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
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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.

The first time I met President Reagan I told him this story. I felt free to tell him everything. I told him of the brilliant day when we learned about his Evil Empire speech from an article in Pravda or Izvestia that found its way into the prison. When I said that our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration and that the world was about to change, well, then the president, this great tall man, just lit up like a schoolboy. His face lit up and beamed. He jumped out of his seat like a shot and started waving his arms wildly and calling for everyone to come in to hear "this man's" story. It was really only then that I started to appreciate that it wasn't just in the Soviet Union that President Reagan must have suffered terrible abuse for this great speech, but that he must have been hurt at home too. It seemed as though our moment of joy was the moment of his own vindication. That the great punishment he had endured for this speech was worth it.

Can it really be said that Ronald Reagan was actually responsible for an event as great as the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Yes.

One man in one office?

Yes. Absolutely. But not one man alone. If I would be permitted to widen the credit a little more, I would say the collapse of the Soviet Union is attributable to three men. Andrei Sakharov, Scoop Jackson, and Ronald Reagan. These were the people who brought moral clarity to the conflict and started the chain of events which led to the end of Soviet communism. Sakharov to the Russian people, Senator Jackson to the American government, and Ronald Reagan on behalf of the American people to the world and thus back to the Soviet Union. They created the policy of linkage: That international relations and human rights must be linked. That how a government treats its own people cannot be separated from how that government could be expected to treat other countries. That how governments honor commitments they make at home will show the world how they will honor their commitments abroad.

His constant, unalloyed trumpeting of freedom's call, his uncompromising opposition to tyranny and bold optimism--where do you think this came from?

I don't think Hollywood. It came from him. From inside Ronald Reagan. He had two things all of us need but few of us seem to have. Ronald Reagan had both moral clarity and courage. He had the moral clarity to understand the truth, and the courage both to speak the truth and to do what needed to be done to support it. There was more to Reagan than rhetoric. His biggest single contribution was that he stopped allowing the Soviet Union to use the United States to strengthen itself at America's expense. The Soviet Union had learned--been taught, actually--that the United States and Europe were there to provide the very source of energy and support the Soviet system needed to survive. Ronald Reagan instinctively understood this when no one else did. This is the most important paradox of all. Freedom's greatest threat was in many ways the product of this freedom. Soviet tyranny was completely dependent upon the West for its very survival. Reagan knew this. The Soviet Union, a nation of 200 million slaves, could not possibly keep pace with the technological, economic, or scientific developments taking place in the West. The moment Reagan took that support away from the Soviet Union, it started to fall apart.

How is it that truths about freedom and totalitarianism which appear today so evident and obvious can be completely missed for so long and by so many people?

Appeasement is not the exception for democracies. It is the rule for democracies. Appeasement is a powerful side effect of democracy. The West's appeasement policy toward the Soviet Union began almost the moment its appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany ended. It didn't end until Ronald Reagan. Democratic leaders need peace to survive. Because democracies have to reflect the will of their people, democratic leaders choose appeasement because anything is preferable to war. Free peoples go to war only when they have no other choice. By the way, this is democracy's great strength as well as its great weakness. Democracies are both so free, so stable, and so prosperous because their people don't want war. Therefore, Western leaders were only continuing in this tradition by believing that the Soviet Union needed to be transformed from a deadly rival into a partner for cooperation. Even President Carter, who understood human rights better than any president before him, always chose to appease the Soviet Union rather than to force it to compete with the West.

Since we can't reproduce Ronald Reagan himself, what practical lessons from him can we apply today to achieve a similar effect?

Linkage. This is the most important thing Reagan did. He established the pattern and insisted upon compliance. It worked to bring down the greatest, most totalitarian empire in all history. It can surely work today against enemies no less dangerous but far less powerful. But linkage takes both courage and moral clarity. Reagan's great strength was his optimistic faith in freedom and that every human being deserved freedom and that this freedom is a force that can liberate and empower and enrich and ennoble.

It is hard to imagine two people more different in life experiences than Natan Sharansky and Ronald Reagan. Did you feel those differences on a human level?

We both saw the world similarly. That is what matters. Not the experiences themselves but what is learned from them. People used to say that Reagan's jokes exposed him as a simpleton. To me they revealed his strengths and convictions. He took great joy in telling me the old joke about the time Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev and his deputy Alexei Kosygin discussed what would happen to the USSR if it really did conform to the Helsinki Accords and adopted a truly open emigration policy. "You and I would be the only two citizens left in the USSR," Brezhnev said. "Speak for yourself," answered Kosygin. Ronald Reagan understood the power of this joke. He stood up to evil. He had the courage to fight evil and the wisdom to defeat it.

It seems Ronald Reagan did Alexei Kosygin one better. Today the Soviet Union has no citizens!

Indeed. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, to the legacy he leaves behind, we now know that totalitarianism can be beaten and that freedom can come to anyone who wants it.