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Shcharansky: Lessons From a Soviet Prison

May 04, 1986|Lally Weymouth | Lally Weymouth is a contributing editor to Opinion

NEW YORK — After nine years in a Soviet prison, human-rights activist Anatoly Shcharansky was freed in February. He enjoyed a tumultuous greeting in Israel, accompanied by world press fanfare, then went into seclusion with his wife, Avital.

This week he re-emerges as a public figure, to visit the United States and to meet with President Ronald Reagan. Reagan played an instrumental part in Shcharansky's release, bringing up Shcharansky's case at the Geneva summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Just before his travels, Shcharansky broke a self-imposed silence to talk at his small apartment in Jerusalem. There were papers and books piled everywhere. On a coffee table were African violets and a copy of Joan Peters' controversial book on Arab-Jewish conflict, "From Time Immemorial."

Shcharansky, 37, said he was feeling fine although somewhat weak, and was having trouble sleeping. When he sleeps, he dreams that he is back in what he refers to as his "punishing cell"--the solitary confinement imposed during the worst moments of his nine-year confinement. He said, joking, that he didn't want to sleep so much anymore--free, he now enjoys being awake. Shcharansky, from firsthand experience, considers himself an expert on the KGB--the Soviet secret police--and on Soviet prison camps. He understood that the Soviets wanted to crack his will and to make an example of him for others who dared to resist. "The KGB do their work well," he said. "One thing they understand is the weakness of people. They were telling me all the time, 'Believe us. You are not the first. Sooner or later, you will give in. So the earlier you change your position, the better, because one day you will be destroyed.' There were many whom they managed to destroy," although Shcharansky said "no" to them to the end.

Recalling imprisonment, Shcharansky said, "I had problems with my heart . . . because of the long days in solitary confinement." He once fell unconscious to the floor of his cell and suffered a concussion. He almost died during a hunger strike in 1982. And there was the mental anguish of being cut off from the outside world. In what he calls "good times," he was allowed to receive two letters a year from his wife, who was writing two letters a week. In bad years, he received none at all.

Two months before his release, the Soviets began to feed him and give him injections of vitamins.

He rejects the argument that his release is proof of the power of so-called "quiet diplomacy." Yes, Reagan helped gain his release, but without the long public struggle led by Avital Shcharansky, he is convinced that diplomatic efforts alone would not have worked.

In Washington, experts debate the best ways to bring about the release of Soviet Jews. Some argue for a hard-line, public confrontation with current Soviet policy while others advocate a softer, backstage approach.

Shcharansky joins the tougher group. He believes the controversial Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974, offering trade concessions in return for release of Soviet Jews, worked. "I think the amendment helped thousands of Jews to emigrate. Without this process of pressing the Soviet Union, there would not have been the explosion of emigration that happened at the beginning of the '70s," he said.

But that emigration of approximately 200,000 Jews, he added, could not have taken place without a struggle inside the Soviet Union by Jews who dared to declare their desire to leave. More help should have come from the Helsinki Accords of 1975, guaranteeing Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe in return for recognizing the human rights of their own citizens, including the right to leave. Approximately 400,00 Jews have sought permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. But the Helsinki agreement turned out to be a meaningless piece of paper. Shcharansky, once a member of a group that monitored Soviet compliance, recalled, "The moment they signed it, they started to take steps to discourage people from using it." In the Soviet prison camps, he said, "Helsinki was a big disappointment. The conditions became worse and worse." Reaching agreement wasn't a mistake, he said. The mistake was a failure to be tough in demanding Soviet compliance.

His participation as a monitor was part of the cause for his imprisonment, he believes, although he was tried and convicted on the trumped-up charge of being a U.S. spy. By 1980 the Soviets could boast--correctly--that most Helsinki monitoring groups had been disbanded and that the monitors themselves were in prison or exile.

There is a lesson from Helsinki, Shcharansky said, for those interested in arms agreements with the Soviets. He suggests that one way to measure whether the Soviets can be trusted is to examine their performance in past agreements: "The issue of Jewish emigration arises because once you let thousands of Jews go, you can't change the situation back. In other areas, they can say, 'OK, we'll do that,' and then overnight, they can stop."

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