January 31, 1997 in Nation/World

Times Change For Oppressor And Oppressed Former Russian Dissident Returns To Forgive If Not Forget

Carol J. Williams Los Angeles Times
 

If forgiveness is the ultimate triumph of the human spirit, a tiny man with a giant will reached that pinnacle of victory Thursday on a snow-covered stack of cinder blocks outside the notorious Lefortovo Prison.

Human rights champion Natan Sharansky paid a healing visit to the scene of his Soviet-era torment, the feared yellow-brick prison in eastern Moscow that was, for decades, the icon of totalitarian repression.

No apologies were offered to the man who had suffered 18 months of abuse there after his arrest in March 1977, and Sharansky conceded none had been expected. Still, he found the visit a chance to make peace with the ghosts of his past.

“There is no need to forgive those who lost,” explained the diminutive former dissident - now Israel’s trade minister - after he had scrambled atop the nearest makeshift plinth outside Lefortovo to share with the world what he had felt inside. “I never saw this fight as a fight with individuals. I saw it as a fight with the system. The system is dead. Do you forgive the people who are dead? Of course, you forgive.”

The still-functioning prison’s most famous inmate, Sharansky asked to spend several minutes alone in the punishment cell where he had endured months of deprivation and psychological torture, “to think about good and evil, to think about real values, to concentrate on absolute things.”

It was there, in the punishment cell, where the bare stone floor was too cold to lie on and the lone stump of a stool was too bereft of support to hold up an exhausted prisoner, that Sharansky says he spent the crystallizing moments of his life.

“It reminded me of the days when I got my biggest victory,” he said of the sentimental visit, recalling that the fight he and other dissidents waged in the Soviet era had demanded their physical sacrifice but was rewarded with eventual destruction of the cruel regime.

Sharansky was arrested almost 20 years ago on trumped-up allegations of spying for the United States and was sentenced to 13 years despite the KGB’s failure to force him into self-incrimination.

In his autobiography, “Fear No Evil,” he recalls the 110 interrogations at Lefortovo and the strict imposition of silence and isolation. Special closets, like “human pencil boxes,” were built into the corridors so guards could stash prisoners without one ever catching sight of another.

Sharansky’s request to visit the Perm labor camp that was one of the other sites of his nine-year odyssey of oppression was turned down. His Lefortovo visit was allowed only on condition that he enter without media and that he make no attempt to communicate with prisoners.

Special-forces guards, who wore ski masks to hide their identity, kept the throng of reporters at bay.

It was the perseverance of dissidents and refuseniks like Sharansky that kept alive their cause of individual freedom until the reform era.

Among the first human rights concessions made by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, was the 1986 liberation of Sharansky in a dramatic East-West prisoner exchange. His solitary walk to freedom across divided Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge came to symbolize the whisper of humanity from Moscow that was eventually to become a deafening cheer.

In West Berlin, he was reunited with his wife, Avital, who had emigrated to Israel shortly after his arrest to stir up an international uproar that eventually won him freedom. He left for the Jewish state and never paid Russia a backward glance for 11 years, until being invited to lead a trade delegation in his new role as government minister.

Sharansky joked about the contrast of his new life in “the establishment” and the moral and political compromises demanded of a minister in a right-wing Israeli government itself often under fire for human rights breaches.

Throughout his weeklong official visit to Moscow, Sharansky has paid homage to his late moral mentor, Andrei D. Sakharov.

Sharansky also visited Jewish schools, synagogues and community centers to measure the gains in religious freedom. Noting that teachers and administrators at Jewish schools now complain about the same financing and curriculum problems lamented by educators everywhere, Sharansky said their gripes were a source of comfort.

Although conscious of many residual injustices and problems in the post-Communist era, he said the land of his birth was on the path to being “normal.”

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