigy, as you know. And Sakharov, let’s not forget — Sharansky worked with him, by the way — was not only a human-rights hero: He was one of the top physicists in the world. “A genius,” Sharansky says.
Boris Nemtsov, too, was scientifically inclined — more than inclined: He was a serious scientist. He earned his Ph.D. in physics at 25 and was a protégé of the great Vitaly Ginzburg, a Nobel Prize winner. Nemtsov left science, however, for politics, thinking it critically important. He led the opposition to Putin until he was murdered, within sight of the Kremlin walls, in 2015.
We have a little talk about Putin, Sharansky and I. Vladimir Bukovsky says that Putin is a pure Soviet man — a product of the Soviet system, a product of the KGB. True, says Sharansky, except in one respect: Putin is not hostile to the Jews, as Jews. They can’t criticize him, of course, but no one can. There is not official anti-Semitism, and Putin has some sympathy for the Jews. When he was young, certain Jews were important to him.
Other than that — and that is an interesting exception — yes, a Soviet man, no doubt.
Charles Krauthammer told me something else, concerning Sharansky: He came out of nine years in the Gulag basically untouched, unscarred — in mental and emotional balance. “It’s as though he had gone to the Caribbean to lie on the beach for nine years,” Charles said. I mentioned this to Bukovsky, when we talked several weeks ago. The same was true of him, he said (twelve years in the Gulag): “If they don’t break you, you come out all right. If they do — you don’t.”
Does Sharansky agree? Yes, he does.
I remember something from his book, Fear No Evil. For a time, he was able to study the Bible alongside a fellow zek, a fellow prisoner, a Christian named Volodya. They called their study sessions “Reaganite readings.” Why? Because they had heard that the American president declared a particular year — 1983 — the “Year of the Bible.”
Here in the coffee shop, I ask Sharansky about Volodya: What became of him? Does he know? Has he ever seen him, post-Gulag? Yes. The man was a Christian activist, and he taught French to earn a living.
Nine years in the Gulag were hard, of course — very. Almost unspeakably so. In Israel, Sharansky spent nine years in politics: 1996 to 2005. These were not easy either, he says, in their own ways. (Sharansky was the head of four different ministries plus deputy prime minister.)
I remember well that Sharansky argued against an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, on the grounds that it would be very bad for Israelis and perhaps worse for Palestinians, who needed to build up democratic institutions, else they would be at the mercy of extremists. Does he still believe that the withdrawal was a mistake? “Of course,” he says. “And I argued and argued with Arik about it” (“Arik” being Ariel Sharon, who was prime minister in this period).
One of Sharansky’s biggest admirers is George W. Bush — who, in 2006, gave Sharansky the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Where is it?” I ask. At home, says Sharansky. Recently, there was a break-in at the house, and the medal was not taken. Neither was the Congressional Gold Medal — which Sharansky received when he came out of the Soviet Union, in 1986.
Sharansky and GWB are kindred spirits, and the former serves on the latter’s human-freedom board. They have a meeting in a few days, says Sharansky.
He and I talk about liberal democracy, which is under siege in many places. It is a rare thing, Sharansky emphasizes: enjoyed by very few people, and all too briefly. This is a melancholy subject.
Sharansky is working on a new book, which may have the title “Nine, Nine, Nine.” The title refers to nine years in the Gulag; nine years in Israeli politics; and nine years at the head of the Jewish Agency. You know what my American political mind thinks of, don’t you? You got it: The “9-9-9” plan touted by Herman Cain in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. (Cain was proposing the replacement of all current taxes with a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent federal sales tax, and a 9 percent corporate tax. My friend and colleague Kevin D. Williamson wrote against this plan under the memorable title “Nein! Nein! Nein!”)
I tell you honestly, I was hoping to get a glimpse of the book — not the forthcoming one, much as I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m speaking of another book, a small one, yet an overwhelmingly powerful one. And I do glimpse it, as Sharansky pulls it out of his shirt pocket and we discuss it.
Let me quote from my 2005 piece, please:
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.) …
One other thing about the Psalm book: It “was the only material evidence 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.”
Well, 14 years later — and 42 after he received it — he still has it. In all candor, it’s a pleasure to lay eyes on it. A pleasure, also, to lay eyes on Natan and Avital. They are a big, big deal to many of us, wherever we live, and whether we get a chance to meet them or not.