Drawing parallels

Natan Sharansky explores the importance of the refusenik movement today.

natan sharansky 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
natan sharansky 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Thirty years after Natan Sharansky first gained the world's attention, it's almost unnecessary to note the two "jobs" that made him an internationally recognized figure. One was his work as translator and unofficial spokesman for Andrei Sakharov, the renowned physicist who became an outspoken human rights activist after being oppressed for going from designing nuclear weapons for the Soviets to demonstrating against nuclear proliferation. The other was his activism on behalf of refuseniks, which landed him in Lefortovo Prison for more than a year and in a Siberian labor camp for nine more years. Sharansky was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group which, in demanding that the Kremlin honor the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords, played a large role in drawing attention to the Jewish struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union. More recently, his work has involved penning the words that guide US President George W. Bush in his push for democracy and freedom, and in gathering dissidents and democracy activists from around the world in conferences like the one held in Prague in June. In an interview in his office at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he heads the Institute for Strategic Studies, sitting under a photograph of the Western Wall Plaza blanketed in snow and with his trademark cap lying within arm's reach, Sharansky reflected on the period that made him an international hero - and on the connections between that time and this. What parallels can be drawn from your struggle to the pro-democracy struggle of today's Russia? It was the spring of 1976 when we formed the Moscow Helsinki Group. Within a year from its foundation, we were all arrested, and either thrown in jail or forced to leave the country. But the influence of the group was unbelievable - in terms of drawing attention to the question of human rights, in terms of mobilizing the American Congress to recognize pro-democracy groups, etc. And it's interesting that, after all those changes, Lyudmilla [Alexeyeva, one of the co-founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976] is once again chairman of this group. It symbolizes that there is still work to do. On the one hand, there is continuity between our work and the work of activists today. After all, there are very good reasons to criticize the government of Russia today. But on the other hand, the very fact that Garry Kasparov can participate in the [2008 presidential] election as a candidate... and that Lyudmilla can give press conferences - not in secret, as it had to be in my time, when I was smuggling documents to America, but in an open platform before the world - shows that a lot of things have changed. Is it wrong, then, to say that Vladimir Putin's moves to centralize power and silence critics are reminiscent of Soviet times? Well, there has been a serious retreat in freedom in the past few years. The press, for example, is much more cautious in its criticism of Putin than it was just five years ago. But to say that Russia is the same now as it was then, in the '70s and early '80s? No. There is no more KGB. There is no more total control, no more total fear. This Russia doesn't exist anymore, and I don't know whether it can exist again. Of course, because of the vital role that Russia plays in world events, this retreat in freedom should be of major concern, and should definitely be on the world's agenda. However, Luda says herself that only those who were not active back then would say that things are the same now... I'll give you an example. Kasparov told me that he needs to have bodyguards when he travels in Russia. Well, I can tell you, we didn't need bodyguards. We had KGB tails and they, we kind of joked to ourselves, were our bodyguards. You know, I was constantly under surveillance of the KGB, but in a funny kind of way, I felt safe. If any hooligans came around, the KGB agents would protect me; they had to write reports about me, so they kept people away from me. That's the way the regime was: It was responsible for protecting my life, but it was also responsible for taking my private life away from me. Is there a lesson from your own struggle that can be applied, not only to today's Russia, but to other dissident movements around the world? I say moral clarity is key. You cannot compromise on the question of freedom. The moment you start compromising with the authorities, there is no hope. That was what was so great about the Prague conference: Here were people from different places, from different mentalities, from different races, all with the same story. And that story is about taking a position of moral clarity and not compromising on the question of human rights and freedom, a position that challenges authority. Is there something about that moral position that is particularly Jewish? Well, Jews have always been extremely important in practically all human rights movements. Sometimes we forget that human rights ideas are based in Judaism. The foundation of human rights, after all, is that man was created in the image of God. It is easier, I think, for Jews who were brought up with these principles to identify with human rights movements. But there is something else, as well, and that is that Jews have long suffered for the fact that they were really the only truly different, or separate religious and ethnic minority group in Europe. So Jews struggled to make society more open, more assimilated. Or, they tried to assimilate into their society. In extreme cases, they tried to establish new identities, such as communism, that made ethnic and religious differences irrelevant. In other words, Jews tried to abandon their tribal identification in favor of the freedom promised by communism. (This actually created one of the most awful regimes in the world, which killed tens of millions of people.) What we did was to go back to our tribe, to go back to our own small, national interests... and the world benefitted from this. So we should not be ashamed, we should not think we were merely being "provincial" about our interests. The lesson is, if you want to help the whole world, you have to go back to your shtetl, to your identity, and to fight first of all for those interests. What was the most significant part of that victory, as far as Israel and the Jewish people are concerned? It was an extremely important chapter in Jewish history, extremely important. Not just because it resulted in more than 1 million Jews moving to Israel. To me, what's so significant is that Jewish people all over the world were united in one struggle, for over 25 years. A Jewish teacher from Milwaukee, and a Jewish lawyer from Montreal, and a child in the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Jerusalem, were all involved - without even knowing one another, without having to agree with one another. They all took part in one big nationalist struggle. That's unbelievable. And it shows how strong we are when we are united by our principles. This is a lesson from our struggle that, I believe, is not appreciated enough.