Gennadi I. Gerasimov, spokesman of the Soviet Union, a sophisticated man, looked straight at the American people through a TV camera in Moscow and lied. There are no political prisoners in the Soviet Union, he said. Just a few people convicted under Article 70 of the Soviet criminal code. About a dozen. It was startling, not because the Soviet Union and its spokesmen had not told that falsehood before, but because they had, so drearily often.
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In , Anatoly Sharansky, a year-old computer specialist who had been refused an exit visa from the Soviet Union, was chosen by the close-knit circle that directed the Soviet Jewish emigrationist movement to serve as its English-language spokesman.
The young man, by then a refusenik for two years, was charming, selfless but otherwise undistinguished, and he was asked merely to serve as an interpreter and translator for the older, immeasurably more savvy Jewish activists who had led the beleaguered movement since its appearance four or five years earlier.
Yet Sharansky quickly emerged, especially after his arrest in on trumped-up espionage charges, as the outstanding symbol of Soviet Jewry. His autobiography--which describes the years of his imprisonment until his release in the wake of mounting international pressure and domestic changes in the Soviet Union in shows him as a man of tenacity and intelligence. Above all, perhaps, it highlights his good humor, a commodity in rather short supply in his harassed, tumultuous refusenik milieu.
This very short Sharansky is 5 feet, 3 inches tall , clumsy, surprisingly undogmatic Jewish activist is thoroughly compelling as a hero if only because he looks and sounds so ill-suited for the role. The book concentrates almost entirely on his years in prison and labor camps. But even the very brief sketch of his family background serves to remind us that not infrequently young Soviet Jews like Sharansky were raised by parents and grandparents whose links to the culturally rich pre-revolutionary Russian Jewish past were abiding.
Nonetheless he grew up in a home where, as he recalls, his parents linked impending crises with the fear of pogroms and where Jewishness was a source of pride, if not perhaps intense preoccupation. By , Sharansky was a seasoned refusenik, fired from a good job at the Institute of Oil and Gas, shadowed by a bevy of conspicuous KGB agents, an active member of the Helsinki Watch Group that linked him closely with dissidents well outside the Jewish emigrationist movement, and a particularly reliable and courageous source of information for Western journalists interested in Soviet life.
He had married Avital, whom he met at a demonstration, and who settled in Israel three years earlier, expecting her husband to follow very soon. Instead Sharansky was denounced in the Soviet press before his arrest as a spy, incarcerated for 15 months until his trial, and railroaded by KGB witnesses whose testimony is strangely reminiscent of the Beilis trial, that burlesque Blood libel enacted in czarist Kiev in In the end he was sentenced to 13 years.
Sharansky was accused of passing secrets to American journalists whom the court described as CIA agents and of serving as a major conduit of anti-Soviet propaganda during the crucial debate over the Jackson Amendment. This amendment linked trade concessions to the Soviet Union with the right of Soviet citizens to emigrate. The fact that Sharansky was intimate with non-Jewish dissidents was probably a crucial factor in his arrest; the KGB wished to warn Jewish activists, whose goal was emigration, to avoid contact with dissidents intent upon the reform of Russian society.
He managed to retain his self-respect in the face of a regimen designed to humiliate and extract confessions from him. Sharansky recognized, almost from the outset and despite a brief prior experience in a Soviet jail, that he was now caught in a labyrinth with its own intricate, ever-fluctuating rules. Sharansky was able to press the KGB, by no means consistently but with a frequency that surprised him, to live up to its legal obligations to deliver his letters, to return his only picture of Avital and even to permit him to light Hanukkah candles!
His protracted negotiations with his captors make fascinating reading: They were conducted with the use of much-abused legal precedents and their success was often the product of international pressure on his behalf about which Sharansky was at the time all but unaware. Sharansky set guidelines for himself: Never to cooperate with the KGB or even give the impression that he was willing to do so; this, he believed, would weaken his resolve and perhaps persuade them that he would break under pressure.
Indeed, he quite self-consciously chose to belittle his jailers at least those with real authority whenever he could though this often caused him great hardship. Nor would he permit them to ignore prison rules--rules that were, of course, broken with abandon--and his hunger strikes, mounted with increasing frequency especially in the last years of his imprisonment, were called when authorities tampered illegally with his post or his other meager privileges:.
If I accepted this final restriction, I would be giving up my freedom. You can protest all you want by writing statements, but there comes a time when you have to go beyond that, when you must make the ultimate protest. I knew that a hunger strike was a tool of the last resort, and that I might die in the process. But at this point there was no other choice. He befriends a leading Russian Orthodox dissident who believes the canard that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood for Passover matzos; Sharansky patiently disabuses him of this bias as they study the Old and New Testaments together.
He is bemused, but once again sympathetic, when another jailed refusenik to whom he sends a message despite great risk, responds by berating him for writing on the Sabbath.
In , his pre-arrest weight halved, his heart dangerously weakened due to his prolonged imprisonment and frequent hunger strikes one lasting days , he is offered a KGB deal that promises his release as long as he petitions to leave prison for reasons of health. Sakharov himself lets Sharansky know that he feels that he would not act dishonorably if he agreed. Sharansky refuses:. This is a vivid and absorbing narrative. Yet one expects it to be much more. Its analysis of the Soviet Jewry movement, and of Russian Jews in general, is surprisingly conventional and unrevealing; particularly since Sharansky cooperated closely with many dissident groups arranging press conferences for protesting Soviet Germans, for instance.
He might have explored how he, as a refusenik, viewed these other struggles, their partisans and what connection, if any, their goals had with those of the Jews. His work on their behalf was concerted, courageous and by no means marginal. What can be said, then, based on his experiences, about the classical dilemma facing Jewish nationalists one that had so absorbed Zionists in Russia, the heartland of the movement, before Zionism was made illegal here by the Soviets in the s as to how to reconcile their commitments with other social needs?
Very little, judging from this autobiography, Sharansky shrugs off such questions, asserting that his interest in non-Jewish issues was a natural and even inevitable complement of his preoccupation with his own origins. Do such accusations mask anti-Semitism? Perhaps a blanket contempt for Jewish nationalism? Has the Soviet Jewry movement done all it could to support dissidents without compromising its own goals? Given its emigrationist agenda, is such support really conceivable? And so are his frequent comments on Zionism, the guiding principle of his activist career.
This is perhaps less surprising since Jewish education is all but impossible legally, at least in the Soviet Union and typically, aside from some rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew and the essentials of Judaism, refuseniks have access to little more.
For militants like Sharansky, what it means to be Jewish was learned on the street as part of their struggle with a system that views Zionism with contempt, dismisses other Jewish commitments as frivolous yet also subversive, and which foists onto them KGB agents, with but foggy notions of what Jewish nationalists want.
The pull he feels between mysticism which keenly attracts his wife Avital, who, almost immediately upon settling in Israel, became a devotee of the right-wing messianists of Gush Emunim and an even-tempered rationalism is described by him in a way that is frank but intellectually unsatisfying. Though the title of the autobiography evokes the assurance of the 23rd Psalm that the faithful are guaranteed divine protection, his theological reflections are anodyne, meandering and, if anyone but a hero had written them, it is unlikely that they would have been published.
But, then, of course, Sharansky is important not for his insight but his courage. He reminds us how easy it is to confuse one for the other in a final chapter devoted to his first months in Israel.
In the politically contentious atmosphere of the Jewish state, he feels pressed, often by those to whom he owes considerable gratitude, to throw his enormous prestige behind their parties and platforms. Indeed, Israeli newspapers, as Sharansky indicates, follow him carefully, aware of how influential he can be in this crucial period when Israel lacks charismatic leadership and yet yearns for decisive action. Sharansky had long before become a symbol. He acknowledges readily that he fell into prominence and that all he wished for at the time of his arrest--and during his long imprisonment--was the freedom to settle in Israel.
Yet he now appears torn between the attractions of a public life and the joys of a private one. He says that he hopes, above all, to enjoy his newborn daughter and his wife. Nonetheless, one senses, especially upon reaching the end of this excellent account of his travail, that this still young, courageous and witty man assumes--as do many others in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish world--that his role as a leader has only just begun.
If so, this book does little to substantiate his claim. Raw courage may be a useful attribute in a political leader but not an essential one. Immeasurably more important are insight, intellectual imagination and breadth. Sharansky must still demonstrate that it was more than the mendacity of the Soviet regime, his unusual powers of endurance and the love of his remarkable wife that made him into a public figure with a potential following and a political future.
This book, alas, does not. Hot Property. About Us. Brand Publishing. Times News Platforms. Times Store. Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options. May 29,
ON MY MIND; Fear No Evil
Fear No Evil
Fear No Evil. Natan Sharansky. Temperamentally and intellectually, Natan Sharansky is a man very much like many of us—which makes this account of his arrest on political grounds, his trial, and ten years' imprisonment in the Orwellian universe of the Soviet gulag particularly vivid and resonant. Since Fear No Evil was originally published in , the Soviet government that imprisoned Sharansky has collapsed. Sharansky has become an important national leader in Israel—and serves as Israel's diplomatic liaison to the former Soviet Union! New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Serge Schmemann reflects on those monumental events, and on Sharansky's extraordinary life in the decades since his arrest, in a new introduction to this edition. But the truths Sharansky learned in his jail cell and sets forth in this book have timeless importance so long as rulers anywhere on earth still supress their own peoples.
In , Anatoly Sharansky, a year-old computer specialist who had been refused an exit visa from the Soviet Union, was chosen by the close-knit circle that directed the Soviet Jewish emigrationist movement to serve as its English-language spokesman. The young man, by then a refusenik for two years, was charming, selfless but otherwise undistinguished, and he was asked merely to serve as an interpreter and translator for the older, immeasurably more savvy Jewish activists who had led the beleaguered movement since its appearance four or five years earlier. Yet Sharansky quickly emerged, especially after his arrest in on trumped-up espionage charges, as the outstanding symbol of Soviet Jewry. His autobiography--which describes the years of his imprisonment until his release in the wake of mounting international pressure and domestic changes in the Soviet Union in shows him as a man of tenacity and intelligence. Above all, perhaps, it highlights his good humor, a commodity in rather short supply in his harassed, tumultuous refusenik milieu. This very short Sharansky is 5 feet, 3 inches tall , clumsy, surprisingly undogmatic Jewish activist is thoroughly compelling as a hero if only because he looks and sounds so ill-suited for the role. The book concentrates almost entirely on his years in prison and labor camps.