and why is he important?
Last week, I wrote about President Bush’s speech in Prague at the invitation of José María Aznar of Spain, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, and Natan Sharansky of Israel (formerly the USSR). The President’s speech was magnificent. He made specific reference to the “defiance of Sakharov and Sharansky.” The events he was referencing occured almost thirty years ago. There are, undoubtedly, many who don’t know anything about the men the President was referring to – or anything about their “defiance.”
Bear with me. This is a tale worth telling.
Anatoly Sharansky was a mathematics prodigy from the Ukraine. Because of his outstanding talent and ability, he was admitted to the Moscow Physical Technical Institute, where he studied mathematics and computer science. Upon graduation in 1972 he took a position as a computer scientist at the state-run Oil and Gas Research Institute. Shortly afterwards, at the age of 25, he and his future wife Natalia Stieglitz (Avital) decided to emigrate to Israel and requested exit visas. Sharansky’s family had never forgotten their jewish heritage, and Anatoly was increasingly disenchanted with the failures of the Soviet Union. But emmigation from the Soviet Union was strictly controlled. Only a few hundred Jews were allowed to leave each year.
Avital’s request was approved, but Sharansky was denied permission to leave. The Soviet government informed him that he knew too many state secrets from his work at the Oil and Gas Research Institute. In 1974, the day before Avital left forever for Israel, she and Anatoly got married. Anatoly promised he would join her in Israel.
In 1975, the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords. The Soviet Union signed it, because it guaranteed the current borders of all the states of Europe. But one of the ten points also committed all signatory nations to “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” This clause, the Soviet Union had no intention of honoring.
In 1976, Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov announced the foundation of a group called the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. Along with them, among the eleven founders, was the 28 year old computer programmer, Anatoly Sharansky. The group’s purpose was to independently monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with Article VII of the Helsinki Accords.
Sakharov and Orlov were famous scientists in Russia. Sakharov was known as the “father of the Russian atomic bomb.”
Because Sharansky was fluent in english, he quickly became the spokesman for the group.
The Soviet Union reacted immediately to crush the dissidents. Sakharov was too famous to be imprisoned immediately. He was eventually arrested and sent into internal exile, far away from Moscow, in the city of Gorky – which was closed to all foreign visitors and thus served the purpose of isolating Sakharov from contract with the western press.
Some of the other members of the Helsinki Watch Group were incarcerated for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Orlov and Sharansky were arrested and charged with treason. Orlov received a ten year sentence. Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years.
In his final statement to the court in 1978, Sharansky said:
“Five years ago, I submitted my application for exit to Israel. Now I am further than ever from my dream. It would seem to be cause for regret. But it is absolutely the other way around. I am happy. I am happy that I lived honorably, at peace with my conscience. I never compromised my soul, even under the threat of death.
“I am happy that I helped people. I am proud that I knew and worked with such honorable, brave and courageous people as Sakharov, Orlov, Ginzburg, who are carrying on the traditions of the Russian intelligentsia [in defending human rights in the Soviet Union]. I am fortunate to have been witness to the process of the liberation of Jews of the USSR.
“I hope that the absurd accusation against me and the entire Jewish emigration movement will not hinder the liberation of my people. My near ones and friends know how I wanted to exchange activity in the emigration movement for a life with my wife Avital, in Israel.
“For more that two thousand years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated,‘Next year in Jerusalem.‘ Now, when I am further than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, my Avital, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’
Due to the persecution of its members by the Soviet government, the Moscow Helsinki Group was silenced. It announced its own dissolution in September of 1982
Sharansky was to serve almost ten years in the gulag under terrible conditions. He was freed in 1986, due to the tireless efforts of his wife to organize support around the world and keep the pressure on the Soviet government. In the United States a large number of scientists voiced their support for Sharansky by joining a boycott of Soviet scientific exchanges and conferences. SOS (Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, Sharansky), founded by Andrew Sessler and Morris Pripstein of the Lawrence Livermore labs eventually recruited 10,000 scientists who pledged to join the boycott.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. Following that meeting, the Soviets agreed to release Sharansky, although they insisted that he be included as part of an exchange of convicted spies. On February 11, 1986 Sharansky walked across a bridge from East Berlin and West Berlin. He was met by the Israeli ambassador and immediately handed an Israeli passport. When he reached Israel later that day, (after apologizing for being late!), he and his wife spoke by telephone with President Reagan and thanked him for interceding on their behalf.
Sharansky went on to become active in Israeli politics. He was elected to the Israeli parliament and served in the cabinets of both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak.
And of course, in 1989 – three years after Reagan secured the release of Sharansky – the Soviet Union collapsed.
In 2006, Sharansky wrote an eloquent endorsement of President Bush for the Wall Street Journal, calling Bush the “Dissident President.”
I’ll indulge myself by referring readers to one final anecdote that reveals much about Sharansky’s character – both his integrity and his faith. Sharansky insisted on celebrating Hannakuh, even in the Gulag. When the camp commandant confiscated his menorrah and candles, he declared a hunger strike – which was only resolved when the commandment allowed him to finish his celebration in the commandant’s office – with Sharansky insisting that the commandant join in by saying “amen” at the conclusion of the prayers. Read the full account here.
For a reasonably complete biography of Sharansky, those interested can start with the entry at Answers.com.
And for those who want to read a stirring account of perserverance and courage in the face of persecution, I highly recommend Sharansky’s memoir of his time in the gulag, called Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph over a Police State.
Director, Schaeffer Study Center