The Magazine

The View from the Gulag

From the June 21, 2004 issue: An interview with Natan Sharansky: He describes the "beautiful moment" when the news of the Evil Empire speech reached Siberia.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Editor's Note: Natan Sharansky was born in Ukraine in 1948 and studied mathematics in Moscow. He worked as an English interpreter for the great Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, and himself became a champion of Soviet Jewry and a worker for human rights. Convicted in 1978 on trumped-up charges of treason and spying for the United States, Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison. After years in the Siberian gulag, he was released in a U.S.-Soviet prisoner exchange in 1986 and moved to Israel, where he founded a political party promoting the acculturation of Soviet immigrants. He is now a minister without portfolio in the government of Ariel Sharon. Tom Rose, a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, interviewed Sharansky in Jerusalem.

Do you remember the first time you heard the name Ronald Reagan?

I was already a longtime prisoner when Ronald Reagan was elected. I didn't know much about him, and I can't say I remember having heard much about him. None of us in the Gulag knew much, and I actually knew less than most because I spent so much time in private punishment cells, where for months at a time you were totally isolated. Our first indication that Ronald Reagan might well be the key figure in our struggle, the struggle of all people fighting against tyranny, came from the ferocious denunciations of him that appeared more frequently in the official Soviet press. Now, all Soviets were experts in the art of "reading between the lines," and of course us dissidents, we were the professors of this high art form. In fact, we were so good at reading between the lines, we almost could piece together events as they really happened by what the authorities were not telling us. What they did not tell us was as important as what they did tell us, if not even more important.

We had very mixed feelings at first. Remember, we accepted it as a given that Jimmy Carter was the world's great human rights advocate. Only later, after we saw what words without action can mean, did it occur to us that words were all he could offer. But to his credit, it was Jimmy Carter who insisted on keeping the issue in the international spotlight. Remember, prior to him, no one seemed willing to offer even words. All we knew about Reagan was that he was a poorly regarded actor, and after living for so long in an Orwellian world where play-acting was all we ever experienced from our own leaders, the very fact that Reagan was an actor, I will say, left us far more concerned than encouraged at first.

Were there any particular Reagan moments that you can recall being sources of strength or encouragement to you and your colleagues?

I have to laugh. People who take freedom for granted, Ronald Reagan for granted, always ask such questions. Of course! It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.

It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin's "Great October Bolshevik Revolution" and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution--Reagan's Revolution.

We were all in and out of punishment cells so often--me more than most--that we developed our own tapping language to communicate with each other between the walls. A secret code. We had to develop new communication methods to pass on this great, impossible news. We even used the toilets to tap on.

In your memoir, Fear No Evil, you write that President Reagan was captivated by this story.