|Prime Minister Shimon Peres (left) welcomes released Prisoner of Zion Antatoly Sharansky as he steps off the Westwind plane arriving from Frankfurt at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Government Press Office (Israel) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
For many of us the scientific-technological revolution arrived at precisely the right time, with the world of science as a kind of castle where you could protect yourself from the shifting winds of official ideology. (p. xii)
This single sentence from Natan Sharansky’s memoir Fear No Evil really grabbed me. Here is someone I could immediately relate to in a unique way. I’m not brilliant at chess, math, or computer science like Sharanksy, but I understand him. In a world where politics and ideology are constantly in our face, some of us cling to science and technology – constants of logic and scientific process – as a way to feel safe and find commonality.
But what happens when not even science can protect you?
This break-down of “the castle” is what happened to Sharansky. He talks about how he came to explore and embrace his Jewish heritage, in part through his friendship and eventual engagement with a Jewish activist, Avital. During the 1970s when this all occurred, the USSR was preventing many Jews from emigrating to Israel, so those who were denied visas became known as refuseniks. Sharanksy, a refusenik himself, began to campaign for refuseniks’ rights, becoming almost a minor celebrity through his interactions with the Western press.
Barely a day married to Natan, Avital was finally allowed to leave Russia and compelled to leave immediately before it was too late. Natan, however, was still denied his own visa and continued to be followed by his “tails” who were assigned to watch him. Three years later in 1977, he was arrested, accused of being a spy for the U.S.
The rest of the memoir follows his intense and truly stunning determination to survive his prison sentence and demand justice. Logically minded, Sharansky immediately came up with a mind map, outlining his method of dealing with the authorities and maintaining his dignity. A major piece of this was his decision to have no association with the KGB – no bargaining, no deals – even when tempted or tortured.
As I read this, I was having flashbacks to Kafka’s The Trial. Since Sharanksy was well known outside of Russia, he was treated somewhat better (relatively speaking) than more obscure prisoners. Nonetheless, the authorities intended to destroy his integrity, chiefly by means of monologues and monotony, trying to manipulate him by withholding visits with his worried mother. They really took several pages out of Kafka, and the sheer, maddening tedium of it all would be enough to drive most people into cooperation.
Sharansky, however, managed to not only not cooperate but to come out ahead. He took advantage of his position as a well-known activist to call out the authorities when they were not following their own rules. He used his empathy to network with other zeks (prisoners) and try to stay on good terms with his fellow inmates. He used hunger strikes strategically and stuck to them. Finally, he focused on his spiritual life, through his Psalm book, his pictures of family members, and his prayers.
One small part of the book that also stood out to me was the role of literature. Sharansky credits Sherlock Holmes as being a major influence in his pursuit of logic, which was to help him in his trial. He also relates a moving scene in which he and two others, locked in punishment cells (solitary confinement with low rations), passed the time by debating about authors and their books.
Thanks to Stephen for sharing his review of the book (which is how I found out about it!).