Natan Sharansky, human rights activist and symbol of the struggle of Soviet Jewry for freedom, was born in Stalino (Donetsk) in eastern Ukraine. His father was a journalist for a Communist Party newspaper and his family members were, in Sharansky’s words, “absolutely assimilated Jews” except for their awareness and fear of Soviet anti-Semitism.
Gifted in chess and mathematics, Sharansky moved to Moscow in 1967, where he was educated at one of the USSR’s most prestigious universities, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The Six Day War of that year transformed Sharansky into a Zionist, and by 1973 he was taking part in demonstrations outside the Moscow Choral Synagogue against Soviet discrimination and demanding Jews be allowed to emigrate to Israel. In these demonstrations, he met his wife, Avital. The day after their marriage, Avital flew to Israel, one of a small number of Jews that the Soviets allowed to emigrate. However, Sharansky was forced to remain in the Soviet Union and increasingly came under official suspicion.
That suspicion grew as Sharansky became known as a leading Jewish “refusenik” and a key member of the broader dissident movement in the USSR. He was the English translator and spokesman for his “rabbi,” the scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, and was a founding member of Helsinki Watch, which reported on Soviet violations of international human rights treaties. In 1976, Sharansky was accused of high treason and of spying for the US. The charges rested on the false evidence of Sharansky’s roommate, who was a KGB informer. Sharansky endured 18 months of KGB interrogation before being convicted in a 1977 “show trial” and sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment.
His years in Russian prisons, including in one of the last Soviet labor camps, or gulags, included extensive periods in solitary confinement and special punishment cells. Only after a long hunger strike did authorities agree that he could receive a Book of Psalms, a gift from his wife. From these psalms, he began to learn Hebrew and deepened his connection with Judaism. Playing chess in his head was another key survival technique. Most importantly, Sharansky maintained his “inner freedom” by refusing to cooperate in any way with his jailers or the KGB.
Sharansky’s wife led an international campaign on his behalf and his imprisonment became a key symbol of the persecution of Soviet Jewry. In 1985, in the largest-ever gathering of US Jews, 250,000 people came together in Washington to call for his release. The next year, he was freed by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev as part of a “spy” swap. Sharansky flew immediately to Israel where he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. His release helped pave the way for the mass migration of Soviet Jews and was a step toward the collapse of the jewis Soviet Union. In recent years, Natan Sharansky has served as an Israeli politician and cabinet minister, chaired the Jewish Agency, and authored Fear No Evil, an acclaimed book about his struggle for freedom.