Prisoner of Zion

An Israeli statesman, politician, author, human rights activist, refusenik, former political prisoner, mathematician and chess prodigy, Natan Sharansky, who was born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in today’s war-torn Ukrainian city of Donetsk, is a Jewish hero known throughout the world. 

In 1977 when only 29 years old, the outspoken Sharansky was arrested by the Russian KGB and accused of high treason for spying for the United States. The charges were a sham. His true crime was simply his outspoken adamance that the Russian government should allowed Russian Jews to move to Israel. Thankfully the unrepentant Zionist escaped the death penalty, but nevertheless the court sentenced him to 13 years of forced labor, and not just any old forced labor: Sharansky sat in solitary confinement in a prison system that resembled the Gulags. Yet somehow, during these long years he found the psychological strength not to give in. From his dark and bare prison cell Sharansky continued to speak out, even going on several hunger strikes to protest infringements of his human rights such as the confiscation of his mail. 

After a long international campaign led by his wife, he was finally released in 1986. The couple immediately came to Israel. Their arrival opened the flood gates for over a million Russian Jews to leave a few years later. 

The inner strength which sustained him throughout a terrible thirteen years, he attributes to chess competitions he played in his childhood. Selecting his opponents, the young Sharansky chose adults and even competed blindfolded against them. He also puts down his resilience to growing up in the former Soviet Union. Donetsk was a city which always had Russians and Ukrainians. It was there that Sharansky learned both cultures, and today he is one of the Russian President’s most outspoken critics. 

Although in Israel for nearly 40 years, his pride in his Israel has not waned. For Sharansky, to be Jew in Soviet Donetsk was like “being born with a disease.” Many parents tried to bribe officers to erase the word “Jew” from their children’s papers. Irony does not escape Sharansky. He is on record for saying that today in Ukrainian war-torn Donetsk, the best thing for any refugee is to have on their ID the word “Jew,” because Israel is the only country operating there to get Jewish people out and bring them home. 

Whether he be home or abroad, Sharansky has made it his life mission to fight antisemitism. This was why he accepted the position of chairman of the advisory board for the Kiev Babyn Yar Shoah memorial. Sharansky knows the importance of that memorial which is not just a symbol of the Shoah but is also a symbol of the attempts of the Soviet Union to revise Holocaust history. For decades the Russians have claimed that the millions of Jews systematically murdered by the Nazis in the former Soviet Union, were exterminated because they were Russian – and not because they were Jewish. And that is exactly the  narrative that Sharansky wants to erase. 

A friend of the Ukrainian president, the Israeli Jewish Zionist has met with Zelensky several times. The twist of history that it is now none other than a Jewish president who is fighting the same Russian tyranny where Sharansky spent over a decade of his life in a dark cell, must bring a smile to his face.