MOSCOW — For years, Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky was one of the most famous prisoners in the Soviet Union.
Officially, he is a traitor, convicted of spying for the CIA. But in much of the world, the Jewish activist is seen as a martyr to the twin causes of human rights and Jewish emigration, who was being punished for daring to challenge the Soviet regime.
His trial in 1978 marked a low point in Soviet-American relations, and it was a blow to hopes for greater personal freedom for Soviet citizens under the Helsinki accords that had been signed three years earlier.
Shcharansky, 37, short and balding, makes an unlikely heroic figure, yet he has become a symbol of resistance to political repression.
Ever since his arrest by security agents of the KGB on March 15, 1977, there have been rumors that Shcharansky would be freed in an East-West exchange. But as the years dragged by, he remained in prison. Relatives say he suffered from severe headaches and heart disease.
Nonetheless, a fellow inmate, Hillel Butman, once said of Shcharansky: "He's a very joyous man. He is rather optimistic because he has hope. . . . When a man (in prison) has hope, he hopes, he waits and he lives."
Tuesday, that hope became reality. In an East-West exchange of spies, Shcharansky was freed, reunited with his wife and flown to Israel.
At his trial, where he faced a possible death sentence on the treason charge, Shcharansky showed his spirit when he declared: "I am happy that I lived honestly and in peace with my conscience, and I never lied even when I was threatened with death."
There is little in Shcharansky's early history to indicate that he would become a renowned dissident. He was born on Feb. 18, 1948, to staunch Communist parents, and he joined party groups--the Young Pioneers, the Young Communist League--that guide young people along the path of orthodoxy.
His father, Boris, was a journalist for more than 40 years and served as a Communist Party organizer in a heavy artillery battalion during World War II. His mother, Ida, was a schoolteacher.
"I was as Soviet as you could get," Shcharansky once said.
He earned top grades in school and was graduated in mathematics from the Physical and Technical Institute, which the Soviets compare with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For his thesis, he devised the first computer program for the end game in chess, one of his favorite pastimes. Despite his high rank in his graduating class, Shcharansky was assigned to a routine job at the Moscow Research Institute of the Oil and Gas Ministry. He said that because of his Jewish background he felt the sting of anti-Semitism.
"During a long hike in the Caucasus with my best friend, he got angry at me about something and called me a kike," he once told a reporter. "I think it was then that I decided this was no place for me."
In 1973, he applied to emigrate to Israel and was turned down, joining the large group of "refuseniks" in Moscow. He became active in scientific seminars organized by would-be emigrants to Israel and, with his fluent English, served as interpreter for American correspondents and even a visiting congressional delegation.
By late June, 1974, he was so feared by the authorities that he was jailed as a preventive measure during a visit to Moscow by President Richard M. Nixon.
Earlier, Shcharansky had met Natalia Stieglitz at a Jewish meeting place outside the Moscow Synagogue. A month later they announced their engagement, and they were married by a rabbi on July 4, 1974. A day later, she emigrated to Israel before her exit visa expired.
"She didn't want to go, but I made her," Shcharansky said later. "We expected during that period that soon all of us would be permitted to leave."
Shcharansky took part in demonstrations on behalf of Jewish prisoners, and as a consequence served four 15-day jail terms. The KGB warned him against joining future protests, and he was fired from his job in 1975.
But he continued to be active in the struggle. In 1976, he joined a group of Soviet citizens organized to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki agreements on human rights.
With the start of 1977, KGB agents began trailing Shcharansky. His "cage," he called them. Then an article in Izvestia, the official government newspaper, accused him of betraying his country by passing secrets to CIA agents working out of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
He was arrested and held in isolation for 16 months before a trial was scheduled for mid-July, 1978, on charges of treason and anti-Soviet slander. The timing appeared to be a slap in the face of President Jimmy Carter, who had denied the existence of any CIA link with Shcharansky.
Shcharansky's older brother, Leonid, sat in on the trial and provided an account for Western correspondents. The prosecution, he said, produced no evidence to support the charge of treason.
Nonetheless, Shcharansky was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and 10 years in a labor camp.