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Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time

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

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 the one hand, and foreigners on the other, to press the authorities for a freer and less arbitrary emigration policy.

The Jewish activists documented in detail the facts and figures on refusals, persecution, and official arbitrariness. They also lobbied top officials in writing and in person. At one such meeting an activist asked whether there were “any instructions, regulations, or legal documents, anything at all laying down the terms of refusal of emigration permits on security grounds.” The reply came back: “There are no such instructions, nor will there be. Decisions are made individually.” The same official then explained that if young men applied to emigrate, they thereby “lost their right to higher education, but their duty to serve in the army remained.” Similar dilemmas faced most refuseniks.

The signing in 1975 of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe gave the refuseniks new hope. Most important of all was the commitment of the participating states to act “in conformity” with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document proclaiming the right of every individual “to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

However, Soviet emigration policy did not change. The only publicly acknowledged basis for emigration remained reunification of families. To reinforce the message, within a month after the Final Act was adopted, three refuseniks were sentenced to jail terms, and the rate of emigration declined to its lowest point since 1971, to stay there for three years. The spectrum of reprisals used against refuseniks also remained as wide as before. One document of 1976, signed by Shcharansky and others, listed ten main sorts of reprisal, ranging from loss of one’s job, to persecution of one’s children at school, to beatings by officially sponsored thugs, to different types of imprisonment, to cutting off communication with foreign countries, to harassment for studying the effectively outlawed Hebrew language.

The refuseniks believed they could defend themselves only by protest and publicity. Thus they organized demonstrations in public places, sit-ins at the Supreme Soviet; they compiled many lists and documentary records concerning the treatment of refuseniks, disseminated these by hand, telephone, and press conferences. When a group of demonstrators was detained, taken to the woods outside Moscow, and “professionally” beaten, the entire refusenik community “understood that if we did not protest even more strongly, Soviet officials would in the future beat us all the time.”

Shcharansky was especially active and perceptive in seeking foreign support for refuseniks. He strongly supported the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Reform Act of 1972—as the refuseniks still do today. This amendment, passed in 1974, made granting most-favored-nation status to the USSR conditional on the Soviet government’s allowing substantial freedom of emigration. Notwithstanding what official spokesmen later said in public, the Soviet leaders appear to have grudgingly accepted the amendment in negotiations with Henry Kissinger. They proceeded to abrogate the Trade Agreement with the US in January 1975 only, it seems, because at the last minute the Stevenson amendment was added to the Trade Reform Act. This drastically reduced the level of US bank credits to the USSR (unless the Kremlin were to display “moderation” on certain issues).

American Jewish organizations were left in no doubt about the role Shcharansky and his colleagues thought they should play—or not play. They should not, for example, advocate the violent methods favored by some extremists. On the positive side Shcharansky explained his views in a taped message of 1975. Here he said (in his own English):

Every time the Soviet Union undertakes new international obligations, such as the Helsinki Accords now, the authorities do their best to frighten all the people who can make use of them. First of all, they try to frighten the Jews…. But it is not only a demonstration for us; it is surely a demonstration for you, our American Jewish brothers and sisters.

They want to show you that your help doesn’t work. But I want to assure you that your support and your fight is the only reason for our survival. The very fact that we can continue our struggle now, the very fact that 100,000 Jews have emigrated and that emigration continues, the very fact that many young Jews can study Hebrew now, that we can hold our own scientific seminars, our very existence is only because of your support.

The authorities understand that our communications with you are very important to us. That is why they do their best to destroy them.

As for the value of “quiet diplomacy” by foreign governments on such issues, Shcharansky has forcefully repeated his view, which seems to me correct, since his release in February. No amount of quiet diplomacy will help, he believes, unless the key element is there first, namely “strong public pressure.”1

In Shcharansky’s own case, pressure of this sort was built up and maintained with exceptional success. Skillfully weaving this important thread into his narrative, Gilbert describes the intricate mechanisms required to funnel information to the West, the continuous traveling of Shcharansky’s wife to meet with prime ministers and heads of state, the persuading of even the French Communist leader Georges Marchais to intervene, and symbolic acts like the renaming of a staircase at the “lsaiah wall” opposite the United Nations in New York as the Shcharansky Steps.

Regardless of his fame, though, and simply as a Jew, Shcharansky was supported by what persecuted groups in any country naturally desire—an unconditional commitment by free people to defend them. He was luckier, for example, than the Christians among his fellow prisoners, who could not expect to hear a Christian equivalent of this typical proclamation from a Jewish leader to the Jews of the Soviet Union:

You are not alone. You have not been abandoned. We will go on fighting for your rights. We will go on demanding your freedom. We shall not relent. We will not grow tired.

In May 1976 Shcharansky became a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watchdog group. Led by the physicist Yury Orlov, this group set out to monitor Soviet observance of the Final Act’s provisions on human rights. Its dozen members represented, directly or indirectly, the main dissident trends in the USSR. Thus, for example, a Christian funneled information from Christian dissidents, while Shcharansky and a colleague did the same for Jewish refuseniks.

Every few weeks the group would draw up a report on current problems of religious persecution, emigration, freedom of expression, and so on. It also issued statements on particular dissident trials, and, on dates such as the first anniversary of the Final Act, it reviewed the general situation of human rights. It then delivered these dry, factual, but revealing reports to the Soviet government and the embassies of the thirty-four other “Helsinki” states, and distributed copies to the press.2

Why did Shcharansky throw himself into the work of a group that would clearly embarrass the Soviet authorities on a broad range of issues? Gilbert does not make this clear. Shcharansky’s decision sits awkwardly, for example, with these characteristic statements by Gilbert:

There was no truth in describing the [Jewish] activists as seeking to increase tension between the superpowers; their aim was to leave the Soviet Union, not to embroil her in international tensions, nor to change the Soviet system.

Shcharansky’s perception of the central Jewish demand—for unrestricted emigration—is rather different:

The very fact,” he said recently, “that there would be free choice for every citizen whether to leave or not makes such a big influence on the minds of the people and undermines…the foundation of the system, that it’s a real danger.”3

To understand this divergence of view, we may briefly summarize those parts of Gilbert’s interpretation which are too simple. The Six Day War, he argues, reignited Zionism in the USSR, and more and more Jews then discovered their true identity and sought to be “repatriated to Israel”; this was “not a subversive movement,” so the Jews kept apart from the various groups of dissidents whom the authorities clearly did regard as subversive.

  1. 1

    Interview with The Washington Post (May 17, 1986).

  2. 2

    See the transcript of part of the press conference given on the group’s tenth anniversary by Shcharansky, Yelena Bonner, and Ludmilla Alexeyeva in New York in The New York Review (June 26).

  3. 3

    Interview with The Washington Post (May 17, 1986).

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