It’s hard to conceive of it now. Any of it.
At the heart of this story was a physically unassuming mathematician named Anatoly Sharansky, a man of quiet and unpredictable genius, born in a remote Soviet Ukrainian town named for Josef Stalin.
In the early 1970s, denied a request for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel, Sharansky became an activist, pressing the Soviet Union for the universal human rights its constitution professed. In 1977, in a staggering display of inverse justice, a court convicted Sharansky of treason and espionage, sentencing him to 13 years of forced labor, severe health dangers and solitary confinement in a gulag labor camp in Siberia.
Among young Jews in the Diaspora, Sharansky would become the most compelling symbol of the struggle of Soviet Jews to escape the desperate repression of a dying empire.
It was a different Jewish world then as well, one which would unite in an unprecedented – these days perhaps unimaginable – fight for the fundamental rights of the 3 million Jews of the Soviet Union, the right to congregate, the right to free expression, the right to read what you wanted, to move where you pleased, to mark your own people’s holidays according to your conscience and preferences. The right to learn about yourself, your background, your heritage, your people. And, underlying all of it, the right to leave the Soviet Union and be free, as a Jewish person, somewhere else.
This was a time when young Jews in the Americas, Western Europe and elsewhere, friends of mine and me among them, would stop at nearly nothing for the sake of Soviet Jewry.
Inspired by the courage and sacrifice of Sharansky and other refuseniks, many of us went on smuggling trips – in the regime’s terms, espionage missions – far into the Soviet heartland. The hunted contraband we secreted in our clothes was not on the order of weapons or drugs. For the Soviet system, what we carried was ultimately more dangerous: books. Religious articles. Manuals on learning the Hebrew language. Prayer books. Bibles.
It’s hard to conceive of it now. In 1986, when Anatoly Sharansky arrived in Israel and changed his name to Natan, he galvanized the Jewish world as a hero of almost biblical dimensions. Soon after, a million Jews would leave the Soviet Union and utterly change the state of Israel.
By contrast, Sharansky’s legacy in Israel has been mixed at best. This was not his playing field. He went from a place where he had been a prodigy at the national game, chess, tidily structured, win or be eliminated. If chess was warfare in the guise of a form of dance, Sharansky had moved to a country where the national game is matkot (appropriately, in English translation, “rackets”), a form of dance played on the beach with the adrenal zeal and the violent machismo, the chaotic anarchy and the unending intrusiveness and inconclusiveness of war.
In 1986, when the picture was taken, he had come home. He was giddy with freedom and adulation and acceptance.
It would take years before it would become clear – as it was for many of us who had met with refuseniks in the Soviet Union and later immigrated to Israel – that he had come home to a place where he was destined to be, to some degree, forever a foreigner.
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