I met Natan Sharansky for the first time in the early 1990’s when he was president of the newly created Zionist Forum, the umbrella organization of former Soviet activists. He also served as an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report, where he wrote frequently on the subject.
I was introduced to him following a speaking engagement in Birmingham, Al., where he spoke passionately about his imprisonment and fight for human rights in general and Soviet Jewry in particular. In his mid-forties at the time, he was friendly and energetic with an engaging personality. I was impressed by his story of struggle and resolve.
Four months before the nation of Israel declared statehood in 1948, Sharansky was born as Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in Stalino, Soviet Union (now Donetsk, Ukraine), where his father was a journalist for a Communist Party newspaper. After graduating from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in 1972 and working as a computer scientist at the Oil and Gas Research Institute, Shcharansky and his future wife Avital Stieglitz decided to immigrate to Israel and requested exit visas. Stieglitz’s request was approved, but Shcharansky was denied permission to leave.
The reason for denial was that he had been given access, at some point in his career, to information vital to Soviet national security and could not be allowed to leave. Another possible factor was his activism in support of the right of Jews to immigrate. Shcharansky had become another of the Soviet Union’s “refuseniks,” (those denied permission to immigrate by the Soviet authorities).
Anatoly and Avital married in 1974, one day and a half before her exit visa expired. The day after their wedding, she left for Israel while Anatoly remained in the Soviet Union, but his anticipated permit never came.
Very quickly he became involved in the struggle of Soviet Jewry to earn their freedom and immigrate to Israel. He joined the human rights movement led by Andrei Sakharov and became one of the founding members of the Moscow Helsinki Group that united Soviet dissidents of all types. He soon became an unofficial spokesperson for both movements.
In 1977, a Soviet newspaper alleged that Mr. Shcharansky was collaborating with the CIA, and on March 15th he was arrested on multiple charges including high treason and spying for the Americans. The following year, in 1978, he was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in a Siberian forced labor camp. In the courtroom prior to the announcement of his verdict, Mr. Shcharansky in a public statement said: “To the court I have nothing to say; to my wife and the Jewish people I say “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
For the first 16 months of his sentence he was held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, frequently in solitary confinement and in a special “torture cell”. He was later transferred to a notorious prison camp in the Siberian gulag.
After nine years in prison, thanks to considerable international pressure and a campaign led by his wife, he was released on February 11, 1986. Freed on the border of a still-divided Germany, he was met by the Israeli ambassador who immediately presented him with his new Israeli passport under the Hebrew name of Natan Sharansky.
When he arrived in Israel he was greeted by leading government officials, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and given a hero’s welcome. He went immediately to the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem where he prayed from a tiny Book of Psalms-a gift from Avital. The moment they saw each other again, Natan said, in Hebrew, “Slichi le she’icharti k’tsat.” (Sorry I’m a little late.”)
Natan, now thirty-eight and finally free, had not seen his wife for twelve years.
During the nine years in prison, he spent half of that in solitary confinement where his health deteriorated to the point of endangering his life. Sharansky, a chess prodigy, later said that he managed to maintain his sanity by playing chess against himself in his mind. At the age of 15, he won the chess championship in his native Donetsk, and once beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in an exhibition match in Israel in 1996.
In 1995, Sharansky became the chairman and founder of the political party Yisrael BaAliyah, promoting the absorption of the Soviet Jews into Israeli society. With another Soviet dissident, Yuli Edelstein, as a co-founder and a slogan stating that their political party was different-it’s leaders first go to prison and only then go into politics- the party won seven Knesset seats in 1996.
In January 1997, Sharansky became Minister of Industry and Trade. Nine months later I would meet up with him again.
As a member of Alabama Governor Fob James’s trade delegation team in October 1997, we met with high-level officials of the Israeli government in efforts to foster trade agreements between the two states. One of the negotiating partners was the Minister of Trade himself-Natan Sharansky. It was easy to see why Minister Sharansky had moved rapidly within the political spectrum. In addition to his engaging personality, he possessed a quick wit and an astute grasp of business dynamics.
Sitting across the table from him during a light lunch, we had an opportunity to recall our earlier meeting and to discuss his journey into Israeli politics. During the luncheon discussion, I remember him saying something that I’m sure he often repeated. Describing his human rights activism he remarked “In dictatorships you need courage to fight evil; in the free world you need courage to see evil.”
The trade mission was the promising beginning that led to an opportunity to reciprocate later in the year when we hosted an Israeli delegation to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Israeli business mission included delegates from fourteen companies, including Rafael Electronics and Israel Aircraft Industries.
In Israel, Natan Sharansky has held many prominent positions both in and out of government. He has penned three books including the autobiographical Fear No Evil, which dealt with his trial and imprisonment. His book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, co-written with Ron Dermer, had a major influence on United States president, George W. Bush, and other government officials, who urged their subordinates to read the book.
In 1986, Congress granted Sharansky the Congressional Gold Metal and in 2006 U.S. president George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I’ll always remember meeting Natan Sharansky and the warm conversation we shared over lunch. He will leave a legacy as a leading politician and scholar in Israel, and one of the leading spokesmen for the over one million Russian Jews who took up residence in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At times we all can be guilty of taking so much for granted. I know I do. That’s when I recall the words of a man I once encountered that held a special appreciation for freedom and democracy that’s understood on a more profound level.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.