Natan Sharansky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science, Faith, and Survival: Conversation with Natan Sharanksy, Minister in the Israeli Government, April 16, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Mr. Sharansky, welcome to Berkeley.

Hello.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Ukraine, in the city which now is called Donetsk. Then it was Stalino. I was born and raised in an absolutely assimilated family of Soviet Jews, assimilated by force. We were grown without knowing anything about our history, about our religion, about our roots, about our holidays. The only thing we knew is that there's discrimination of Jews, and because it is written in the idea that your parents are Jews, we are victims of this discrimination.

How do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world? What did you learn from them?

On the one hand, they were really afraid to make us part of the Jewish world. For example, my grandfather wanted very much that my name would be Natan, in memory of his father. But I was born in the in the midst of Stalin's repressions against Jews, and they called me Anatoli, and told my grandfather that that's the same as Natan.

On the other hand, they were trying to make me feel that personal pride is very important, and that I should never give up my right to be a proud person. Of course, my parents were those who taught me to live in the totalitarian regime, in the station of double-think.

I remember the day when I became a loyal Soviet citizen. It was the day when Stalin died, and I was five years old. My father explained it to me, making sure that nobody heard, that it is a great day for us, for Jews, because Stalin died. Probably we are safe now, because he was going to persecute Jews, but I should never tell it to anybody. I should remember that it was a miracle which saved us, but I should do what everybody does. The next day I went to kindergarten, and was crying, together with all the children, about Stalin, and was singing together with all children about the great leader of all the people of the world. And I remembered that it's a great miracle, and that you have to be very happy that he died. That's when I learned what is it to be a loyal Soviet citizen, and that's how I lived the next fifteen years.

You got an education in the sciences. You were a computer science specialist.

Yes. In fact, we learned from kindergarten [age] from our parents that as Jews we have not [only] to survive, we have to try to be the best in our professions. It was the way to escape all these ideological wars of these persecutions, of these threats of anti-Semitism, to go to the world of science, or to the world of arts, or to be a good chess player, or to be a good musician, to be somebody where your profession can protect you, it can make you more valuable. I succeeded in entering one of the most, if maybe the most prestigious [school], Moscow Physics Technological University. It was a kind of ivory tower for the young Soviet youth who were trying to escape from this life of double-think.

In your remarkable book, Fear No Evil, the story of your time as a political prisoner, you make it clear that as a scientist you soon discovered obstacles to your career because you were Jewish. After Stalin died, the Khrushchev regime loosened up in its treatment of other nationalities which had been treated the way the Jews had been, but the discrimination of the Jews remained. Tell us how that affected your career.

We have to understand that the Soviet Union was a society where people were deprived, or at least there was an attempt made to deprive people of their national identity, religious identity, or their property, in order that everybody will be "equal," which means that everybody will depend on the authorities. It was against all religions and all nationalities.

But because the Jews were especially, I would say, stubborn in not giving away their identity, or because the Jews were part of bigger international community, the Soviet authorities were afraid there was the connection. Also, because Jews were the natural scapegoat, and it was easier for Soviet authorities to blame Jews as agents of American imperialism, or those doctors who are trying to spoil the Soviet leaders and so on. So that's why Jews were among the most persecuted in that period of time.

I, as a Jew, was restricted in making a career in many fields. As a Jew, I had to have, let's say, better grades in order to be accepted and to continue studying at this university. But very soon in my academic career, my Jewishness became not the only object.

The fact was that it was very difficult for me to live in this double-think. All the time, I had a desire to read things which we were not permitted to read, to express views which were not permitted. I felt more and more uncomfortable in this society, and [although] the attempt to escape this double-think through joining the academic world helped for some time, very soon I started reading the underground articles of Andre Sakharov, who was the number one scientist in the Soviet Union, who got more awards than any other scientist in the Soviet Union, and who suddenly, being at the top of this pyramid, became a dissident.

When Sakharov spoke about dangers of this life of inner slavery, of double-think -- the dangers for himself and for society -- I thought, "Look, here is a man who has already made this career which he wanted to make, he's already on the top. He's not happy, and he becomes a dissident. So, why not start now?"

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