Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time

by Martin Gilbert
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 467 pp., $24.95

Anatoly Shcharansky
Anatoly Shcharansky; drawing by David Levine

Martin Gilbert’s main achievement is to justify his subtitle. He patiently lays out the evidence that Anatoly Shcharansky is indeed a hero, a decent and righteous man who was put to fearful tests over ten years, flinched inwardly from time to time, underlining his humanity, but did not break. To use an evocative Russian word, he performed a podvig—a term usually rendered limply, by helpless translators, as a “moral feat.”

Gilbert also sheds light on the Soviet Jewish emigration movement, of which Shcharansky was a leader. But here, as with wider questions of international diplomacy and human rights issues, his concentration on Zionist concerns and his unfamiliarity with the Russian language and details of the Soviet system sometimes create misleading impressions. Nonetheless, the world’s leading Churchill scholar has mastered and organized a mass of detail, interpreted most of it with skill, and produced, as one would expect, a moving and absorbing biography. His exemplary index and useful bibliography compensate in part for the absence of footnotes.

Shcharansky was born into a Russified Jewish family in Donetsk, near the Black Sea, in 1948. Until his exceptional ability took him to Moscow to study mathematics, he was not aware of anti-Semitism. Then, as he recounts, he went on a hiking holiday with his friend, who “got angry with me about something and called me a ‘Yid’. I think it was then that I decided this was no place for me.”

Shcharansky’s growing awareness of his Jewish identity was stimulated by the Six Day War of 1967. The Israeli victory gave birth to a vigorous emigration movement in the Soviet Union. In 1971, 13,000 Jews were allowed to leave the USSR, and Shcharansky, though he did not apply for an exit permit until 1973, entered the movement. After long delay and wavering, the authorities rejected Shcharansky’s application, on the spurious grounds that he had had “access to classified material”: he became a “refusenik.” A little later, however, in summer 1974, his wife Avital received permission to go. She left for Israel, hopeful that the decision in Anatoly’s case would soon be reversed.

From this point on, the private trauma of a couple separated for twelve years, first by state boundaries and then by prison walls as well, runs painfully through the book. In 1976, for example, Avital tried to return to Moscow, planning to demand, as an Israeli citizen, that her husband be allowed to join her. In prison, Anatoly constantly expressed grief that they had no children.

Meanwhile, from 1973 on, Shcharansky signed his first documents of protest, became an organizer, and started, with his excellent English, to interpret at meetings with foreign politicians and journalists in the apartments of activists. The main issues at stake were the rapidly rising number of refuseniks, the often false reasons given for refusals, the KGB’s persecution of refuseniks, and the best ways for Soviet Jews, on…

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