Commentary Magazine

Shcharansky's Secret

To the memory of Jonathan Shulewitz

On the Ides of March 1977, Anatoly Shcharansky, while in the company of two friends and two Western correspondents, was seized by agents of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and taken to Lefortovo Prison in Moscow to be investigated for “crimes against the state.” Although the young mathematician and computer scientist had been active in the dissident movement on behalf of human rights, as well as in the Jewish movement for the right to emigrate to Israel, no one doubted that he had been arrested and accused of treason as a Jewish leader.

In his biography of Shcharansky1 Martin Gilbert points out that not a single non-Jewish member of the Helsinki monitoring group to which Shcharansky belonged was interrogated in his case. The arrest, accusations, and trial were an attack upon the Jewish activists, still more upon the Jews of the Soviet Union. “Today,” said Ida Nudel (subsequently exiled to Siberia for hanging a small banner displaying a Star of David from her balcony), “we . . . are accused of espionage, for the single reason that the accusation of killing Christian babies would sound ridiculous in this country of atheists.” The Soviet leaders have lost their ancestors’ belief in Christ, but not their ancestors’ belief that the Jews killed him.

That such atavistic impulses could survive the 1917 Revolution seems not to have occurred at the time to the countless Jews in Russia who helped to bring it about. Chaim Weizmann recalled how “the arrogant Trotsky” sneered with contempt at any fellow Jew moved by the fate of his own people, and how hundreds of thousands of young Jews in early 20th-century Russia were convinced revolutionaries “offering themselves for sacrifice as though seized by a fever.” Even long after the bliss of the red dawn had faded, Soviet Jewish writers could offer sycophantic songs of praise to the Russian Pharaoh: “When I mention Stalin—I mean beauty,/I mean eternal happiness,/I mean nevermore to know, / Nevermore to know of pain.” But even such verses could not save their author, Itzik Feffer, from being murdered in 1952 along with other Yiddish writers like Peretz Markish, David Bergelson, and David Hofstein. In his “Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers,” the late Chaim Grade imagined himself visited by the ghost of Bergelson, who suffered eternally from regret precisely over “what we hoped for—the New Enlightened Man!” and of der Nister2 who, almost alone, had the prescience to warn his fellow Jews: “Children, beware, run away!”

But the surprise occasioned in the Yiddish writers by the ability of anti-Semitism to survive the Revolution and even to flourish as a result of it would have been as nothing compared with the surprise, could they have lived to feel it, occasioned by the revival of Jewish life, Jewish identity, Jewish will, even Jewish religion, in the Soviet Union. If ever there was a valley of dry bones from which new life seemed unlikely to spring, it was Jewish life under Bolshevism. Its enemies, like the Jewish Communist Izzi Charik, boasted that “We will trample and forget you,/ Like rotted straw.” Even its friends, like Isaac Babel in certain moods, could see no more in Jewish life than “the rotted Talmuds of my childhood . . . the dense melancholy of memories . . . a little of that pensioned-off God.”

Once they had lost their illusions about the “New Enlightened Man,” the Soviet Jewish writers could envision a generation of Jews eager to “run away” from socialism; and it was indeed partly for his desire to run away, and to help other Jews run away, that Shcharansky was arrested, tried, and sentenced. But what made his offense and his courage to give offense all the greater was that he had something to run to, something for which he longed, something he preferred to socialism and to the Soviet Union. When, shortly after his arrest, Shcharansky’s mother (who was not allowed to see him during the sixteen-month period that elapsed between his arrest and trial in July 1978), was asked to say something about her son, she pointed to a map of Israel and said: “Photograph the state of Israel and say, in the name of Anatoly, that his heart is there.”

If for his mother and, now, for Jews generally, Shcharansky is a brand plucked out of the fire, part of a precious returned remnant barely saved from destruction, for his persecutors he represented a particularly brazen and articulate repudiation of the USSR for Israel, of atheism for religious obscurantism, of socialism for Zionism. Formally, Shcharansky was tried for treason (Article 64 of the Criminal Code) in collusion with the CIA,3 and for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda (Article 70). The prosecutor and his witnesses further alleged that “He studied Hebrew . . . he did not participate in socially useful labor. . . . [He] was slovenly and morally unstable.” But what the prosecution returned to repeatedly, almost obsessively, during the trial was that Shcharansky had, in preferring Israel, “denied our superiority.” The USSR, the prosecutor reiterated at various times in the trial, had a more democratic religious system than Israel (even Muhammad Ali had confirmed this), better doctors (especially psychiatrists), above all, better prison camps, whose edifying influence upon their inmates had even won the praise of certain American criminologists. The public prosecutor’s obsession with the rivalry between the USSR and Israel, a country that a cooler legal head might adroitly have dismissed as a poor thing but the Jews’ own, seemed to express the Soviet belief that, as Radio Minsk put it, Judaism is “contrary to our Communist morality, the aims of our society, and the progress of modern life.”4



Shcharansky, conducting his own defense in a trial that prohibited any reference by him to the testimony of witnesses or to the documents alleging espionage, addressed a hostile courtroom that included hecklers who showered him with such epithets as “spider” and “agent provocateur,” and demanded that he be hanged. The only break in the solid wall of antipathy that he faced was his brother Leonid, sequestered in the back row. His address was informed by the conviction that, even when there are few or no witnesses, the truth must be told, the moral gesture must be made, because this is what justice requires, and the intrinsic value of justice, the power that it holds from the Maker of men and of things, remains forever the same, however much its extrinsic value may fluctuate. Eventually, of course, the story of Shcharansky’s trial, like that of Alfred Dreyfus, reached the whole world. The Dreyfus trial, many claim, gave birth to the Zionist movement; the Shcharansky trial and its aftermath, many hope, will bring the rebirth of the Zionist movement.

The content of the address was Jewish history. People who had met Shcharansky in the early 70’s were astounded by his spiritual hunger for a Judaism of which he had been largely ignorant. “He had no Jewish tradition behind him,” reported one acquaintance. “Everything he reached, he reached by himself.” It was not Soviet anti-Semitism but this spiritual yearning, unsatisfied by secular enlightenment and scientific socialism, that drew Shcharansky toward the land, the people, and the God of Israel. But now, at his trial, he felt upon his pulses what it meant to enter a community of suffering, to be united with all those Jews who had gone before him, who had resisted the countless Hamans of Jewish history.

Shcharansky spoke of the Jewish exile, of the Zionist movement, of the large Jewish role in the Bolshevik Revolution, of Stalin’s campaign against the Jews, of the emigration movement, of the Jewish determination not to disappear as a people, and of his pride in being a part of the modern Jewish renaissance. He told of how he had declined the invitation of the authorities to betray the Jewish movement in exchange for a visa to Israel and reunion with his wife Avital, who had been forced to leave him a day after their marriage in 1974, just before her emigration visa was to expire.

His concluding words perfectly illustrate Shcharansky’s great distinction, that precisely by speaking as a Jew and not as an indiscriminate part of universal humanity, he has become a universal symbol of freedom, dignity, and self-respect. This is how he spoke:

Five years ago I submitted my application for exit to Israel. Now I am further than ever from my dream. It would seem to be cause for regret. But it is absolutely otherwise. I am happy. I am happy that I lived honestly, in peace with my conscience. I never compromised my soul, even under the threat of death. . . . For more than 2000 years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, each year they have repeated, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Now, when I am further than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, my Avital: Next year in Jerusalem! And I turn to you, the court, who were required to confirm a predetermined sentence: to you I have nothing to say.

Neither the eloquence of his speech nor the greater eloquence of his silence could save Shcharansky from being found guilty as charged and sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment. During the long years at Chistopol and Perm, years of isolation greater than other prisoners endured, of severe illness, of frequent solitary confinement, of hunger strikes to protest denial of visits and letters (“two letters a year in a good year”) from family, of 403 days in punishment cells four meters square, Shcharansky continued to demonstrate, and was partly sustained by, those qualities that had distinguished his public career: courage, resilience, disinterested devotion to virtue, humor, and ironic wit. If the authorities placed him in an isolation cell to break his will, he would sing aloud during his days there every Hebrew song he had ever memorized. If they told him it was futile to write letters of protest on behalf of mistreated fellow-prisoners, he would continue to do so because “the prisoner who writes such a letter may not save his neighbor in the next cell, but he saves his own soul.” With mock nostalgia, he writes to his mother of childhood days “when the priority of Russian serfs in science and technique was a favored topic.” With mock solemnity, he tells her of his recent instruction in “the law [that] the use of humor is also undesirable.” When his jailers prevent him from sending his mother a lock of his hair, he commends them for discouraging “superstition, prejudice, and remnants of the past among certain undeveloped citizens.” Even under the censor’s watchful eye, Shcharansky’s irony was (to use Lionel Trilling’s valuable distinction) an irony of comprehension and engagement rather than of detachment. He thought of wit and humor as instruments of self-defense because they enabled him to prove to himself that “freedom can neither be given nor taken away, since man is freedom.”



Yet it is clear from the evidence of Shcharansky’s prison correspondence, abundantly supplied (along with many other previously unpublished documents) in Gilbert’s indispensable biography, that even he could not have survived the nine years in prisons and labor camps without “outside help.” Upon his release in February of this year, he declared that “without religion I could not have withstood all that I suffered.” He also stressed that by religion he did not mean something that could be subsumed under Jewish history or culture or Zionism, important as all these had been, and still were, to him. “I am a Jew. Our religion is not only part of our culture.”

Shcharansky’s Judaism had originated in what Proust used to call the indescribable bond of metaphor, the recognition that we stand where our ancestors stood because we were potentially present in their imaginations. He was captivated by the words: “In every generation a man should see himself as if he personally came out of Egypt.” Six months after his bride had left for Israel, and he began to sense that their separation might be a long one, he wrote to Avital that seeing their life through the Bible could make things easier, and reminded her that “Jacob worked seven years for Rachel but in his eyes they were like a few days because of his love for her.” During his imprisonment Shcharansky journeyed through time and space toward sympathetic identification with his Jewish forebears, from Dreyfus to Rabbi Akiva.

Unlike his countrymen among the originators of Zionism who had sought to liberate themselves from the culture of the shtetl and ghetto to embrace enlightenment, modernity, and “normality,” Shcharansky conceived of his future in Zion through images of the Jewish past. In one letter he even exhorts himself to go “forward, to the past!” But the weight and momentum of the collective experience of the Jewish people, its power to act as “gear wheels that move . . . our individual lives,” could not be explained only in a historical dimension. That is why Shcharansky’s quest for the past, a quest carried out in the intense loneliness of a Bolshevik prison, led him ultimately back to the ancient biblical statement (Deuteronomy 5:3) that all Jews, including those not yet born, were present to receive the covenant at Sinai.

Shcharansky’s cherished book in prison was the Book of Psalms. He had been punished with 130 days in solitary confinement for a hunger strike protesting its confiscation. Upon his release from captivity on February 10 of this year, he flung himself into the snow and refused to move until his guards restored the book they again tried to confiscate. “I said I would not leave the country without the Psalms, which helped me so much.” He had begun to study them in Hebrew after learning of his father’s death in January 1980. At first they provided consolation (“a memorial stone in my heart”) and a sense of unity with his family and with the Jews in Israel. But they did more than this. The Psalms address those who, “encircled by mortal enemies,” patiently await deliverance from “those who seek my life.” Specifically they refer to David, who, rescued from his enemies and from Saul, thanks the Lord who “brought me out to freedom.” Shcharansky too was eventually brought out to freedom. But first he gained freedom from what Spinoza called human bondage, from the emotions that place man at the mercy of fortune.

Shcharansky came to understand as fully as any man can hope to do why Spinoza urged that “no virtue can be conceived as prior to this virtue of endeavoring to preserve oneself.” The freedom he gained through the Psalms was freedom “from the slave concealed deep within” each of us, and, in consequence, from fear of human beings and their instruments of oppression. At first he thought the Psalmist’s expression, “fear of the Lord,” meant fear of God’s retribution for transgressions. But once he recognized that this “fear” referred to man’s awareness of the distance separating his will from God’s essence, he acquired spiritual endurance and the saving knowledge that “fear of God is the one factor capable of conquering human fear.” To achieve this conquest was to stand with those who stood at Sinai: “The counsel of the Lord is for those who fear Him;/ to them He makes known His Covenant.”



In September 1983, on the Jewish New Year, Shcharansky, having already been imprisoned for over six years, wrote that he faced the future “keeping the past in a knapsack, and I cross raging rivers and high mountains toward my present with Natalia [Avital].” Now that Shcharansky has crossed those rivers and mountains, we know that what he carried in that knapsack to Israel was a Zionism leavened by suffering and permeated by religion, potentially a rich heritage for the children of Israel. And what will the children of Israel, in the Diaspora and in the land of Israel, now make of that heritage?

It is too soon to answer such a question or even to pose it precisely, especially since Shcharansky has not yet told his own story.5 Who can say how many of the 300,000 people who came to pay tribute to Shcharansky when he visited New York in May reflected deeply on the implications of his story or on the fact that he tended to withhold his support from Jewish cultural and educational efforts in the Soviet Union that were not subservient to the goal of emigration to Israel? The story of how much Shcharansky suffered to achieve that goal may yet have results in the Diaspora, but results that are incalculably diffusive and not readily visible.

It is in the land of Israel itself, where the remarkable story of Shcharansky continues, that the issue of his heroic spirit may be more concentrated and visible; but this is by no means certain. No sooner had he arrived in Zion than he was bombarded by a fusillade of inane questions. Would Shcharansky wear a skullcap? Why didn’t he kiss the ground after his plane landed? Did he obey all 613 commandments? How would he get on with his wife, who had during their twelve years of separation become notoriously “Jewish” in the Holy Land? Would he favor retention of the administered territories, or did his study of Arabic encourage leftist hopes that he would join Peace Now? Shcharansky, having wrestled with God as well as with the KGB, must have soon begun to feel as Gulliver did when, after he had saved himself from drowning, the Lilliputians demanded to know whether he broke his eggs at the little end or the big one.

Those who wish to pursue the Shcharansky saga beyond the confines of Gilbert’s book, which concludes with his arrival in Jerusalem and expression of the wish that “as many Jews as possible” will join him there, will, for the time being, have to resort to the penultimate section of Anatoly and Avital Shcharansky: The Journey Home, a book produced by a “team” of Jerusalem Post reporters.6 Although they admit, in their preface, that “with two exceptions, those of us who worked on this book had never been even slightly interested in Soviet Jewry,” it is not the authors’ past lack of commitment but their present lack of sense and tact that requires an apology. Their narrative of Shcharansky’s reception in Israel is not to be approached without a generous supply of antiseptic soap at the ready. In addition to asking, incessantly, the mindless questions mentioned above, they present the warm welcome given Shcharansky at Ben-Gurion Airport by his wife’s long-time supporters in the religious nationalist movement as a sinister conspiracy to capture this hero of the “human-rights” movement for the alien ideology of “right-wing” Zionism espoused by his wife. (The journalists’ animosity toward Avital Shcharansky for her “acquired religiosity” and her “carping” for twelve years to gain her husband’s release mixes uneasily with their prurient inquisitiveness about her “self-denied sensuality” and their gossip columnists’ allusions to her inferior cooking and home-decorating.)

If we are to believe the Post reporters, Shcharansky had barely entered the airport when his old friends and supporters began busily telling everybody who would listen that they feared Shcharansky’s commitment to human rights would be swallowed up by the Gush Emunim politics of his wife and the “xenophobia” of the religious, whose pressure on him, according to an unidentified leftist source, will be harder to resist than that of the KGB. When one of the religious welcoming party admitted to the Post’s inquiring reporter that he was ignorant of Shcharansky’s efforts in the USSR on behalf of persecuted Christians, the reporter quickly concluded that “Such ecumenicism would be frowned upon by these people.” The only religious person at the airport who gets good marks from the Post team is the “religious politician” Avraham Burg, a Peace Now activist (apparently the only one at the airport), who was assigned by Prime Minister Peres to drive the Shcharanskys to Jerusalem. His particular merit is that, when he reached the entrance to Jerusalem, where admirers of the Shcharanskys had gathered in front of what the journalists call “Merkaz Harav Yeshiva” to greet the couple, he “sped past without stopping.”

The full name of the yeshiva in question is Merkaz Harav Kook. The name lopped off by the secularist zeal of the Jerusalem Post team is that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of Palestine after the British Mandate. Kook’s special distinction among the formative thinkers of Zionism was his insistence that Jewish nationalism, however secular in outward appearance, was inwardly an expression of the religious impulse, that the national and religious elements in Judaism are an indivisible entity, and that it is “therefore pointless to wage a bitter and ill-conceived war against those who are loyal to only one aspect of the Jewish character.” Kook addressed this admonition to the religiously Orthodox, many of whom are still greatly in need of such counsel. The lively interest taken in Kook’s teachings today derives from the spreading recognition that his is the kind of voice required to still the noisy conflict of half-truths that threatens to sunder Israeli society. If the authors of this narrative had been more respectful of Kook and less of the egregious “speculation in the Israeli press about [Avital’s] religious beliefs and [Anatoly’s] secular views,” they might have attained a glimpse of the promise which Shcharansky’s story carries within itself for a fruitful compromise between “secular” and “religious” in the land of Israel.

In his remarks to the National Press Club in May, Shcharansky repudiated the label “secular Jew,” declared that a “spiritual factor” was at work in everything happening to Soviet Jewry, and said that all the alleged conflicts between himself and his wife about religion “disappear the moment I stop reading the press.” When one of his old friends from Moscow who, having already fallen prey to the bad intellectual habits of his new country, asked Shcharansky, “Have you become religious?,” he replied: “I’m Jewish.”




1 Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time, Viking, 467 pp., $24.95.

2 The Hidden One, pen name of Pinhas Kahanovich.

3 By “CIA” the Soviets mean Western correspondents. Two of the 51 volumes of “evidence” consisted of clippings from the Western press.

4 The present author, interrogated by Soviet authorities in December 1976 for carrying Jewish books into the USSR, was told that “these Jewish craps [sic] subvert the Soviet way of life.”

5 Publication of his memoir is planned for fall 1987.

6 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 320 pp., $15.95. The section on the Shcharanskys in Israel was composed by Abraham Rabinovich, Douglas Davis, Robert Rosenberg, and Louis Rapoport.

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