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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Imprisonment in the Gulag

You were imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for nine years in prison and labor camps, mainly on a special disciplinary regime, including more than 400 days in punishment cells, and more than 200 days on hunger strike; a remarkable confrontation with a police state and in some ways with evil. I'm curious as to how you survived this ordeal. I'm going to suggest an answer, because we have limited time, but I get the sense that your life as a scientist and as a Jew came together in this ordeal, and there was a synergy between the two of them. Tell us a little about that. One of the first things you did once you were in jail was to make a decision tree about how you should respond to the world.

Well, first of all, the basis of your survival ... first of all, what it means, survival in Soviet prison: It means not to give in to the pressures of KGB. After all, what does KGB want from a dissident? They accuse me of being an American spy, but they know that I am not an American spy, they know that I have no secrets. They want me to say publicly that they are right and I'm wrong, because it's important for the Soviet regime that every person is under control. I have to decide every day whether to say yes to KGB and to be released, or whether to say no. The basis of your resistance, of saying no, is the feeling that as long as you continue saying no, you're a free person, that freedom which you found when you started speaking your mind. The moment you say to them "yes," you will go back again to that slavery of the loyal Soviet citizen.

Now, this intuitive, automatic feeling that you want to continue being free and to enjoy your inner freedom, in prison that was the basis of your resistance. But it is very dangerous to rely only on intuition, on non-rational things. As a religious, national person, I was relying on my instincts, but as a scientist, I had to rationalize these instincts. I had to explain to myself, rationally, why I should not cooperate with them. I had to make sure that I was controlling my behavior during interrogations, in spite of the fear, which they could insert in me, threatening to sentence me to death. That's why I developed the whole system of rationalization, of what are my aims and means. I was writing in my mind the whole tree of my behavior, and the reasons why I should say no to KGB. It was very important rational support; but in fact, the basis of it was irrational, the basis of it was this feeling of inner freedom which I wanted to keep in myself.

We should tell our audience that you had been separated from your wife, whom you met at meetings at the synagogue, at Jewish meetings. She was able to emigrate -- to aliyah -- to Israel, but you were not, and so right after you were married you were separated for quite a number of years. She had given you a gift before you left, a book of psalms. Tell us how that became a lever to open this spiritual side, and renew your faith.

Well, the story's a little bit different. My wife left for Israel one day after our marriage, because I was a refusenik. I was not permitted; but they permitted her to leave, and we believed it was very important that at least one of us would be in Israel. We hoped in some months we were together; it so happened that we met [again] twelve years after this.

But just a few days before my arrest, I received via a tourist a small gift sent by my wife, who wrote me that it had been a year since this psalm book had been with her, while she was travelling all over the world fighting for my release, and she felt that the time had come to send it to me. Frankly, it was in the middle of our struggle. My friends in the Helsinki group were arrested. I was expecting an arrest every day. I had to give press conferences. I had to fight against KGB. I had many tails behind me. I had no time for these things like reading psalm books, so I put it aside.

When I was arrested some days after this, I suddenly remembered about it, and I started fighting in order to get it. It took me three years to fight, to force authorities to give me this book. They gave it to me the day when they gave me, also, the telegram that my father passed away. I felt terrible, because I could not be with my mother, I could not support her in those days. So what can I do? I decided that what I'll do, I'll start reading this psalm book. It was difficult for me to read, with my [limited] knowledge of Hebrew, this ancient language where you cannot even understand where is the end of the sentence. It was difficult to understand, but when you are reading day after day, you understand a word here, a word there, a phrase here, a phrase there, you compare, and some moment you start understanding.

I remember the first psalm which I suddenly understood, the phrase which I understood was, [Hebrew], "and when I go through the valley of death, I'll fear no evil, because you are with me." It was such a powerful feeling, as if King David himself, together with my wife, together with my friends, came to prison to save me from this, and to support me. Suddenly all these connections of thousands of years are restored, and you feel exactly as King David, 3000 years ago, wrote this. This was sending me a message to be strong. So now, whatever I'll say, maybe I'll be influencing someone who will be sitting in prison in 3000 years, and suppose that he will know that "you are [with me]" ... who's you? God or King David, or my wife, or the people of Israel? I don't know. All this together. That was a very powerful feeling, and it gave me a lot of strength.

I felt all the time that if this psalm book was with me, nothing would happen. I fought each time they took it from me: I was on hunger strikes, I spent hundreds of days on hunger strikes and in punishment cells, in order not to permit them to take it from me. Even when I was released, and I still didn't know that I was released, but I was brought to the airplane from the prison, and they took all the clothes, and gave me the different ones, and I suddenly understood that maybe some big changes are happening, but my psalm book was not with me. I was so scared to be without it that I lay in the snow and refused to enter the airplane until they brought it back to me. And that's the only piece of property with which I came to freedom from Soviet prison.

You write that what you built, what you and your fellow prisoners shaped, was a conversation, a community, a spiritual conversation, not only with your faith but with the books that you were reading with your fellow prisoners. I think you were even doing readings of the psalms with one of your prisoners. You write in your book, "Back in Lefortovo, the prison, Socrates and Don Quixote, Ulysses and Gargantua, Oedipus and Hamlet had rushed to my aid. I felt a spiritual bond with these figures. Their struggles reverberated with my own, their laughter with mine. They accompanied me through prison and camps, through cells, and transports." Later on you write, "Yes, we were bound to each other, not merely by memories of the past or by photographs or a few letters, but precisely by that elevated feeling for freedom from human evil and bondage, to God's covenant that lifted us up above earthly reality."

Yes. I was very lucky. Usually in Soviet prison, you don't have the opportunity to read good books. When you're in a punishment cell, and I spent a lot of time in punishment cells, you can't read anything. But in the fort of a KGB prison where I was during interrogations, the first sixteen months or so after my arrest, there was a very good library, because it was books which were confiscated from all those killed intelligentsia, the Russian intelligentsia, who were killed by Stalin. And all those books, the best books which were once published in Russia and Soviet Union, were in this library. I could read them because I had the time, a year and a half of interrogations. I could read a lot of very good literature there. They [evoked] very interesting feelings that all these people, all these images, are on my side. They are all fighting. They are in this struggle between good and evil. They are definitely on the side of good.

So it was interesting that Russian literature, classical Russian literature, my interrogators thought they represented the Russian people and I was their enemy; but in fact, Russian literature was part of my defenders, and definitely Gargantua and Socrates and all these great heroes who knew how to laugh, but also who knew how to distance themselves from this, and how to keep this feeling of distance between good and evil: they were helping me a lot. In fact, there was no difference whether these people were alive or not. The world in which they lived and I lived was one world. That's why it gave me a lot of strength, and then these heroes were my family in the many years of solitary confinement.

And humor was important to you, too. Irony.

Yes, of course. I would say there are two things which are very important in this confrontation with evil when you are in prison. First of all, to take yourself and everything that's happening very seriously, to understand that you are part of a very important historical process, and that's why everything what you'll say and do has tremendous importance for the future. That's why you are very demanding on yourself.

On the other hand, it's very important not to take anything seriously, to be able to laugh at everything, at the absurdity of this regime, at this KGB prison, and even at yourself. That's what helps you to stand aside and to enjoy this play. I remember how I loved to tell to my interrogators anti-Soviet jokes, because there were many anti-Soviet jokes, which, of course, were all underground, and telling them openly. And they're so funny that you are laughing. They would almost explode from desire to laugh, but they could not, they had to be angry. They had to show one another how loyal they were. And you're laughing, and so you say, "You see, you are saying to me that you are free and I am a prisoner. You can't even afford to laugh when you want to laugh! So you're the real prisoner." And all the time, it was giving you the opportunity to enjoy the absurdity of this KGB world, and of course it helped a lot to survive in that world.

Finally, after many years of incarceration, you were released, you made aliyah and rejoined your wife. And then after the fall of the Soviet Union you were able to come back and visit the prison. What did that feel like to go to the very cell in which you had been held?

I was released in 1986, and I came to the Soviet Union, back to Russia, only ten years later. In fact, I wanted to come in 1989, when my friend and teacher -- I would say rabbi if he were Jewish, he wasn't, Andre Sakharov -- when he passed away. I wanted to come, but I was stilll considered a spy, and Gorbachev didn't want me to come. But a year later, I stopped being their spy, I was "rehabilitated," they started inviting me. But I was not really interested.

Ten years later, in 1996, I was the [Israeli] Minister of Industry and Trade, and I had to go for trade agreements with the Soviet Union. I put a condition: that I would come if I would be permitted to visit the KGB prison, my "alma mater." I think I was the first minister in the history of visits to Moscow who, instead of going to the Bolshoi Theater, went to prison. But I have to say that when I came there, it really looked like the Bolshoi Theater, because it was by far the most clean prison in the world, the most bright prison in the world.

I told them, "I want to go to my punishing cell." They said, "We don't have any more punishing cells." I said, "Okay, I'll take you to the punishing cell." So they arranged everything, and we went to the punishing cell, the same, small, tough, cold, dark punishing cell, in which I had some of my most difficult days.

I told stories to my wife. Of course, she knew all the stories. It was like a theater. I showed her how here they used this cup of hot water, because all what you have is three cups of hot water a day. How you used it to heat different parts of your body, and how ... what I was thinking, what I was saying.

And then when we went out, there were journalists waiting for us near the prison. It was an unusual event. They asked, why are you doing it? Wasn't it painful for you to go there? Doesn't it remind you of those difficult days? I said, "To the contrary. Think for a moment, this very place twenty years ago, the leaders of the most powerful secret service of the most powerful empire in the world, they said [it was] the end of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, that all our friends were arrested. That the leaders of the rest of the world were afraid to mention our names because we are spies, and that everything was finished. "If you will not cooperate with us, if you will not go publicly and say that we are right and you are wrong, that's the end. You'll never get out alive." Twenty years have passed; the KGB doesn't exist, the Soviet Union doesn't exist, communism doesn't exist, the Warsaw Bloc doesn't exist, and 200 million people in that big prison which was called the Soviet Union are enjoying their freedom, and all the world is more secure. That shows the real power of inner freedom, the real power of the people when they unite their energy, which they take from inner freedom, the base of which is identity, national identity, religious identity, a feeling of connection and solidarity of free people.

Next page: Aliyah to Israel

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