Freedom Fighter

An Interview with Natan Sharansky

The disturbing enthusiasm for authoritarian ideas among young people is not confined to the Right. The Left, too, is seeing an upsurge in political violence committed in its name, as well as a general rollback of its defense of the liberal ideas it once loved and protected. Natan Sharansky is equipped as few others are to speak about the horrors of authoritarian politics. He was a legendary human rights activist sentenced to the Gulag in the last decades of the USSR. He emerged unbroken and with the unshakable conviction that democratic values are of crucial, world-historical importance. Here he explains the failure of communal memory on the question of communism and what he sees ahead for Russia and the world.

Thomas Demand Kontrollraum / Control Room, 2011, (detail) © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York

Thomas Demand. Kontrollraum / Control Room, 2011, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Octavian Report: How would you respond to the argument that a human rights and freedom agenda has no real place in foreign policy?

Natan Sharansky: It's really unfortunate and disappointing how quickly historical experience is disappearing. Maybe the fate of historical experience is that every generation must have its own historical experience, and it's only people in academia who learn from books on history.

But in practice, politicians and journalists forget it very quickly. You’d be surprised how short their memory is. Serious journalists who know, who understand, who remember the lessons not only of the Soviet Union, who remember the lessons of Arab Spring, are already disappearing. Now they come to work in Israel as a journalist from some Western newspaper two years ago — and that's when history mainly starts for them. Thirty-year-olds don't know what communism is. People older than 60 know it very well. But the really important decisions are made by people in their 40s and 50s. They are somewhere in between.

Mostly I can say that realpolitik today is predominant, both on the Left and on the Right. I was rather disappointed when the Obama administration didn't follow the tradition of the previous administration in having close contacts with democratic dissidents.

But I can't say that the new administration seems, as it looks now, any more interested in this issue. The fact that everybody is looking for practical solutions and is happy to see the dictators as an important part of the solution becomes something that unites Left and Right today. It's very disappointing. It seems that the power of the lessons of defeating communism are so strong, and the success of this policy of linkage between human rights and international relations was so convincing, that all our opponents now are newly-born liberals.

What's happening is that the word “liberal” is changing its meaning. The liberal is the one who wants peace at any price, and not the one who believes that peace can be achieved only through defending liberal principles.

So yes, it is disappointing, but I don’t know if it is something specific about history of communism or if that's the nature of human beings — to learn only from the immediate experience.

OR: Can you talk about the history of the linkage between human rights and politics, and about your own experiences as a dissident activist?

Sharansky:  I was an activist in two movements: the Soviet Union’s Zionist movement and its human rights movement. At some moment I became more or less an official spokesman of these two movements.

First of all, a point that looks like a big contradiction today. Some argue that freedom and identity are in tension, that nationalism and religion are enemies of peace and stability, the source of war. I always felt that is absolutely wrong. It is strong beliefs and a strong feeling of your identity, of belonging to something bigger than your own life — that's what gives you strength to fight also for freedom. Your freedom and the freedom of others.

So I felt very comfortable always in being both a Jewish activist and a human rights activist.

Now, it was clear to us Jewish activists of the former Soviet Union that there could be no quiet agreement with the KGB, with the regime. We never believed that they would let more and more Jews leave quietly without having a real conflict with the Soviet Union. For the Soviet Union, for any dictatorial regime, it is so important to keep their citizens under their control that they cannot let these people decide for themselves what to read, what to say, and definitely they can't decide where to live.

So the struggle for freedom of emigration was the struggle against the basic principles of that regime, and we could not have been successful if it were not linked to the most basic interests of the Soviet Union. That's why we welcomed strongly the great Democrat Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and his amendment when he connected freedom of immigration with the trade benefits for the Soviet Union. That was the first major attempt in the days of the Cold War to make a direct linkage between human rights and the economic interests of the Soviet Union.

I have to say that many on the American side, including many leading businessmen and representatives of the Nixon administration, were absolutely against this linkage. The idea was that the more trade you have, the better relations you have, the more you can talk with your partner for human rights, the more chances that you will have to succeed also in convincing them to behave better. What we all believed was absolute.

So the Jackson Amendment, which later become one of the central points of the accusations of  high treason brought against me by the Soviet Union, was approved, and that became a major pressure on the Soviet Union to open the gates. And then there was Helsinki Agreement, the final act signed in Helsinki by 35 countries, which included three baskets. A basket about recognizing the borders after the Second World War. Second, economic cooperation, and third, respect for human rights.

And though it was non-binding, that connection between the first, second, and third basket, we dissidents decided to do our best to make it binding by creating our own Helsinki watch groups in the Soviet Union. This, of course, also became one of the bases of accusations against me of anti-Soviet activity, together with other members of the group.

But really what then helped the free world to connect very strongly the policy of human rights and all the other relations with the Soviet Union was the idea was that we can rely on regimes only to the extent to which this regime is trusted by its people. We cannot trust you if you cannot trust your own people to have some basic freedom.