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Prison, Politics, and My People
By Gil Troy
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Living Life Backward
After living my life backward, the usual sequence seems overrated. Whenever I hear of friends separating after decades of marriage, I wonder, “Maybe they did it in the wrong order.” My wife, Avital, and I were separated one day after we married. We didn’t see each other for twelve years, then lived happily ever after.
I was circumcised when I was twenty-five years old, not eight days old. So, unlike most, I could give my consent. And, two days later, when I joined yet another Refusenik protest, the KGB imprisoned me for fifteen days. Thus, the Soviet secret police enabled me to commune quietly with Abraham, the first Jew, who circumcised himself at the age of ninety-nine, and soon hosted angels in his tent.
Years later, after some other freed Refuseniks and I founded an Israeli political party, we thought up a fitting slogan. Promising that “we are a different type of party, we go to prison first,” we won more seats than expected.
Finally, at the age of sixty-five, I had my bar mitzvah—fifty-two years late. The traditional Jewish rite of passage for boys is at thirteen. My belated ceremony was cost-efficient: I now had a squad of grandchildren to pick up the candy the guests would throw at me in celebration, so everything stayed in the family. Most importantly, I could better appreciate my Torah portion’s relevance and explain it to everyone without having my rabbi write my speech for me.
A year earlier, when I was sixty-four, one of my sons-in-law had been reminiscing about his bar mitzvah. I asked him what my Torah reading would have been. He looked it up, based on my birth date. I thought he was teasing when he answered a few minutes later: “It’s Parashat Bo,” at the beginning of Exodus.
Parashat Bo? When Moses tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” uttering those mighty words that became the slogan of our struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union?
“This cannot be a coincidence,” I thought. “I will have to have a bar mitzvah.” Sixty-five seemed like a perfectly good age—five times thirteen.
On the appointed day, I read the first two parts of the Torah portion, with the proper trope, the traditional cantillation. Fortunately, my two sons-in-law stepped in and read the other five parts and the accompanying biblical passage from Jeremiah 43—the Haftorah—which envisions the Jews being redeemed.
Yet the ordeal wasn’t over after the candies had been pelted and my young cleanup crew had arrived. I still had to make that speech. I analyzed Exodus 10:1 through Exodus 13:16, which peaks with the tenth plague, killing the firstborn Egyptians.
I asked, “What makes this plague different from all the other plagues the Egyptians endured?”
The first nine plagues seem like a Greek drama starring three protagonists: God, Moses, and Pharaoh. Aaron is a supporting player. The mass of Jewish slaves have no individuality. Their voices merge into one Greek chorus.
But for the big one, the tenth plague, every Israelite must act individually. Every adult in the community has to take a stand. Each Israelite first has to decide to be free, then act free. Each one rejects the Egyptian gods by slaughtering a lamb, an animal Egyptians worshipped. Then the Israelites publicly proclaim they no longer wish to live there, marking their doorposts with the lambs’ blood.
I explained that only by defying Egypt publicly could those slaves become free. And only through each individual declaration of independence could they join together in the national exodus. Real change occurs when each person stops being controlled by fear and starts acting independently.
All this paralleled the Refuseniks’ struggle against the Soviet system. Like Egyptian slavery, the Communist regime was designed to intimidate, to crush. Every Jew hoping to emigrate had to overcome overwhelming fear by soliciting an invitation from Israel, a Soviet enemy. Applying for a visa required seeking permission from each Soviet school and workplace that defined your life. Essentially, you shouted publicly, “I don’t accept your gods. I want to leave this country.”
And what was the payoff? In Exodus, God offers the Jewish people… the Jewish people. The Jews leave Egypt and seven weeks later receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, accepting identity and freedom as a package deal. This would become one of our people’s main missions: balancing our right to belong and to be free.
Thirty-five hundred years later, I got the great payoff by joining that journey. Once I hopped aboard, I was never alone.
Admittedly, this book reads like an autobiography coauthored with the American historian and Zionist activist Gil Troy. And the book traces my journey from nine years in Soviet prisons to nine years in Israeli politics, then nine years in Jewish communal leadership. But this book is not exactly a memoir. Immediately after my release from the Soviet Gulag in 1986, I wrote my prison memoir, Fear No Evil. As for my life in freedom, in Israel, I believe I am still too young to sum it all up. After all, I was only bar mitzvahed seven years ago.
This book tells the story of the most important conversation of my life: the ongoing dialogue between Israel and the Jewish people. I first backed into it on the streets of Moscow, when I joined the movement for Jewish emigration. It is an eternal, global, meaningful, and sometimes shrill conversation that saved my life decades ago. Today, it enriches both authors’ lives, as well as many others’, by confronting questions about the meaning of faith, community, identity, and freedom. We believe that only through this dialogue can we continue our journey together. And that’s why we believe it is a dialogue worth defending.
While wearing different titles during my subsequent journey—Refusenik, Soviet dissident, political prisoner, head of the new immigrants’ party in Israel, member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament), minister in four Israeli governments, human rights advocate, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel—I always remained comforted by a tremendous feeling of belonging to this ongoing conversation.
My technical drafting teacher in high school taught us that if you view any object from three dimensions—the front, top, and side—you can see its exterior fully and draw it accurately. Zeroing in from each angle highlights specific aspects of the spatial relationship. Having watched the relationship between Israel and other Jewish communities from three perspectives, I hope I can draw it accurately.
I first joined this dialogue from behind the Iron Curtain. I continued it behind prison bars. My contacts were restricted, my involvement sometimes purely imagined, but this dialogue always fortified me. Participating in it, I exercised my newly developed muscles—my newfound commitments to my people specifically and to freedom for all.
Later, as a member of the Israeli cabinet, I represented the Israeli side of the dialogue and saw Diaspora Jews as the Jewish state’s cherished partners. While enjoying that bridge-building work, I did find the adjustment from dissident prisoner to party politician frustrating.
Most recently, as the head of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish world’s largest nongovernmental organization, I switched perspectives again. I looked to Israel not only as the center of the Jewish world but as a tool for strengthening Jews across the globe.
When things worked well—or when we were under attack—we saw how much we had in common. But I did spend a lot of time defending Israel to Diaspora Jews and defending Diaspora Jewry to Israelis. These days, I often find myself defending the very idea of the need for the dialogue itself.
Dialogue is easy to call for but hard to pull off. To start listening and talking to one another, we don’t all need a full-blown, three-dimensional perspective. But we do need to see that the sum of our common concerns is greater than the sum of our many divisions.
MY TOUGHEST CHOICE
During my journey with the Jewish people this past half century, I had to make many difficult decisions. In choosing, again and again, to join a demonstration or organize a press conference, I wasn’t just planning my day or our movement’s strategy. I spent thirteen years constantly weighing how far to go in my confrontations with the KGB, knowing that my freedom and my life were at stake. I had to decide with my fiancée, Avital, if we should stay together in Moscow, or if I should watch her move to Israel the day after we married, separating us for who knew how long. I had to decide whether to combine my activism on behalf of Soviet Jews with my involvement in the general human rights movement, defying Israeli objections that the KGB would take revenge on Jews seeking exit visas. I had to decide whether to submit to the Soviet terms for my freedom or to prolong my imprisonment indefinitely.
Decades later, I had to decide whether to enter the harsh world of Israeli politics to serve as an insider helping new Russian immigrants, or to advance their interests as an outside activist staying above party politics. Once in the government, I had to decide many times whether to keep my hard-fought position as a minister serving my voters, or to resign on principle when the government moved in a direction I couldn’t accept.
Then, as the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, I had to decide how to work with Israel’s government in strengthening Jewish communities worldwide and when to challenge that same government on behalf of those communities. At a few painful moments, I had to decide just how aggressively to confront my old friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on behalf of Diaspora Jewry, after he had been my most reliable political partner in building bridges uniting the world Jewish community for thirty years.
Still, none of these decisions terrified me as much as my choice in 1973 to request a simple letter from my friendly boss, certifying where I worked. That was my first public step in applying for a visa to Israel. By taking it, I openly joined the Jewish dialogue.
To understand just how agonizing that act was, we have to return to the distant, chilling world that I was born into, behind the Iron Curtain, in the totalitarian void of Soviet Communism.
NINE YEARS IN PRISON
LIFE WITHOUT FREEDOM, LIFE WITHOUT IDENTITY
My earliest memories are of visiting the countryside for summer vacation when I was three and four years old. I was born in 1948 in Stalino, Ukraine’s coal-mining and industrial center. When any of our city’s five hundred thousand inhabitants glanced toward the horizon, it looked like we were surrounded by mass-produced mountains. Up close, just blocks from my home and scattered throughout the city, we could see that these hills were mounds of garbage. These terrikons—cone-shaped coal waste dumps—looked like they were breathing as they pulsated with noxious gases. They so blended into the landscape that people often climbed the ones near the stadium to watch soccer games for free. Whenever we walked outside, our white shirts blackened with a thin dusting of soot from the pollution piles on the ground and the smoke that so many factories belched into the air.
For me and my older brother, Leonid, our country getaway was magical. This suited the village’s Russian name, Neskuchnoye, which means “not boring” or “delightful.” We didn’t have a dacha, a summer house. Only the elite of the elites enjoyed such luxuries. My parents scratched together a few extra rubles to rent one room in the small house of a peasant, who displaced his family to accommodate us. My parents took back-to-back vacations, with some overlap, so we kids could spend more time breathing freely, away from the city.
I loved every moment of this larger-than-life life. I delighted in waking up early and feeding the squawking chickens. I marveled as the cock started shouting mysteriously, sending the chickens diving under their coop for protection whenever a hawk hovered above, threatening to swoop down and snatch one of the brood. I enjoyed slurping down a cup of hot milk in the mornings, fresh from the cow the old lady had just milked, and, in the evenings, watching the cows return from pasture, wondering how each one knew precisely which stall to lumber into for the night. I loved drifting on a boat with my brother and parents, reaching over to tap the huge lily pads. I was fascinated, as the weeks went by, to see the apple trees bloom, and then, as the delicate flowers faded, to see the hearty, fragrant pieces of fruit appear.
LIFE WITHOUT FREEDOM
Yet, even in this romantic setting, as young as I was, as little as I understood, I sensed some sadness. Gradually, my parents’ occasional comments helped me realize what was happening. The peasants we rented from were among the tens of millions of Soviets living on a kolkhoz, one of the massive collective farms the Soviet Union created, violently, starting in 1928. The farmers were desperately poor and hopelessly unfree. When a calf was born, they had to decide whether to slaughter it for meat—and pay steep taxes on it—or give it to the kolkhoz, as each family was allowed only one cow. What looked to us like the lovely, pastoral sight of peasants dragging carts by hand—even when filled with backbreakingly heavy items—reflected the fact that the kolkhoz owned all the horses. Farmers needed special permission to use them. And as soon as those apple trees blossomed, the tax authorities arrived. The taxes reflected the peasants’ estimated crop output. Even if nature refused to cooperate and spoiled the harvest, they had to pay.
I vaguely remember a long, hushed conversation one summer, deep into the night, that ended with grim faces. Eventually, my father explained to me that our host had asked if my parents had the right connections to take his daughter to the city to serve as our nanny. It seemed to be her only shot at leaving their life of virtual slavery.
The biggest obstacle the teenager faced was getting access to her identity papers, which the kolkhoz held. Every Soviet citizen above the age of sixteen needed an identity certificate to travel. Without it, you couldn’t register once you reached your destination, which we all had to do whenever we visited anywhere—for business or pleasure, for a few days or a few months—or risk arrest.
In the cities, we always carried our internal passports. We faced other restrictions as well, such as not being able to relocate to a popular location like Moscow. The Soviet authorities understood that Moscow could not become the Communist showcase to the world—full of special goods—that they wanted it to be if they didn’t restrict access to most Soviet citizens. But the Soviet Union was big enough to offer us city folk alternatives. Members of these collective farms, which made up almost half the country, had no such options. Without easy access to their IDs, they were like serfs, bound to the kolkhoz.
My father, sympathetic but powerless, sighed, “Those poor people. We’re so much luckier than they are.” It’s always good to feel you have more freedom than someone else.
REWRITING HISTORY AGAIN AND AGAIN
Although the restrictions on physical movement varied, the restrictions on traveling through time—by learning history—were imposed uniformly. The Soviets collectivized the past, treating it as state property to be shaped at will.
I was born one hundred years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, dreaming the socialist dream of mass equality imposed through class struggle, and thirty years after the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks started implementing this Marxist dream mercilessly. My parents, Ida Milgrom and Boris Shcharansky, were born before the revolution—he in 1904, she in 1908. Married in 1929, they were childless when my father went to fight the Nazis for what ended up being four years of war, from 1941 to 1945. My older brother Leonid was born in 1946. I arrived two years later.
My father had a big library housing a few thousand books. Almost every payday he purchased another volume or two to squeeze into our small two-room apartment, hemming us in more and more. My mother never knew how expensive these books would be. Even with a father working as a journalist and a mother working as a senior economist, we ran out of money most months—as did almost everyone we knew.
Like most of the Russian intelligentsia, and especially the Russian Jewish intelligentsia, we enjoyed escaping into the Russian, French, German, and English classics the censors didn’t ban. These books allowed for more intellectual latitude, especially those that were written centuries before the Industrial and the Bolshevik Revolutions. My first favorites were Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.
In addition to the proliferating classics, the beautifully bound, majestically dark-blue volumes of the second edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia began arriving in our home as early as I can remember.
The authorities touted this achievement loudly. From 1950 to 1958, fifty volumes, with one hundred thousand entries, would be published to “show the superiority of socialist culture over the culture of the capitalist world.” These big, thick volumes—our Encyclopaedia Britannica, or perhaps, for today’s readers, our Wikipedia—impressed me as a boy, brimming as they were with entries explaining history and geography, mathematics and science. I knew that if I was patient enough, eventually the right volumes would arrive and teach me everything I wanted to know. Meanwhile, I learned what I could while appreciating the books themselves. They were very fat and I was very short. I often used one or two volumes to prop myself up in my chair so I could reach our table to do my homework more comfortably.
Alas, the Soviet publishers—aware that the authorities used education to develop “the Communist morality, ideology, and Soviet patriotism” and “inspire unshakable love toward the Soviet fatherland, the Communist Party, and its leaders”—had a problem. In reducing history to propaganda, officials kept changing it to fit the ever-evolving party line. Overnight, leaders could be flipped from progressive socialists to sectarian lackeys of imperialism. People long dead could be boosted or downgraded, depending on the latest twist in some doctrinal debate. Whole branches of knowledge, from cybernetics to genetics, could go from illegal “bourgeois false sciences” to exemplary subjects with the flick of a bureaucrat’s pen—or the shift of an autocrat’s whim. Living politicians’ reputations, of course, were particularly volatile.
As the Communist leaders purged people and shifted tactics, the harried editors kept updating these printed bricks. Especially challenging were people whose last names began with letters early in the alphabet. As the encyclopedia’s production slowed, names further down the alphabetical order could have their roles in history changed numerous times without requiring any reprints.
One of the first corrections I remember came after 1953, when Nikita Khrushchev rose to power and purged Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s brutal head of the NKVD, the secret police. My father soon received a publisher’s letter addressed to every subscriber, instructing him to cut out the three-page article praising Beria in the B volume, destroy it, and replace it with some new B entries sent along to fill the space. My father smiled, shrugged, and followed the orders. Subsequently, as politicians rose or fell out of favor, as scientists were exiled or rehabilitated, every reader had to scramble to keep up with the shifting official line.
To those of us living in democracies today, the image of my father sitting at home and razor blading out a page to glue in the newly updated replacement might seem ridiculous. Officials were not going to knock on the door and check. Still, he figured, why take a chance?
Early on, my father taught us that “the walls have ears.” The secret police recruited millions of people as informers. Only after Communism fell did we realize just how extensive the network of informants was. During the never-ending winter of the Soviet regime, you never knew who might report you: it could be a neighbor in the cramped communal apartments, a jealous colleague, even a desperate friend. You didn’t know who might visit and open a volume mistakenly—or intentionally.
So, not wanting to take chances, my father played the role of true believer, treating history like putty.
LIFE IN SOVIET “PARADISE”
Beyond these fears were the irritations, big and small, of day-to-day life. We were one of three families sharing two rooms apiece in a communal apartment, each room no larger than fifteen square meters. Seventeen of us shared one kitchen uncomfortably. We waited in line endlessly for the one toilet. Each family was assigned one day for bathing. This weekly ritual included boiling water on the stove, then ferrying it quickly to the bathtub.
Squabbling about nonsense, from who cleaned what to who used that, was inevitable. Applying her organizational skills as the Ukrainian coal ministry’s senior economist, my mother created a chart distributing the errands proportionally. Then, predictably, arguments erupted over just how her schedule should be followed.
Outside our little home, there was plenty of waiting and frustration. The typical day began with one family member dashing out at 6 a.m. to wait in the first of many lines, this one for milk. Within the first hour, the day’s milk supply would vanish. We continued, often securing one consumer item at a time—eggs, cabbage, soap—from one endless line after another. Fashionable clothes or a baby carriage required elite connections. In this world of constant waiting, line management itself became a science.
Yet, despite the cramping, the quibbling, and the waiting, we knew we were in paradise—or at least we acted as if we knew that whenever anyone was watching. We grew up on perpetual official propaganda, in school and on the street. Party slogans, feeding us the lines we were supposed to mouth, were as ever present as the soot. We should “thank Comrade Stalin” for our happy childhoods. We were not just lucky but the luckiest people in history, to be born in the Soviet Union.
Then, under Joseph Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist Party Congress introduced fresh slogans boosting its “New Program” to accelerate the revolution. Now we parroted the line that we were the luckiest ever, because “THE CURRENT GENERATION OF SOVIET PEOPLE WILL LIVE UNDER COMMUNISM.” Posters proclaiming that slogan followed us everywhere, seemingly as tall as those toxic terrikons enveloping our city.
We were approaching the end of history, the party proclaimed, the culmination of humanity’s long struggle for justice and proletarian bliss. Communism was now ready to bring us to the final stage of the centuries-long class struggle, guaranteeing “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs.”
Communism was a mass-produced dream, a quick ticket to paradise that captured the imaginations of millions of people suffering as their ancestors had. The socialist promise of equality was seductive. But, unavoidably, Communism implemented this utopian idea heavy-handedly, from “the brotherhood of the people” to “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—at KGB gunpoint.
Although a peculiarly godless religion, Communism had its own apostles: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin. We fused their sacred names together: MarxEngelsLeninStalin. Their four faces seemed to blur into one another in so many of the supersized propaganda posters surrounding us. It was as if all four were watching, all the time.
The romantic-sounding idea of mass equality and of Communism as the final stage of redemption came wrapped in a package of violence directly from Marx. Contrary to the false nostalgia surrounding him and his socialist ideas today, Marx emphasized that paradise had to be built using all means necessary, no matter how vile or violent. There “is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified, and concentrated,” he wrote in 1848, “and that way is revolutionary terror.”
While Marx imagined the proletarian revolution that would create a classless society, Lenin and Stalin brought it to life—by putting people to death. For people to be equal, the state had to remove all differences, be they material, religious, or national. So the state squelched all individualism and creativity. It nationalized all property, controlled the economy, owned everything, and distributed it in a supposedly just way. The party mocked religion as the opiate of the masses as the state destroyed many churches, mosques, and synagogues, all while confiscating their property. The state prohibited any “deviant” nationalist expressions.
People naturally resisted. They wanted their own businesses and their own identities, both religious and national. In response, the machinery of repression blossomed. Lenin initially expected to kill a few hundred capitalists. The death toll escalated quickly to thousands, then millions.
When Stalin rose to power in the mid-1920s, the regime’s totalitarian assault on freedom intensified. It stripped some identities particularly brutally. Stalin insisted there could be no diversity, no individuality, no classes. He sought to turn everyone into the “New Soviet Man,” cleansed of any loyalties except to the Communist Party. Soviet citizens were expected to echo, with great pride, variations of Stalin’s favorite line about “how happy we are to serve as cogs in one big Communist machine.”
The town where I was born was abruptly renamed Stalino in the 1920s. In 1961, when I was thirteen, Khrushchev’s people purged the town’s name, just as abruptly, of any link to that mass murderer. We were told to call our town Donetsk.
By the time I was born, the Soviet dictatorship had asserted its absolute power over us. It had destroyed traditional institutions, having nationalized and collectivized them. It had mass murdered, imprisoned in the Gulag, or exiled to Siberia the bourgeoisie and other “class enemies,” along with those belonging to “reactionary nations” like Crimean Tatars or Chechens, by the millions. Industrialists, engineers, clerics, intellectuals, local politicians—anyone suspected of disloyalty or belonging to the wrong class or nation—had disappeared. Historians estimate that under Stalin as many as twenty-five million people were swallowed into the Gulag. This chilling word, the acronym for the Russian phrase “the main administration of camps,” described the Soviets’ suffocating web of forced-labor camps, prison camps, and prisons.
A repressive regime needs external enemies, not just internal traitors, to justify its control. The Soviet Union had a constantly evolving rationale for war: defending the proletariat from capitalist countries and advancing the worldwide Communist Revolution. Eventually, they called this “the struggle of progressive forces for peace” against the capitalist world, led by the United States of America.
- "Admirers of Sharansky will appreciate this insider's account of Israeli politics and his independent-minded life."—Kirkus Reviews
- "In this inspirational account, Soviet dissident Sharansky (Defending Identity) chronicles his life story and offers his perspective on the evolving relationship between the state of Israel and the Jewish people... The result is a worthy introduction to the life and work of one of the world's most famous political prisoners."—Publishers Weekly
- "We cannot help but be awed by it, and pray that his faith be vindicated soon."—Commentary Magazine
- "This book can be read on two levels. One is the series of public issues that Natan Sharansky addresses with strong conviction: his belief that Palestinian democracy must precede Palestinian statehood; his consequent opposition to the Oslo agreement and the Gaza withdrawal, then to the Iran nuclear accord; his euphoria at the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel; his distress at the rise of anti-Semitism and at the religious and political rifts among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. The other level is more significant, at least to me, having known Natan for about forty-five years. It is the personal and intellectual journey that he describes as he explains himself. Here is an exceptional man, schooled in Soviet doublethink, then finding his Jewish identity and his ideology as a free-thinker, separated from his new wife for a dozen years and locked for nine in the Gulag before rising to high Israeli leadership. Trauma victims know that recovery often depends on good people's support. That he had, giving him power to make from his suffering a lodestar that guides his judgments. You might disagree with him here and there, but you cannot help liking him, because you cannot help looking through the issues into his heart of idealism."—David K. Shipler, a former New York Times Bureau Chief in Moscow and Jerusalem, is the author of seven books, including the best-seller Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams, and the Pulitzer Prize-winner Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land.
- "Sharansky is at his core an optimist, and one who holds an undying belief in the power of the Jewish community. He hopes this book can prove that the worldwide Jewish community is not as divided and fractured as it may seem."
—The Jewish Insider
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2020
- Page Count
- 480 pages