Freedom Fighter

An Interview with Natan Sharansky

This all helped to create very strong pressure on the Soviet Union just at the time when as a system it was in a state of bankruptcy. They needed, very much, strong cooperation with the West. The Soviet Union could not stand competition with the free world because of the non-free form of its life. This policy of linkage between human rights and international relations helped to accelerate the bankruptcy of the Soviet system, helped to make the leaders of the Soviet Union open the Iron Gate, to bring down the Iron Curtain. In fact, that's how the communist system collapsed.

I personally believe that but for the strong position of dissidents on one hand and the strong position of the leaders of the free world on the other — and the central figure was, later, of course President Reagan — then the world would have suffered from the threat of communist aggression for many more decades. But this policy of linkage between human rights and relations between the countries helped the free world win the Cold War without one shot. Without any violence. And that brought to freedom not only Soviet Jews, but made all the world a much more freer place.

Unfortunately, these lessons are the ones the world starts forgetting very quickly, looking again for stability in different parts of the world by ignoring the principles of human rights and by trying to find the appropriate dictators who will give us more stability.

OR: When you look at Russia today, how similar do you see it as being to the Soviet Union? What do you make of the work being done by dissidents there now?

Sharansky: I'm very upset. Many of my friends, especially those who continue human rights activity in Russia, all were very upset by the fact that democratic principles are in retreat, that the courts are becoming more and more politically dependent, that there is a lot of corruption all over, that dissent, newspapers, and TV programs are definitely in decline.

Having said all this, I wouldn't compare it to the Soviet Union. Simply because the Soviet Union was controlled by fear, in which 200 million people were kept. And the base for keeping people in fear was the KGB. Everybody could find himself or herself in Gulag.

A lot of criticism can be made about Russia, but people are not afraid to read what they want to read or to speak their mind. It's true when people are trying to influence politics, then unfortunately all the time obstacles are raised against them. But they can speak their mind and they can try to build broad associations between people who think likewise.

It's interesting that recently, when my close friend and colleague Lyudmila Alexeyeva — she still is chairman of the Helsinki watch group we created together — celebrated its anniversary, not only she was not under of the threat of arrest, but President Putin personally came to congratulate her. So it shows that the times are different. But no doubt, she is the first to say — and I spoke to her immediately after she spoke to President Putin — that the democratic rights of the citizens are on retreat and that we have to continue our work building civil society. It is not an easy work.

Now people don't have to sacrifice their lives for their right to make their position known and public, anymore. So I sympathize with many of my colleagues who are fighting for civil society in Russia today, and welcome them, and I help when I can, but I would not say that we are back in Stalin's Russia. It's not Stalin's Russia, it's not even Brezhnev's Russia. It's a different situation. In modern times nobody could isolate people the way the Soviet Union tried and succeeded to isolate them, and nobody could keep hundreds of millions of people in fear as the KGB regime did.

OR: Are there real “fear” societies that exist? Do you think the trend is in that direction? Or is the trend ultimately toward more openness because of technological changes?

Sharansky: Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's unbelievable what the internet does. As the spokesman, sometimes it took me months of work to collect signatures under our appeal to, let's say, the U.S. Congress, and then to find the way to send it through some journalist or some tourist, and then to wait for the response.

Today, with one press of a button, you can do both. You can collect signatures from people who will ally with you to send a letter and then send this letter to Congress. I'd be dying from envy remembering the huge operation I had to do and making so many people take risks. Tourists and others were coming to us and collecting the signatures, going to different cities. So it's great. It's great because the Internet proved a great mechanism to mobilize people for massive demonstrations.

On the other hand, it gives opportunities for some forces behind the scenes. Cyber specialists can control communication between the people. Maybe you don't need the army of informers as it was before. You need only to have good cyber intelligence forces. Some team which can follow all communications between people.

Technology by itself cannot solve the problem. But the desire of people to express their minds freely, as they try to show the case for democracy — of course, the conscience is different, the mentalities are different, the types of institutions for different cultures are very different — and to live without the fear that they can be arrested for their views is the same among all cultures in all countries.

And that's something that I believe is becoming stronger and stronger. But it's not a smooth, one-way street. We can see definitely in the Middle East how, immediately after the Arab Spring and these revolutions — of which the main engine was the desire of people to stop living under the fear whether they were in Egypt or in other places — they were replaced by the new type of dictatorships and the new type of repressions. History is not a smooth line. There are ups and downs. But I believe that this core, deep desire of people to be free is dictating the trajectory of history.