Fear No Evil


By Natan Sharansky

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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 1988, 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. For anyone with an interest in human rights—and anyone with an appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit—he illuminates the weapons with which the powerless can humble the powerful: physical courage, an untiring sense of humor, a bountiful imagination, and the conviction that “Nothing they do can humiliate me. I alone can humiliate myself.”



It has been more than two decades since Anatoly Shcharansky—then 29 years old—was seized by the KGB. He was brought to Lefortovo prison, where he was stripped, searched, held in a basement cell and informed that he was to be charged with treason, a capital offense. Could a person be any weaker than Shcharansky was at that moment? And yet the thought that went through his mind was triumphant: "They cannot humiliate me. I alone can humiliate myself." It was the ultimate existential insight and the thought gave Shcharansky courage. It had the effect of allowing him to prevail over his captors, in ways that he and they only came to understand gradually in the nine years he spent as a political prisoner in labor camps, prisons, and solitary confinement. Shcharansky was in bondage; he was in great danger, but he was also, incredibly, a free man in his heart and conscience. That is what his book is about.
Now that Shcharansky is Natan Sharansky, a senior member of the government of Israel with a wife and two children, his memoir of prison life seems less a political document than when it was written ten years ago. There is no longer a Soviet Union. It simply does not exist. So much for the lasting power that the USSR had amassed over its people. This book can now be read as a classic account of personal fortitude; how an individual can show strength and resilience that no amount of state power can overwhelm.
Imagine if a genie had come to Sharansky in his prison cell on that night in 1977 and forecast the events to come, predicting that in twenty years he would be a major political figure in the land of his choice, a husband, a father, a controversial public man and the menace of the Soviet Union would only be a faded memory. What is amazing is that even with that prior knowledge, Sharansky could not have been any braver than he was of his own accord.
This is a remarkable book that deserves to be read for the ages and honored for what is—a wise, ironic, moving testament to individual freedom.

Shortly after six o'clock on the evening of March 15, 1977, I was abducted by the KGB outside an apartment on Gorky Street in downtown Moscow and brought to Lefortovo Prison. There the KGB charged me with espionage and treason against the Soviet Union, crimes punishable by death. I spent the next nine years in prison and labor camp, mainly on a special disciplinary regime, including more than four hundred days in punishment cells, and more than two hundred days on hunger strikes. During the long months of interrogation and isolation before my trial, and for all the years that followed, my captors were determined to break me, to make me confess to crimes I had never committed, and then to parade me before the world. They wanted to use me to destroy the two groups I worked for—Jews who hoped to leave for Israel and dissidents who spoke out on behalf of human rights. This book is about what happened to me during nearly a decade as a prisoner of the KGB. It is the story of a charade the Soviets call their system of law. It is the story of how I survived.
But first, a little of my background. I was only five when Stalin died, but the memory of that day in 1953 is still clear in my mind. Solemn music filled the streets from the radio loudspeakers, and the people of Stalino, as the Ukrainian city of Donetsk was known in those days, wore black armbands. Enormous portraits of Stalin hung everywhere. "No laughing or rowdiness today," explained our kindergarten teacher. "This is a very sad day. Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, our leader and teacher, is dead."
To me Stalin was merely a symbol, a word from a verse we repeated like an oath in kindergarten—"Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood"—or from the song we marched to: "Moscow and Peking, Moscow and Peking, Russians and Chinese are brothers forever; Stalin and Mao are watching over us." But the announcement that kindergarten would be closed for several days of mourning—that was very real, and on my way home it was hard not to smile.
Mama was crying when I came in, and only later did I learn the real reason for her tears: she was afraid of pogroms. During Stalin's final days his revived campaign of anti-Semitism, which was especially virulent in the Ukraine, had grown even more heated. Who knew what terrible events might follow in the wake of his death?
Earlier that day, Mama had been in the town square, where people gathered to listen to the news. As Mama watched in horror a man walked up to an old Jewish woman and slapped her in the face. "Damn kikes," he shouted. "You killed our Stalin and now you're crying?" Nobody came to her defense, and my brother and I weren't allowed to leave the apartment for days.
My father was a journalist, with his own views on educating children. Whether the topic was sex or politics, he wanted us to learn the facts from him, rather than in the streets. He told me and my brother, Leonid, who was seven, that Stalin had killed many innocent people, that in his final years he had begun persecuting Jews, and that we were very fortunate that this terrible butcher was dead. Papa warned us not to repeat these comments to anyone.
This was when I first learned that in order to survive in Soviet society you had to function on two levels at once: what you really thought and what you allowed yourself to tell other people. I lived with this dual reality until 1973, when I joined the aliyah movement of Jews who were struggling for their right to emigrate to Israel. (Aliyah is Hebrew for "ascent," and refers to the process of moving to Israel.) Now, for the first time in my life, I was no longer afraid to say what I really believed—about my fellow citizens, the country I lived in, and the values I adhered to. At the age of twenty-five I finally learned what a joy it was to be free.
Papa was born in Odessa in 1904, which made him thirteen at the time of the Revolution. His father was a religious Zionist who had dreamed of moving to Palestine, and Papa's older brother had fulfilled this dream and changed his name from Sharansky to Sharon. But, like most of his generation, Papa had believed that the Revolution would solve the Jewish problem, and that the destiny of the Jews was to work together with other peoples to create an earthly paradise.
But it didn't work out that way.
When I was young, Papa taught me that being Jewish was nothing to be ashamed of, which was an important lesson in a society where well-bred people considered it vulgar to use the word "Jew" in the presence of a Jew. Like most of my generation, I grew up completely unaware of the religion, language, culture, and history of my people. Words like Torah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and even Shabbat meant nothing to us. But Papa was a storyteller, and he sometimes told us tales from the Bible—about Joseph and his brothers, or Samson and Delilah. Did these stories leave a special imprint on my soul? Did I feel that this was my history, that those were my ancestors who went down to Egypt to escape the famine in their own land, and ended up in slavery? If so, those feelings lay dormant for years.
No, in those days my conscious association with the word "Jew" was limited to the bureaucratic phrase "fifth line." In the identity papers of my parents and most of our acquaintances, the word Yevrei, Jew, was filled in under "Nationality" in the fifth line of the document. Above all, it meant that your opportunities in Soviet society were severely limited.
Officially, of course, there were no barriers for Jews. But I grew up hearing constant references to the fifth line, which explained why X didn't get a certain job or Y wasn't accepted into an outstanding institute despite his qualifications, or why there was no point in applying to this school or that hospital because they already had a Jew there "and the director doesn't want to be accused of turning the place into a synagogue." This phrase, incidentally, was the only context where I ever heard the word "synagogue" as a child. There were approximately fifty thousand Jews in Donetsk, but no synagogues. Nor were there any Jewish schools—not in Donetsk or anywhere else in the country. No Hebrew books were published in the Soviet Union, and there were no opportunities to study Hebrew or Jewish history.
Not that I felt any pull in these directions. In those days the beginning and the end of my Jewishness was an awareness of anti-Semitism. As an adolescent I had come across some lines of Julian Tuwim, a Polish-Jewish poet who wrote after the Holocaust that he felt himself Polish by virtue of the blood flowing in his veins (by which he meant Polish culture and literature), and Jewish by virtue of the blood that flowed out of his veins. In other words, when Jews were attacked he felt a solidarity with them. I felt that Tuwim was speaking for me. I loved Russian culture, and it was from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Bulgakov, that I derived all my dissident passion—or so I thought. But I was a Jew because of anti-Semitism. If it had ever disappeared, I would have been happy to declare myself a Russian.
Because Jews of my generation had no desire to live a double life, or to be handicapped by a Jewish affiliation that meant little to us, we constantly looked for a means of escape. For many of us the scientific-technological revolution arrived at precisely the right time, with the world of science as a kind of castle where you could protect yourself from the shifting winds of official ideology. But first you had to be accepted into one of these castles, which was far from being a routine procedure. I applied to the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the leading school of its kind, which liked to compare itself with MIT. Although officially there were no restrictions, it was well known that Jewish applicants had to score especially high to be admitted. (Two years later, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the institute became completely closed to Jews.)
I was euphoric when they accepted me, for now nothing could prevent me from delving into the eternal mysteries of life. But the self-congratulatory fanfare ringing in my ears could not entirely jam the soft but insistent voice from deep within me, a voice that wondered whether I wasn't trying to separate myself from my people and my fate.
Twenty years before Gorbachev, our institute was a bastion of glasnost . Having apparently decided that we were Wunderkinder who could not be brainwashed with official propaganda, the authorities didn't even try. As a result, our restrictions were not as clearly drawn as they were for most Soviet citizens. Even so, the message was clear: All this talk about rights, freedom, justice—it's only talk. What do these words really mean when compared with the laws of Newton, Galileo, and Einstein? Like regimes, ideologies come and go, and moral values are relative. But here at the institute you have the opportunity to discover eternal values.
A handful of students were determined to express their own eternal values: they spoke their minds, and tried to do what was just. Occasionally such people were expelled from the institute, and some who went too far were even arrested. Although most of us sympathized with our courageous colleagues, we were quick to retreat into the castle of science.
One day in 1970 I was on a train to the institute, reading the Morning Star, a daily newspaper published by the Communist Party in England. I loved reading the Morning Star, and the Daily Worker out of New York—no other English newspapers were available to Soviet citizens—because I had a passion for English and was constantly striving to improve my reading skills. Despite their orientation, these publications were also a way to learn a little more about the outside world.
On this particular morning I came across a story on Andrei Sakharov and his newly formed Committee for Human Rights. Although the article was critical of Sakharov, it provided information about his group. I had read Sakharov's famous letter to the Soviet leadership, which was circulated by our student samizdat, and had heard about his Committee for Human Rights on a Voice of America broadcast. I decided to translate the article into Russian, and left it on the bulletin board in our dormitory.
Several weeks later I was summoned to the office of the KGB representative in the institute. This was my first meeting with the KGB, and I was terrified. The subject was Sakharov. What was my connection to him? What literature had I received from him and was now distributing? I had never even met Sakharov, so I couldn't understand why they were asking me these questions. I learned later that one of my fellow students had seen me translating the article and had informed the authorities.
In later years, when meetings with the KGB became a regular part of my life, I looked back in shame at this first encounter. While I made no attempt to betray anyone or to criticize my fellow students, I did try to defend myself. I was eager to show the agent that I was a loyal Soviet citizen just like him, although I already knew in my heart that this wasn't true.
Three years earlier, the Six-Day War had made an indelible impression on me as it did on most Soviet Jews, for, in addition to fighting for her life, Israel was defending our dignity. On the eve of the war, when Israel's destruction seemed almost inevitable, Soviet anti-Semites were jubilant. But a few days later even anti-Jewish jokes started to change, and throughout the country, in spite of pro-Arab propaganda, you could now see a grudging respect for Israel and for Jews. A basic, eternal truth was returning to the Jews of Russia—that personal freedom wasn't something you could achieve through assimilation. It was available only by reclaiming your historical roots.
The following year brought another important milestone in my life. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, I felt ashamed of being a Soviet citizen. I was also struck by the reaction of many of my fellow students. "During the war we sacrificed one hundred fifty thousand boys in Czechoslovakia to save the Czechs from the Germans," they said. "And now they want to disown us?" These people had no doubts as to the Soviet Union's right to control the fate of the Czechs.
In the hot discussions of those days, which quickly went beyond the events of Czechoslovakia, I discovered a fundamental difference between my own mentality and that of the loyal Soviet citizen. His self-respect derived from being part of the Soviet system, and the more powerful the system, the stronger he felt. Law was a concept belonging to the authorities, so the idea that the authorities could violate the law was seen as a logical contradiction. The authorities were the law, and the system knew best. And if, in this framework, the individual was left with some fragments of freedom, he ought to be grateful to the leaders of the land and not make further demands.
I soon came to understand that this mentality constituted the real power of the regime. The state was maintained not by tanks and missiles, or even by camps and prisons. These were necessary, of course, but only for strengthening the real base of the regime—the consciousness of the slave who looks for guidance to the good czar, the leader, the teacher.
By now the appeal of Zionism was growing stronger, and the authorities responded with a virulent anti-Israel campaign. The regime arranged press conferences, where tamed Jews declared that Soviet Jews wanted nothing to do with "fascist" Israel. But the louder they shouted, the more obvious it was that the Zionist movement was growing, especially when television brought the issue into every Jewish household. I was close with several families who started on the road to Zionism, and friends began giving me books about Israel, including the novel Exodus, which was circulated in samizdat form and had an enormous influence on Jews of my generation. By the time I graduated, I was ready to go on aliyah.
In the spring of 1973 I applied for my exit visa. As part of the process, I had to write a letter of resignation to the Komsomol (the Communist youth organization) at the Institute for Oil and Gas, where I was working as a computer specialist. In response, the Komsomol convened a public meeting to condemn me. Hundreds of people turned out, for instead of the standard bureaucratic agenda there was the promise of real drama.
After several anti-Israel speeches, the head of the group asked, "Does anyone have a question for Sharansky, who has betrayed us all?" The questions were predictable: Why does Israel persist in occupying Arab lands? How can you forsake the Soviet Union, which saved your own people from Hitler?
But the organizers of the meeting had not anticipated that I would actually respond to these questions. After a brief lecture on modern Jewish history and the founding of Israel, I explained the real background of the Six-Day War, and how despite all the propaganda they had heard, Israel was not the aggressor. I described how Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran, expelled the UN peacekeeping force, and amassed one hundred thousand troops on Israel's border while threatening to annihilate the Jews. That, I pointed out, was the context for Israel's surprise "aggression" against Egyptian air bases on June 5, 1967.
The longer I spoke, the better I felt; it was as if the tension that had built up within me for years was finally being released. With every passing minute I became more free, more myself. Moreover, the audience was growing interested and the atmosphere less hostile.
"But you're leaving the Soviet Union and going over to our enemies," protested one of the Komsomol officers. "You pledged to defend the Soviet motherland and this makes you a traitor." This was the first time I was ever called a traitor, but I would hear that word many times in the future, until it became part of the charge against me.
But now I simply replied, "Why a traitor? To apply for an exit visa is not a violation of Soviet law." Even this simplistic response surprised many of those present. How could the authorities permit people to leave? Why, in Stalin's time they'd know what to do with someone like him!
A young woman I knew jumped up and said, "If you go to Israel and my husband is sent to Egypt, you'll be shooting at him."
"Galina," I replied, "why will your husband be in Egypt? If he's there to fight against Israel, I'll have even more reason to go." After this, Galina didn't speak to me for months. The official record of the meeting noted that "Sharansky stated he would go to Israel to kill Soviet soldiers who were fulfilling their international duty." The first piece of evidence for my future criminal case was already in hand.
The Komsomol meeting was a thrilling and liberating experience, for it marked the first time in my life that I publicly said what I believed. From the authorities' perspective, however, it was a disaster. That a parasite like me was allowed to spew his poison at a public forum was an unforgivable offense that couldn't go unpunished. A few days later the head of the group was dismissed.
Normally, a Jew who applies for an exit visa is fired immediately. But as a graduate of the Institute of Physics and Technology, I was considered a "young specialist" who, under the law, is required to stay on for three years and can be fired only for certain very specific reasons. And so I remained at my job until March of 1975, when they finally dismissed me.
My real life was elsewhere, however, and at the center of that life were the regular Saturday gatherings of Jewish activists who met on the street across from the Moscow synagogue on Arkhipova Street. The authorities kept a close eye on us and occasionally dispersed the crowd, but mostly they left us alone. On one of my first visits, someone distributed tickets for the World University Games, which were being held in Moscow in August 1973. Israel was sending a small delegation, and having never seen a real Israeli, I was tremendously excited. Yassir Arafat was the
We attended the opening ceremonies, where Yassir Arafat was the guest of honor and the Israeli team was booed by the crowd. We returned the following night to watch the Israeli basketball team, and during the intermission we actually spoke with the players. The third night, when the Israelis played Puerto Rico, the hall was packed with soldiers, and many refuseniks who arrived with tickets were told that no seats were available. (Refuseniks are Soviet Jews whose application for an exit visa has been refused.) When the Israelis appeared, there was shouting and whistling, and calls of "Zhid"—kikes. And when a woman in our group unfolded a big banner in Hebrew, MAZAL TOV L'YISRAEL, Good Luck to Israel, a group of soldiers immediately jumped over spectators in order to tear it down. It was a real battle; the Israelis stopped the game and demanded that our safety be guaranteed.
After the game, which the Israelis won, several of us were punched and kicked on the way out. Despite the temptation to fight back, we knew that any attempt to defend ourselves would result in our arrest and imprisonment. It was a frightening moment. Thus far my struggle to emigrate had been purely bureaucratic, but now, suddenly, I felt like a soldier in battle. I was familiar with state anti-Semitism, but it was shocking to see this same phenomenon in its raw form.
We were able to leave safely only because a crowd of foreign correspondents had gathered outside the arena. Dozens of policemen and plainclothes officers glared at us, but they left us alone. This was when I began to understand that we could use the foreign press to protect us.
Later that week, following a volleyball match, a group of us stood beside the bus that would carry the Israeli team back to their dormitory. Several rows of KGB and police were there to prevent any contact between us as the athletes left the locker room. "What songs do you know?" the Israelis on the bus called to us through the windows. We started singing together across the border of KGB men, and because we didn't know many Hebrew songs, we sang the same ones again and again, especially "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem" (We Bring You Peaceful Greetings). Today, whenever I hear this song it reminds me of my brief Zionist youth.
For me these few days were like an entire youth movement compressed into a single week, and from then on I was permanently involved in aliyah activities. The driving force of the movement were approximately a hundred Jewish activists from Moscow, Leningrad, Riga, Kiev, and other cities. We created underground seminars for learning Hebrew, maintained contacts with Jews abroad, and organized demonstrations. Among my fellow activists I became known as Natan, the name of my great-grandfather, which my parents had felt was too Jewish for the Stalin era.
I started out as a demonstrator. After discreetly informing the foreign press, a handful of us would stand in a central square in Moscow and raise signs with slogans such as "We Want to Live in Israel"; "Visas to Israel Instead of Prisons"; and "Freedom for Prisoners of Zion."
A successful demonstration would continue for a minute or two until the KGB or the police arrested us. (Often, through informers, the authorities knew about our demonstrations in advance.) Nobody could predict what would happen next. There might be a fine of fifteen or twenty rubles, a fifteen-day jail sentence, or a far more serious penalty. After our demonstration in front of the Lenin Library, two of my friends, Mark Nashpitz and Boris Tsitlyonok, were sentenced to five years of exile in distant Siberia.
In the midst of these demonstrations I met Avital and we fell in love. We were married on July 4, 1974; on the following day she left for Israel. Avital's spirit is on every page of this book, even when her name does not appear. She was like the air I breathed; from the moment we met she was with me always.
Demonstrations were important to remind the world of our struggle, but demonstrations alone were not enough. I soon became acquainted with Sasha Lunts, a fifty-year-old mathematician and one of the leaders of our movement. His apartment reminded me of a doctor's office, with people coming to see him from all parts of the country. Lunts had a sincere interest in the fate of every Soviet Jew, whether he was a shoemaker from Derbent or a carpenter from Bobruisk who had applied for a visa and was helplessly fighting the cruel and idiotic bureaucratic machine.
Lunts drew up lists of refuseniks, and maintained records on who had been refused, on what grounds, whether the family needed material help, and so on. He also organized several fact-finding trips to other communities to collect additional information about refuseniks. The world had to know about these people; it was a necessary condition not only for saving them but for ensuring that thousands of others (and in good years, tens of thousands) would be able to emigrate.
It was in Sasha Lunts's apartment that I came to know some of the foreign correspondents who were stationed in Moscow, and soon the activity for which my friends jokingly called me "spokesman" took up most of my time. Because I spoke English with some fluency, I began to organize press conferences and meet with a steady stream of correspondents, diplomats, politicians, and Jewish activists from the West.
The more intense my activity, the more closely I was watched by the KGB. I was often detained in the streets and brought in for talks with their bosses. They argued with me, warned me, and threatened me, but their harassment was merely an annoyance that inspired me to become even more active.
For years I was under constant surveillance, as my tails changed shifts every eight hours and followed me day and night. I grew accustomed to the sound of their car engines under my window—they ran the engine all night to keep the heater going—just as in my student days I got used to the sound of my neighbor playing his tape recorder in the next room. In time the surveillance became more overt, and before long the tails were breathing down my neck, running behind me on the stairs of the subway, joining me on buses and in elevators, and sometimes even in taxis—in which case I insisted that we split the fare.
Among the many Jewish activists with whom I was associated, a smaller group crystallized who became my comrades-in-arms. After Sasha Lunts left for Israel, the responsibility for maintaining lists of refuseniks passed to Dina Beilin. No detail was too trivial for Dina, who worked with refuseniks day and night, giving them advice, looking over their documents, and helping them struggle against the KGB.


On Sale
Nov 27, 1998
Page Count
464 pages

Natan Sharansky

About the Author

Natan Sharansky lives in Jerusalem with Avital He has two daughters and six grandchildren. 
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and has a residence in Jerusalem.

Learn more about this author