Commentary Magazine


A Footnote on Reagan and Sharansky

On this day, I wanted to add a footnote to Jason Maoz’s remembrance of Ronald Reagan and his efforts to free Natan Sharansky. Jason recounted that the Reagan administration was instrumental in Sharansky’s 1986 release, and that Sharansky later got the chance to tell Reagan in the White House what it had meant to the dissidents held prisoner in the Gulag to learn that he had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

What few people knew, because Reagan had intentionally kept it secret, was that his first effort to free Sharansky had been undertaken back in 1981, when he wrote a handwritten letter to Brezhnev. He attached the script of the letter to his diary, and it was published in The Reagan Diaries after his death.

The letter began by apologizing for the delay in responding to Brezhnev’s letter to him; Reagan asked Brezhnev to excuse the “problems of settling into a routine after my hospitalization.” Then he noted that there were a number of points in Brezhnev’s letter on which there were disagreements better discussed in person. And then he wrote this:

There is one matter however which I feel I must bring to your attention. All information having to do with my govt’s practices & policies past & present is available to me now that I hold this office. I have thoroughly investigated the matter of the man Scharansky [sic] an inmate in one of your prisons. I can assure you he was never involved in any way with any agency of the U.S. govt. I have seen news stories in the Soviet press suggesting that he was engaged in espionage for our country. Let me assure you this is absolutely false.

Recently his wife called upon me. They were married and spent one day together before she emigrated to Israel assuming that he would follow shortly thereafter. I believe true justice would be done if he were released and allowed to join her.

If you could find it in your heart to do this the matter would be strictly between us which is why I’m writing this letter by hand.

It was his 101st day in office. Sharansky was ultimately released by Gorbachev in 1986, since Reagan kept up the effort for years.