For nine years (1977-86), Anatoly Shcharansky (born 1948) personified the desperate plight of many Soviet Jews. Caught in the vice of great power politics, Shcharansky suffered a prolonged and difficult imprisonment because of his wish to emigrate to Israel and his prominence in the Helsinki Watch Group. After his release he was welcomed in Israel as a conquering hero.
Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky, now known as Natan Sharansky, was born on January 20, 1948, in Donetsk, Ukraine, where his father was a journalist for a Communist Party newspaper. A good student, he was admitted to the Moscow Physical Technical Institute, where he studied mathematics and computer science. Upon graduation in 1972 he took a position as a computer scientist at the Oil and Gas Research Institute. Shortly afterwards he and his future wife Natalia Stieglitz (Avital) decided to emigrate to Israel and requested exit visas.
Avital's request was approved, but Shcharansky was denied permission to leave because of his professional training and position, and possibly because of his activism in support of the right of Jews to emigrate. Like other refuseniks" (those refused permission to leave), Shcharansky was a frequent participant in demonstrations around the Moscow synagogue in 1973 and early 1974. But, unlike many others, including Avital's brother Misha (who was granted permission to leave in late 1973), Shcharansky was frequently detained. Avital was granted permission to leave and the couple anticipated that his exit permit would soon follow. The couple married on July 3, 1974, just before Avital was scheduled to leave Moscow.
His anticipated exit permit never came, and Shcharansky soon became a leading member of the Moscow refusenik" community. After the Helsinki declaration was signed in 1975 guaranteeing" human rights, he helped organize the Helsinki Watch Group in Moscow, which was designed to monitor Soviet violations of the accord. Fluent in English, he soon emerged as the group's leading spokesman. Western reporters frequented his apartment. His name, and the story of his separation from Avital, became well known to Western readers.
Soon after his election, President Jimmy Carter made the issue of abuse of human rights a priority matter in his relations with the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities were angered by this approach and felt they had to send a clear signal of their displeasure. Shcharansky soon fell victim to a classic entrapment. His roommate, secretly working for the KGB, made contact with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency agents in Moscow and apparently began passing information on the Helsinki Watch Group. American suspicions soon caused the ties to be broken, but the damage was done. On March 15, 1977, surrounded by a crowd of Western reporters who Shcharansky had invited to walk with him to see what it's like to be constantly shadowed," he was arrested. In July 1977 the 30-year-old dissident went on trial for high treason, accused of passing information to an unnamed Western intelligence agency.
The four day trial captured the attention of the Western press for both personal and political reasons. Shcharansky refused to accept his KGB-appointed lawyer and, even though he risked the death penalty, defended himself. He was refused the right to call witnesses or to cross-examine his accusers. At the same time, the desperate unhappiness of his mother, Ida Milgrom, who kept a lonely vigil outside the closed Moscow courtroom, raised the sympathies of millions of Americans. So, in the end, did the shock of Shcharansky's 13-year sentence, although it was a moderate sentence considering the alternative possibilities. Also important were the implications of this show trial" for Soviet-American relations and President Carter's human rights policies. From this point onwards, it was clear that Carter's terms for improving detente were not acceptable to Soviet rulers.
Shcharansky was never far from Western political consciousness during the long years of his imprisonment. As his physical condition deteriorated, and as reports reached the West of his courageous resistance during his trial and afterwards, his moral stature increased. He soon came to symbolize the plight of persecuted Jews everywhere, and particularly in the U.S.S.R. There was little hope, however, of his early release.
In late 1985, however, after the historic first meeting between Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in Geneva, the new Soviet leader decided to make a gesture in the direction of improved relations. Still officially insisting that Shcharansky was a spy, the Soviets agreed to his release as part of an exchange of convicted espionage agents on both sides. He was released early on the morning of February 11, 1986, at the border separating East and West Berlin. Shcharansky was allowed to go alone to his freedom before the others, as if those releasing him were acknowledging his special status. His important role as a symbol of repression was thus evident at the end of his long ordeal, as it had been at the beginning. Perhaps to end the Shcharansky symbolism," the U.S.S.R. permitted five of his relatives to follow him to Israel in July 1986.
There, in response to the perceived failure of the government to meet the demands of the people, he formed the Israel on the Rise" movement, comprising emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Nearly 20 percent of the country's population are emigrants from the former Soviet Union.
In 1989 he was nominated as Israeli ambassador to the U.N. In January of 1997, as the Israeli Cabinet minister of industry and trade, Shcharansky, who changed the spelling of his surname to Sharansky, returned to Moscow to sign an economic cooperation agreement with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to boost trade between Israel and the city. According to Sharansky, the ceremony took place in a sparkling hall, next door to the building where he was arrested 20 years earlier; the last time he saw anything of Moscow other than Lefortovo Prison. It was very funny," Sharansky said. Here I was arrested, and 20 years later I'm received with state honors in the next building."
Shcharansky's ordeal and life are discussed in Martin Gilbert's Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time (1986) and in Anatoly and Avital Shcharansky: The Journey Homeby the Jerusalem Post (1986). Shcharansky also has been profiled on the Arts & Entertainment Television Network's Biography (www.biography.com). With Ilana Ben-Josef, he authored Next Year in Jerusalem. In addition, he has authored or co-authored books with his wife Avital, including: Anatoly and Avital Shcharansky: The Journey Home (1986); and Fear No Evil (1988).