In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about questions to ask Natan Sharansky. In fact, I’ve got a list in my head as I prepare to possibly interview the man who has inspired countless Russian-speaking Jews to fight for their right to practice Jewishly.
Let me back up a bit. Born Anatoliy Shcharanskiy in the Ukraine, Sharansky is now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which promotes aliyah and Jewish identity. But his path to this position has been thorny.
A scientist and childhood chess prodigy, Sharansky sought to move to Israel in the early 1970s and was denied the exit visa in 1973. This prompted him to become a human rights activist and a spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was headed by the Academician Sakharov. Group members were outspoken critics of the Soviet government and its abuse of basic human rights. The tough political atmosphere was further exacerbated for Jews, who had more affinity with Israel than the Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism was pervasive and organized religion was forbidden.
The denial of an exit visa marked the beginning of Refusenik life for Sharansky, who became active in the international movement to let Soviet Jewry emigrate. Convicted in 1978 of treason and spying on behalf of the United States, Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison, serving part of his sentence in the Siberian Gulag.
Under pressure from the American Jewish community and after direct intervention from President Reagan—who were alerted to his plight by his indefatigable wife, Avital—Sharansky was freed and allowed to immigrate to Israel in 1986. He became involved in Israeli politics, served in the Knesset and as a Cabinet Minister.\
Sharansky’s story of steadfast commitment to his ideals is beyond inspiring to those of us whose families come from the former Soviet Union and who know firsthand (or from our parents’ stories) what it means to be denied school admission, a job or a home because of that pesky “fifth line” in the passport that used to say “Jewish” under the “Ethnic origin” category.
Under the guise of building a “new Soviet person,” the Soviet government suppressed all outward signs of separate identity. Jews helped create the Soviet Union because of the belief that socialism would grant them the rights they never had under the czars. Yet their own cultural and religious heritage was suppressed by rulers who believed that belonging to any group—be it Jews, Tatars or Georgians—would preclude a person from loyalty to the state.
My own family, while not directly involved in the Refusenik movement, taught me about Sharansky and everything he stood for at a very young age, before it was a safe topic of discussion in Russia. Now, I’ve got a unique chance to interview him when he gives the keynote address at the JUF Annual Meeting Sept. 15.
My list of questions is pretty long already, but I’d love to know what you, our Oy! readers, would ask him if you had the chance. Please submit your questions in the comments—either in English or Russian as I’m hoping to interview him in both languages.