In February 1986, Natan Sharansky, a Soviet political prisoner, crossed the Glienicke Bridge linking East and West Berlin under American diplomatic escort, thus ending nine years of Gulag-style labor camps in Siberia and dark, cold cells in Moscow.
“Thirteen years after I asked to be deprived of Soviet citizenship, I was finally deprived of Soviet citizenship,” he said.
Sharansky emigrated to Israel, took up several ministerial positions in the Israeli government, including deputy prime minister.
In an interview with VOA on the sidelines of events marking the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, Sharansky recalls his battles with the KGB and calls on leaders of the free world to take up the mantle left by visionaries such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and continue the legacy of democracy.
WATCH Sharansky: ‘By Sun, I See That We Were Going to the West’
‘By sun, I see that we were going to the West’
“They were taking me somewhere, they refused me to tell me where; by sun, I see that we were going to the West. After three or four hours, it was clear that we were no longer in the Soviet Union. I demanded [to know]: ‘Is this hijacking? What is happening to me?’”
He was finally informed by one of the four KGB men accompanying him that the Soviet state had determined that his actions were “not worthy of a Soviet citizen” and he was being expelled.
“This is how I understood I am free,” Sharansky told VOA.
Sharansky’s release was negotiated along with an exchange of spies between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. The transfer was layered in drama, with the Soviets seeking to keep their control of the political activist to the very last minute, while the Americans were pushing for their own concessions.
The American side insisted that Sharansky would cross the bridge a half-hour before the spies were exchanged, making clear that the “spying for the Americans” charge the Soviets put on Sharansky were groundless; he was a human rights activist both on the day he was sentenced and on the day he was freed.
Sharansky told VOA that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s counterpart, complained to him when the former prisoner and the USSR leader later met.
“You say of all the people you’re grateful, No. 1 Reagan, No. 2 [Soviet dissident Andrey Dmitriyevich] Sakhorov, only No. 3 is me. I’m the one who released you!” Gorbachev said, according to Sharansky.
Sharansky insists, then and now, that the order of thanks for the collapse of the Soviet Union, and any authoritarian regime for that matter, is as follows: first of all, dissidents such as Andrey Sakharov in their time who “keep this spark of freedom of alive, I know this is very difficult, it needs a lot of courage and in many cases it has a tragic ending;” secondly, leaders like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher “who saw the real nature of the regime and understood it was an evil empire and you have to stand up to it and link the question of human rights with international policy.”
‘In the interest of détente, in the interest of peace, in the interest of stability’
Sharansky acknowledges, though, not everyone holding leadership positions in democratic societies treats the task of supporting democratic movements in totalitarian regimes with equal enthusiasm.
In the era of Reagan and Thatcher, international politics was largely dictated by “realpolitik,” he says, referring to a policy approach dominated by concerns for power juggling instead of moral objectives.
“Even if it was absolutely wrong morally, in the interest of détente, in the interest of peace, in the interest of stability,” Western societies largely practiced a noninterference or little-interference policy in the realm of human rights back then, he said.
Today, he says, there’s also the belief that it may be better not to demand change from dictatorships, which often appear invincible, at least on the outside, citing China as a regime that “is strong, or looks strong.”
“There are terrible human rights violations, and the world doesn’t ask questions, because they do not have the courage to demand a change to the policy,” he said.
The seeming habit of governments of bringing out a long list of “interests” or problems that “have to be dealt with first” before human rights issues, often put down as “abstract values,” are addressed, is “an absolutely wrong approach,” in Sharansky’s opinion; nevertheless, this approach, in his words, “is very typical,” citing his own experience.
WATCH: Sharansky: ‘Our Representatives Were Absolutely Shocked’
Chinese official ‘didn’t look like the one shocked by the question’
In 1997, while serving as minister of Industry and Trade in Israel, Sharansky met with a visiting Chinese delegation.
“I said: Mr. Vice President, I was in a political prison for many years, I know how important it was that the [outside] world were asking about my fate, so I’m asking you, what about the fate of Chinese political prisoners?”
“He [the Chinese vice president] didn’t look like the one shocked by the question, but our representatives, our foreign affairs officials, were absolutely shocked! I think after this, there was some kind of order that I didn’t have any more meetings with Chinese [delegations]; they tried to prevent me from asking this kind of question again!” Sharansky said.
In the end, he says, Israel’s ability to affect Chinese government’s behavior is limited, “but it’s very important that when the American president and leaders of European countries are meeting with Chinese leaders that they put the question, the fate of dissidents on the top of their agenda.”
“I know that nowadays more often it doesn’t happen than happen,” he conceded.
Reagan and Thatcher’s legacy
The former Soviet political prisoner sums up the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher in the roles they played in bringing down the Soviet empire: “Your solidarity with people struggling for freedom is not only your moral principle, it’s your basic interest.” His message for the new generation of leaders: “the more you understand this and your policy reflects this, the more you can influence the world.”
He attributes the reluctance to confront authoritarian regimes to a lack of understanding, due to deceptive appearances, of what goes on inside those regimes.
WATCH: Sharansky: The Nature of Totalitarian Regime
Anatomy of totalitarian regime
In every totalitarian regime, there are three categories of people, Sharansky says: a small group of true believers, a vast number of “double thinkers,” and dissidents.
He describes double thinkers as those “who don’t believe in the regime, who don’t believe in its ideology, but are afraid to speak the truth, so they pretend.” However, observers from the outside often mistake double thinkers, who tend to make up the majority of these societies, as true believers, he says.
“You see, these massive parades, everybody shouting ‘welcome’ to their leaders, everybody crying and weeping when the leader is dead, all these people must be true believers; look how strong this regime is!” Sharansky explained.
Such mass shows of support often can deceive outsiders and lead to dissidents’ voices being discounted when in fact “dissidents are usually people who are very connected to what is happening inside the minds of people” and understand the regime’s weaknesses, Sharansky said.
“That’s why my friend Andrei Amalrik, 20 years before the Soviet Union fell apart, predicted that it would fall apart, explaining exactly what’s happening in the minds of the people. … He predicted it 20 years before it happened,” he added.
Sovietologists were wrong
Soviet dissident Amalrik published a book in 1970 titled Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? He said that he originally intended to use the year 1980 in the book’s title, but settled on 1984 instead, in recognition of British writer George Orwell’s seminal political novel 1984, which depicted the horrors of life under totalitarianism.
In contrast, “Sovietologists [academics who specialize on the former Soviet Union], even one year before it happened, before the Soviet Union fell apart, were writing and saying how strong the [Soviet] system is,” Sharansky said, adding the same can be said about other dictatorships.
WATCH: Sharansky: ‘It’s Not They Who Guarantee Work and Food’
Mitterrand: ‘I was wrong’
In the epilogue of his memoir, Fear No Evil, Sharansky wrote about a meeting with then-French Prime Minister François Mitterrand that underscores the odds against which dissidents and their supporters had to fight in their struggle to be heard.
During the meeting, Mitterrand pointed to a chair Sharansky was sitting in and said: “Avital [Sharansky’s wife] sat there often when she came to ask for my assistance. I always wanted to help her, but the truth is, I never believed she had a chance. I thought she was naïve, and that they’d never let you out. But your wife was right and I was wrong.”
Sharansky: ‘I Prefer to Be a Free Person in Their Prison’