CONVERSATION WITH NATAN SHARANSKY
JULY 22, 1997
Natan Sharansky, a former Russian dissident who spent a decade in prison, has become one of the most powerful political figures in Israel. Following a background report on his life, Sharanksy talks with Charles Krause about his recent visit back to the country which had imprisoned him.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Natan Sharansky first came to the world's attention in the 1970's when he joined Andrei Sakarhov as a leading human rights advocate and dissident in Russia. A mathematician by training, Sharansky was then known by his Russian name, Anatoly Sharansky. Initially, he served as an English language interpreter for Sakarhov, but he soon emerged as a leading spokesman for Soviet Jews like himself, who hope to immigrate to Israel.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
May 28, 1996
Historic elections in Israel on the eve of Sharansky's election to the Knesset.
Natan Sharansky bio - Israeli government
In 1977, Sharansky was arrested by the KGB, accused of spying for the United States. A year later, he was tried and sentenced to 13 years. He was first imprisoned in Moscow and later in the Siberian gulag at a notorious prison camp known as Perm 35. Although Soviet authorities hoped Sharansky's confinement would remove him as a thorn in their side, his years in the gulag had exactly the opposite effect.
He became known around the world as a victim and a symbol of Soviet repression. Finally, in 1986, he was released, stripped of his Soviet citizenship and flown to Berlin, where he was handed over to the American ambassador.
Accompanied by his wife, who had campaigned throughout the world on his behalf, Sharansky was flown to Israel. Once there, he received a hero's welcome and changed his name to Natan, which in Hebrew means "the gift." At the age of 38 Sharansky's fight for the individual rights of all Russians and the right of emigration for Soviet Jews had already made him an historic figure. Since Sharansky's release 11 years ago, some 700,000 Jews have arrived in Israel from the old Soviet Union, but they haven't been welcomed with the same warmth as Sharansky.
Angry and frustrated, last year they voted overwhelmingly for a new political party that promised to fight for their interests within Israel's democratic system. Not surprisingly, the new so-called Immigrant Party was founded and is led by Natan Sharansky. With seven seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, Sharansky has emerged as a key figure in Israel's new conservative government. Indeed, after the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Sharansky minister of industry and trade.
It was in his new post last January that Sharansky returned to Moscow for the first time since he was expelled. By all accounts it turned out to be an emotional and quite extraordinary official visit. Besides red carpet meetings with Russian government officials, he also re-visited Laportovo Prison, where he was held in solitary confinement and tortured by the KGB for over a year before being sent to Siberia. In Moscow, he said he was closing the circle. In New York, recently, we asked Sharansky about life in Israel and his return to Moscow.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Why did you want to go back to the prison cell where you were held for so long?
NATAN SHARANSKY: The prison became for me the symbol of Soviet system. That was the place where there was an encounter between the last remnants of the freedom of Russia, between the last people who kept the survivors of freedom alive, and the leaders of the system which could be stable only if it controls the brains of all 200 million people. That was the place where there was no compromise. All the KGB will finally kill this worrisome freedom, or it will be defeated. And that's why, for me, the symbol of the defeat of the Soviet system is not Berlin Wall. It's not the battlefields between East and West, and it's not international congresses and even not demonstrations of our supporters. That is a punishing cell, or the KGB's prison, where they tried to conquer the brains of the people, and where they failed.
CHARLES KRAUSE: When you went back there, did you feel resentment toward these people? Did it bring back the memories of what they did to you there? Or did it bring back something else?
NATAN SHARANSKY: Of course, it brought back a lot of memories. But I can say I really felt it, and I said it, that I was not fighting with Russia, the country. In fact, I got a lot of good things from Russia, Russian literature, Russian culture, many good things which supported me, as a Jew, as a Zion, helped me in prison too. I never fought with the people of Russia; I fought with the regime, and the regime is defeated; the regime is dead, and just troops in Russia only strengthen this feeling of victory. And that's why even when I was remembering these hard, difficult days in prison, and punishing so, it was optimistic memories.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you believe that the changes in Russia are permanent?
NATAN SHARANSKY: Well, nothing is permanent in this world. And you cannot move these people back to Communism. Of course, you can if you kill again twenty, thirty million people, as Stalin did, but in the normal situation cannot really move it back to the Communists. That's why I am optimistic. That's why I believe that there will be no way back to Soviet Union, though the way to become really free, liberal, democratic, modern capital society, it is still a long way to go.
CHARLES KRAUSE: About the condition of Jews in Russia, are Jews free? Are Jews able to practice their religion without any problems? Are they discriminated against?
NATAN SHARANSKY: Big problem of the Soviet Russia, Stalin, Brezhnev, who chose Russia, was the state anti-Semitism. When the leaders on one hand didn't trust the Jews and didn't want them to live as the Jews; at the same time there was a constant policy of state anti-Semitism. So the moment that regime fell apart, the policy of state anti-Semitism also stopped. There are more Jews there than in--in the government than in most countries of Western Europe, I think.
It's only natural that the moment state anti-Semitism was stopped and the restrictions which were on Jews were removed, the Jews became accepted in those areas in which they couldn't succeed before, and today the regime--political regime, economical regime of the country is enjoying also the tolerance of Jewish people, as well as other people, so it's a good side. The bad side, of course, is, as we know from the examples of history, that when some changes, some purges will start, Jews, definitely Jewish bankers will be among the first victims of these purges, and as a result, one of the first targets of the new wave of anti-Semitism. Hopefully will not happen, but there is a good chance of it too.
CHARLES KRAUSE: As you know, when you were in Russia, and since you've left Russia, people have asked you about the irony of your having been a prisoner of conscience, of your having fought for your beliefs, of your having been imprisoned and mistreated, and the accusations that the U.N. and others have made about Israel and accusations that it too had used inappropriate means to--against Palestinian prisoners. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about your new country and some of the practices that apparently take place?
NATAN SHARANSKY: Well, it is something which is very difficult to accept. It is something which is a very difficult situation when democracy has to call on one hand how to save democracy--on the other hand how to fight with the terrorism. But it's very different situation; we understand what is the atmosphere in which we are acting; just now we are continuing our peace negotiations with our Palestinian neighbors, who just this week passed a law of killing every Arab who's selling land to Jews and killed last week, they killed two Arabs for selling land to Jews, and Arafat personally approved it. An Arab spokesman on our TV explaining why it is natural. Can you imagine that say that in Alabama there is law killing every white person who's selling land to blacks or something like that this. But that is unfortunate. That is daily situation that we are dealing with. And I'm very sorry that United Nations and the Security Council are not condemning unanimously these types of actions, but that is the difference between our democratic country, which has a--really has a difficult challenge of how to cope with terror and to stay democratic and free, and non-democratic surrounding.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Is Israel the country that you imagined it would be when you were in the gulag, when you were in prison in Moscow?
NATAN SHARANSKY: It's good trying to comparison. In your punishment cell, you have these dreams about Israel, and it's like paradise. It's like next world that you're coming, and I think even if you're a religious person, when you really pass away and go to the next world, to--as you probably will find out that it's not exactly the paradise which you saw in your dreams, especially if your dreams were in prison, so I do enjoy every day of my life in Israel, but, of course, it's a country with a lot of problems, people have brought together to live together after 2000 years of living in different countries with very different backgrounds, with huge problems--social relations between religion and state--political--how to--and what conditions to find peace with our neighbors and the conditional equation of democracy and non-democratic--and with all this, I think it's--Israel is a very optimistic example of the history of people, of building young, vibrant, dynamic democracy, and built with the ancient people after thousands of years of exile.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And finally, when you think about it, you've been on a very fascinating journey--your life from Russia, Siberia, the camps, Israel, and now you're here in the United States representing Israel--what, to you, what's the meaning of all this for you? What do you hope to accomplish? What's left to accomplish?
NATAN SHARANSKY: Well, it's, I would say, the most interesting journey is not when you are moving geographically. The most interesting journey is what's happening with yourself. I was a loyal Soviet citizen and tried to be a successful scientist, but as a loyal Soviet citizen, I was a slave and never thought myself free. And then I went back to my Jewish roots, and as a Jew, felt myself a free person, free to speak for the rights of you, the other Jews, and then the rights of non-Jews--and then to be free Jew, even in prison, you continue being a free person with a lot of power, a lot of strength, and with the feeling of belonging to the history.
And then you move to Israel and then the challenge is how to continue being free person in the free country when you are involved in thousands of different choices and different compromises and debates, and to be yourself--and to protect your freedom, and at the same time to continue influencing this process. And now in the government you have a new challenge really to be on the level of that responsibility which you got from the people, and at the same time to remain a free person who acts in accordance with the operating principle. That, by itself, is an interesting journey and it is an interesting challenge. And I hope that I'll be able to continue it in the way as I did it until now.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Natan Sharansky, thank you very much for joining us.