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 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.

This perspective—strongly favored by the Israeli government—has an understandable (if debatable) purpose as a tactical platform from which to put pressure on the Kremlin. The Soviet authorities, so it is argued, prefer not to think of the long-term risk of subverting their own system when they use Jewish emigration as a bargaining chip in summit-level negotiations with the United States. They find it easiest to explain Jewish emigration away ideologically, by portraying the emigrants as isolated “bourgeois nationalist” elements, attracted only by the pernicious Zionism of Israel.

But the truth is more complicated than Gilbert suggests. While many Jews found Zionism attractive, many did not; they principally wanted to escape from the Soviet Union to make a better life elsewhere. During the 1970s the balance swung from one pole to the other; at first most of the emigrants chose Israel, but later an equally large majority went to the US—a dramatic change that caused much anguish in Israel but is not mentioned by Gilbert. Second, in the early 1970s the refusenik community experienced a deep and continuing split on the issue of whether or not to collaborate with the human rights movement of Sakharov and his friends. Had Gilbert described this debate, the implications of Shcharansky’s enthusiastic participation in the Helsinki Group would have been clearer. For he was firmly taking a position against one current of Jewish dissidence. And third, partly as a result of paying little attention to Shcharansky’s side in the debate, Gilbert does not convey the extensive interaction between the Jews and the human rights movement, for example the strong influence of human rights leaders on the Jewish movement in its formative stages. The reader thus gets the false impression that Dr. Sakharov, his wife, and a few others were lone supporters of the Jews, not part of a movement actively committed to defending, inter alia, the right of Jews and others to emigrate.

As Shcharansky became increasingly prominent in a variety of Jewish and human rights activities, the KGB stepped up their harassment of him. They tailed him ostentatiously, threatened him with arrest, had him sacked from his job, and arranged for him to be charged with “social parasitism.”

When he describes being tailed, some of the incidents sound like scenes from the Marx Brothers. Once, Shcharansky wrote in a letter, some agents forced their way into his taxi. When they refused to get out, “I said they would have to pay the fares.” However, “they only agreed to pay half.” The next day he deliberately took taxis all over town, and each time the fare was split in the same way. “Now,” he cracked, “I know what real ‘détente’ is all about.”

On another occasion he was summoned to the central post office to receive a telephone call. He arrived with his tailing agents in tow. “An entire school is listening to you in Montreal,” a Canadian voice announced. He proceeded to give them Sabbath greetings, surrounded by the agents and a crowd of customers, and was then asked to stand and sing with the school the Jewish song “Hatikvah,” or “Hope”: “I get up—well, what can I do?—and begin quietly to sing ‘Hatikvah.’ Everyone in the post office looks at me as if I’m an idiot.”

In early 1977 all the signs pointed to a major offensive by the authorities against both dissidents and refuseniks. Anti-Semitic material suddenly appeared on prime-time television and in big Moscow publications. No longer was it a question of a mere provincial writer calling the Old Testament “an unsurpassed text of blood-thirstiness, hypocrisy, betrayal, perfidy, and moral degeneration—all the base human qualities.” Now the popular magazine Ogonyok told its five million readers that in the 1930s “the Zionists” had conspired with the Nazis to set up a “pro-Nazi” state in Palestine, and that Adolf Eichmann had later been executed to prevent him revealing this shameful “fact” to the world. An hour-long propaganda film on TV about the refuseniks achieved a similar effect to Ogonyok’s—and it ominously included a shot of Shcharansky.

Jewish responses were swift. Seventy-eight refuseniks from nine cities signed a statement condemning the “pogrom atmosphere” created by the film. Shcharansky told an American journalist that anti-Semitism was “at a very much higher level than normal,” and that in buses and the metro everyone was discussing the official campaign of hate. “It smells of pogrom,” he said. Two hundred and fifty Jews wrote an emotional, frightened, but defiant appeal, describing “the anti-Jewish prejudice being stirred up, ready to vomit forth from the mouth of the volcano.”

In March 1977, as a wave of arrests aimed mainly at the Helsinki groups in Moscow and elsewhere gathered momentum, Shcharansky was seized. Here some important questions arise: Why was he the only victim of this drive to be charged with treason? Why was he, rather than one of the other Jewish leaders, singled out for arrest? Why did further Jewish arrests not follow, given the virulence of the anti-Semitic campaign in the press and television?

Pivotal among the answers is the fact that a Jewish doctor, Alexander Lipavsky, had been recruited by the KGB (apparently in the early 1960s). He had infiltrated the refusenik ranks and had persuaded the CIA to use him—temporarily—as an informant in the scientific community, and had then got Shcharansky to share an apartment with him. From here, the KGB had only to fabricate a couple of links to charge Shcharansky, quite falsely, with collecting for the CIA the addresses of secret institutions where refuseniks worked—that is, with treason.

This was desirable because the KGB’s wider aim was to prove in court the central charges of the campaign in the press, namely that the Jewish movement had not only been artificially created from abroad by reactionary Zionists, but also constituted a treacherous fifth column controlled by American intelligence through a clandestine organization called the Moscow Aliyah. Since Shcharansky was a bold and coolheaded Jewish leader who had visited refusenik communities in various parts of the Soviet Union to collect information, he was a suitable candidate to be cast as the key figure in this fictitious organization.

By arresting Shcharansky, the KGB also aimed to destroy the alliance in the Moscow Helsinki group between Jews and dissidents—an alliance which they feared. In addition, they deprived both movements of their most able interlocutor with English-speaking visitors and the press. Finally, with his wife long departed to Israel, the KGB apparently hoped that Shcharansky would lack moral support and could therefore be quickly broken.

This was the KGB’s plan. And for sixteen long months after Shcharansky’s arrest—seven more that the law allowed—they labored mightily to assemble a convincing case. But ultimately in vain. They made public four more of their agents in the refusenik groups, two of them, like Lipavsky, signing unpersuasive “exposés” in the press as well as giving evidence in court. They interrogated two hundred Jews in a score of cities, but found to their consternation that virtually all of them defended Shcharansky as an honorable man and, despite threats of physical torture in at least one case, refused to perjure themselves. Finally, the investigators tried carrot and stick on Shcharansky himself. But their threats of execution did not break him. And he rejected their offers of freedom in return for collaboration, even when they played the nice guy and feigned indignation at the fact that he had just spent ten hours in a punishment cell “where streams of cold water were flowing down the walls,” giving him a fever and severe convulsions of the legs.

All this discouraged the Soviet leaders and must have been a factor in their apparent attempt of early 1978 to trade Shcharansky in a deal with the United States. Already, we should note, they had been put on the defensive by the strong Western support of President Carter’s denunciation of their drive against the Helsinki groups. This firm stand by governments and leaders of public opinion in the West extended to support for all the main human rights causes in the USSR. Gilbert unfortunately overlooks this support, but it was almost certainly a main reason why the Kremlin backed off in mid-1977 from its policy of stepped-up repression, and did not, for example, set off the rumbling volcano of official anti-Semitism.

Against this background, Shcharansky’s trial was, predictably, a clumsily constructed farce. He was barred from choosing his own defense lawyer, and rejected the one imposed on him by the court. He thus stood trial, on charges of treason and anti-Soviet activity, without legal counsel. No defense witnesses were allowed, and part of the trial was held in closed session. The case for the prosecution, to which Gilbert devoted thirty pages of careful analysis, had no legal weight. And despite being held incommunicado for over a year, Shcharansky calmly pleaded not guilty, backing his plea with dignified rebuttals of the charges.

In his final speech of said:

Five years ago I submitted my application to leave for Israel. Now I am further than ever from my dream. It would seem to be cause for regret. But that is not the case—I am happy. I am happy that I lived honestly, in peace with my conscience, and never compromised, even when threatened with death.

I am happy that I helped people. I am happy that I knew and worked with such honest and courageous people as Sakharov, Orlov, and Ginzburg, who are carrying on the traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. I am happy to have been a witness to the renaissance of the Jews in the USSR. I hope that the absurd charges against me and the whole Jewish emigration movement will not hinder the liberation of my people.

In his conclusion, Shcharansky simply stated:

To the members of the court, who have merely to confirm a predetermined sentence, I have nothing to say.4

The thirteen-year jail term came as no surprise, and at once the comparisons with the Dreyfus trial began. Gilbert quotes an eloquent article by the French Communist Jean Ellenstein, who, after noting such similarities as the unscrupulous use of provocateurs and the suppression of evidence favorable to the defense, pointed also to some differences. Whereas some French writers and politicians had denounced the verdict so vigorously that in the end Dreyfus was exculpated and freed, in the USSR “the press said what it was told to say, and the public did not talk openly about the case.”

Later, Shcharansky described the techniques he had used to avoid being broken by his interrogators. He had had to repeat to himself, “hundreds of times that white is white and black is black.” He needed to keep himself “fixed in that same constellation of relationships of which I’d been part in previous years.” To this end, he had summoned up

pictures from my past, thoughts about history and tradition, the Hebrew language and books I’d read, all that stayed in my memory from my study of mathematics and chess, even visits to the theater, and of course the ability to laugh—not at jokes or clever plays on words, but as if I were a spectator viewing the world from the sidelines, without undue melodramatics, discovering many interesting things, both comic and absurd at the same time.

All these devices were employed…as a struggle that I had to conduct within myself, or, more correctly, with my fear.

These techniques were to stand Shcharansky in good stead during the next eight years, throughout which he was allowed visitors on only three occasions. He spent two short spells in a Urals labor camp and two longer ones in the dreaded Chistopol prison. Most of the time he was in pain, some of it in severe pain, and unable to read for more than a few minutes, and at one period he was so weak that he could hardly move at all. Victimization and continual pressure from prison officials to recant provoked him into hunger strikes, and these led to sessions of forced feeding. During these, as Gilbert relates, the warders

tied him up, beat him when he was nearly unconscious and then prised open his mouth, causing wounds and lacerations in his throat. Because, in his condition, these wounds did not heal, they caused him unbearable pain.

Gilbert’s seven chapters on Shcharansky’s post-trial punishment are based largely on those letters to his mother which got past the prison censors. Some are reproduced verbatim. Surprisingly enough, against the constant background of mental and physical suffering, they are neither repetitive nor boring, since they reveal the many dimensions of Shcharansky’s engaging, refreshing, and generous personality.

In the letters he describes his health with objectivity and without self-pity. His reflections on his reading of history, literature, philosophy, and the Psalms never fail to sustain our interest. He is struck, for instance, by Marina Tsvetaeva’s line, “When you love, you always say farewell,” commenting:

Her words contain profound and eternal truth. One feels like clinging to each moment of precious hours, days and years; the joy each of these moments brings is closely related to the feeling of sadness one experiences at parting with them.

He devours a wide range of writers—classical, Jewish, German, French, and Spanish, as well as Russian—explaining that he has gained support from all of them:

Don Quixote is a dreamer who enjoys life to the full, in contrast to the dull players of the minor parts. He towers not only over them, but over his author as well. Socrates, too. It seems as if all these authors and characters hurried towards me from different books, countries and centuries, as though to help me, saying: “You see, in reality there’s nothing new in this world of ours, but how many wonderful things there are for whose sake it’s worth living, and it would be a pity to die.”

Shcharansky is also sustained by his mother and—until his death—by his father, by his religious belief, and by the powerful memory of his wife, with whom the authorities bar all communication. His faith that he will be “next year in Jerusalem” is another powerful support, and his preparations for the move reveal his characteristic breadth of vision. He studies not just Hebrew, but also Arabic, in order to converse in the future with Israel’s Arabs. Within hours of actually reaching Jerusalem in 1986, he recommits himself to this goal at his first press conference, explaining that he wants to live in a land where Jew and Arab can dwell together in harmony.

This final stage in Shcharansky’s thirteen-year odyssey was a result of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Geneva. On February 11 he was exchanged in Berlin for some Eastern-bloc spies; he greeted his wife in Frankfurt with “I’m sorry I’m late,” and hours later told an ecstatic crowd in Jerusalem:

On this happiest day of our life I am not going to forget those whom I left in the camps, in prisons, who are still in exile, or who still continue their struggle for the right to emigrate and for their human rights.

These words struck a chord in the Soviet Union, where the plight of the refuseniks and dissidents remained as desperate as it had been since the radical deterioration of their situation between 1979 and 1983. The next day a Jewish activist commented: “Everything is deeply frozen…except for one event which took place yesterday. We are very glad.”

This last sentiment had been defiantly expressed on February 11 by the wife of a widely respected refusenik, Leonid Volvovsky, who had recently begun serving a three-year sentence. Her telegram to Shcharansky read: “Your heroism, Tolya, gave us strength to live during these long years. Our happiness today is endless.” And Alexander Lerner, the wise, seventy-three-year-old doyen of the Moscow refuseniks, called it “the happiest day of my life.”

A year previously, Lerner had described Shcharansky as “a hero of the Jewish emigration movement on such a scale as heroes in the Bible.” Shcharansky has a sense of humor that we seldom encounter in the Bible, yet Lerner’s judgment strikes me as true. Martin Gilbert’s biography is the proof.

This Issue

September 25, 1986