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A Fourth of July Story

Independence Day is doubly special for the legendary refusenik Natan Sharansky and his family. He sits down for a wide-ranging interview about his wife Avital, love among Jewish people, and the promise of freedom.

David Samuels
June 30, 2016
David Rubinger / Getty
Freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharansky and wife AvitalDavid Rubinger / Getty
David Rubinger / Getty
Freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharansky and wife AvitalDavid Rubinger / Getty
This article is part of Refuseniks.
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On July 4, 1974, a 26-year-old mathematician named Anatoly Borisovitch Shcharansky was joined in marriage to Natalia Stieglitz, aged 24, in a friend’s apartment in Moscow. The day on which Americans celebrate their freedom with hot dogs and fireworks was probably the last opportunity that the two young Soviet citizens had to get married, as the bride had only a day and a half remaining on her exit visa. The day after the marriage, the bride left Moscow for Israel, as Avital Shcharansky. While her husband hoped to follow her within a few months, it would be nearly twelve years before she would see him again.

Anatoly Shchanransky first applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union in 1973. As a former child chess prodigy and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the young mathematician was the kind of person that Soviet authorities liked to hold up as an example of the success of their progressive, scientifically-ordered society. His application to leave the country was denied, on the grounds that he had enjoyed access to information that was vital to Soviet national security. The bureaucrat who denied Shcharansky’s visa application may have been right, according to the Orwellian criteria that were then prevalent–but he or she did far more damage to the Soviet Union by forcing the young mathematician to stay.

Soviet bureaucrats and security personnel had no shortage of reasons to distrust Shchransky. He was the translator and go-between for the physicist Andrei Sakharov, one of the fathers of the Soviet nuclear bomb and the inventor of the Tokamok nuclear fusion reactor, who became the target of a sustained campaign of pressure and threats by his fellow scientists and the KGB in 1972 for his insistent warnings against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In 1976, Shcharansky himself became one of the founders and a leading spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, which devoted itself to the Sisyphean task of ensuring that Moscow lived up to its commitments to ensuring the human rights of its citizens under international treaties. With Sakharov’s blessing, Shcharansky also became the most visible spokesman for the growing mass movement of Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union for Israel.

On March 15, 1977, Shcharansky was arrested on charges of high treason and spying for the United States. He would spend the nine years of his life following his trial imprisoned in Siberia, while his wife Avital, whom he knew as a quiet, shy woman, galvanized a mass movement of Jews in America and elsewhere to fight for her husband’s freedom. Transforming her imprisoned husband into an international symbol of Soviet oppression and of the resilience of the human spirit, Avital personally pled Anatoly’s case with Ronald Reagan and other world leaders, who were moved by the purity and modesty of her self-presentation, and the fierce, unshakable nature of her convictions, a combination that reminded more than one observer of a female Gandhi.

On February 11, 1986, Anatoly Shcharansky was freed on the direct order of Mikhail Gorbachev, under personal pressure from Ronald Reagan, and rejoined his wife Avital in Israel, as Natan Sharansky. Three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. In the long view of history, it seems likely that the campaigns that the Sharanskys helped to lead, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, will be seen as having played a significant role in the dismantling of a tyranny that controlled the lives of over one billion people, and which plausibly aimed, at one point in time, in bringing the entire planet under its rule, thereby destroying the ideals of freedom which Americans celebrate every year, on July 4, as the Shcharanskys celebrate their anniversary.

What follows is a very lightly edited transcript of the second of two interviews I conducted last year with Natan Sharansky, who is now the head of the Jewish Agency and a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I have decided not to publish our first conversation, which dealt with information related to the Iranian nuclear deal and America’s relationship with the Iranian regime, which Sharansky regarded as an astounding betrayal of the promise of freedom that America embodied to him in his Soviet jail cell, and of the brave dissidents who sit in Iranian jail cells today.


Growing up as a child in Donetsk, what did you know about other Jewish communities in the world?

I didn’t know anything about Jewish communities. I knew nothing about Judaism, I knew nothing about Jewish history, nothing about Jewish religion. I knew very well that I am a Jew because that’s what was written in the ID of your parents, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism and discrimination, that’s all.

When did you first start to discover that Jews were a people with a history, and were living in other places besides Donetsk?

I first realized that I have a history, people, and a country in 1967, after Six Day War. For the Soviet Union, the victory of Israel in that war was a big humiliation, and suddenly Jews discovered that all the people around you, friends and enemies, Jews and non-Jews, connect this country Israel with you. And so you want to understand what this connection means. That’s when in the underground, from the books that were brought to us by American Jews, we started reading about ourselves and about our history. And we find out that we have such an exciting history, beginning from Exodus from Egypt until these days.

There were Jews coming from all over the world. They would say, “oh your father is from Odessa. My grandfather is from Odessa, we are family, we want to help you.” And you discover there is the State of Israel, which also wants to help you. So that’s how you discover your identity, and that’s what gives you the strength to start fighting for your dignity and your freedom.

Before you discovered this identity, and all you knew was that “Jew” was a curse word in the mouths of people who hated you and your parents, how good did it feel to read that the Israeli air force had humiliated the Soviet Union and its allies?

You know, you read very little in the Soviet newspaper. And frankly speaking, at that moment we knew so little about Israel and about Israel’s connection with our life. The real excitement came like a month after this, when you see that all the world connects what happened in the Middle East with Jews, and that you’re one of these persecuted Jews, so you start to learn more. Who are we? And then you become really excited. Then you understand that this war, this victory for Israel, is also a victory in your struggle.

When did you first become aware that there were Jews in the Soviet Union who wanted to emigrate to Israel?

Here and there we heard something, from the Voice of America and so on. But the real realization of how deep and powerful this phenomenon is came after the Leningrad trial [*referring to the state prosecution of a group of 16 refuseniks led by Edward Kuznetsov and a Jewish former military pilot Mark Dymshits who on June 15, 1970 tried to steal an airplane and fly it to the West, an event which helped spark the Soviet Jewry movement]. It was publicized all over the Soviet Union that they are criminals, they are being put on trial, there is a threat of a death sentence. And all of this because they wanted to leave for Israel. The Soviet Union started a big campaign with public press conferences where famous Jews, writers, and actors, and scientists, all had to declare their loyalty to the Soviet Union and say, ‘we as Soviet Jews don’t want to go to Israel, only a bunch of criminals want to.’ From this, we understood that something very big was happening, and you wanted to be part of it.

Could you follow the trial in the newspaper and the radios?

Oh no. In the newspaper, there were only one or two big articles about the criminals and their sentences. But at the same time there were a lot of press conferences and public statements of loyal Soviet citizens, of those who were considered to be loyal who had to declare their loyalty. What we did discover, was that through the Voice of America, and through BBC, and Voice of Israel, in spite of jamming, you could hear the reports, information about the trials. I remember the speech of Sylva Zalmanson, who said these ancient words about that “I will never forget you, Jerusalem.” And that was very powerful. And you think that, ‘look, here are people who are so desperate in their desire to become an active part of the history of Jewish people and to go to Israel, they are ready to sacrifice their lives. What are you doing here?’

When did you become aware of the activities of Jacob Birnbaum and others who were organizing rallies and demonstrations in the West?

During those days of the trial, we heard that Jews all over the world are demonstrating, in spite of the jamming of the broadcasts of Voice of Israel and the Voice of America and others. And we realized how powerful those efforts were when the death sentences of some of the Leningrad trial heroes [Kuznetsov and Dimshits were both sentenced to death] were replaced by 15 years. After all the propaganda, after all the brainwashing which was done by the Soviet Union, the fact that they had to change the sentences showed us that Jews all over the world really have some power.

I only was able to get more details about our struggle when I myself two years later became an active participant in our movement, and later became a kind of spokesman of our movement, so on a daily basis I was meeting with tourists who were telling me about these demonstrations, who themselves were part of these demonstrations, and then you feel yourself to be part of the world struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Tell me how those contacts between Soviet Jews and foreigners would work.

There were two ways. On Saturday, we were meeting in front of the Moscow Synagogue. I say in front of because the synagogue itself was part of the official Soviet Union. So this narrow street in front of the synagogue became like our club.

It was a gathering place for Jews who exchanged information, some who for the first time came to find out how to get an invitation from Israel, or those foreign visitors who are coming and are looking for the people whose names they got from their organizations. And that’s how I met with my first contacts, Jews from different organizations, different cities and countries, who were coming with the specific aim of bringing some materials for us, and to get information about our fate.

Describe one of those meetings to me, an early one that you can remember. You’re standing in the street in front of the synagogue and some person that you’ve never seen before wearing different clothes, speaking terrible Russian, or maybe some Yiddish, is looking for you.

Usually it was like this. Some people who obviously are foreigners, they speak all in English, sometimes Hebrew, but usually English. And they say, if somebody can help me to see Vladimir Slepak or Alexandr Luntz or Alexandr Lerner. These were usually the names that they had in advance. And as a rule, the KGB men were standing just nearby listening to us, but we didn’t care. In some cases, these people, foreign tourists were coming straight to the apartment of Vladimir Slepak. And later when I was actively involved in this, I was spending days and nights there in that apartment, which was just near the Red Square, waiting for these contacts to arrive. Because even if they were coming to this synagogue, they were not bringing all their notes with themselves, they knew very well that they could be arrested there. So we were waiting for later opportunities to meet somewhere.

I can tell you that a very significant meeting happened for me in 1974, after I was arrested for 15 days because President Nixon came, and when President Nixon comes, all the trouble-makers were arrested, and I was one of them. On the 3rd of July, 1974 I was released. On the 4th of July, my wife and I had our chuppah, and on the 5th of July, she left for Israel. So we hoped we would be apart for a few months, but it happened that we only met again twelve years later.

But the next day, on July 6, I come to the street in front of the synagogue, and there is a very tall gentleman with his wife and two children who is an American Jew named Jerry Stern, and he asked me whether I know some refuseniks. And I said, “not only I know some refuseniks, I am one of them. And by the way,” I said, “my wife yesterday left for Israel.”

That was the beginning of the bridge which the Jews from America and other countries built between me and my wife. Because Jerry Stern became so excited that two days later, when they left the Soviet Union and went to Israel, they met my wife, and they took the first pictures I got of her and got the first note. They sent me her first letter to me through an American Senator who happened to be coming to Moscow. And that’s how this bridge between me and my wife was built, and later hundreds and hundreds of American Jews were helping us to know about one another.

But of course it was not only about the personal. Through these tourists we were getting some very important literature. The book Exodus by Leon Uris was maybe one of the most powerful weapons that we had. I once wrote to one of my contacts, send us 100 Exoduses and we will have here a Zionist revolution. Because the influence of this book was unbelievable. Suddenly, one night, one family was reading this book and in the morning they were giving it to the other family. First of all, so as not to put yourself at risk by keeping this book longer than one night. But secondly, there was a long line of families that wanted to read it. Because this book helped us to realize that being a Jew is not only about ancient history. In fact, people almost our own age continue this history and you can be one of them.

If you had to imagine a small refusenik portable library, what other books would it have contained?

Well first of all, there was Alef Melim, which was a book to study Hebrew. There was Exodus. There was of course later bible with translation into Russian. Later there was Operation Entebbe, which was one of the most exciting stories encouraging us. And in fact when they came to arrest me, the picture of Yoni Netanyahu was on my wall, because that was like a reminder that the State of Israel will save us. There were many other books, of course.

When you think back now to your arrest and to the years you spent in solitary confinement in Siberia, and when you think of the campaign that your wife helped to lead and inspire, which do you think in the end was more important in the struggle of our Russian Jewish people for our freedom, what you did in the Soviet Union or what she did in the West?

Well, my role was very easy. I was sitting and waiting, and playing chess in my head. But Avital had to work very hard and to travel all over the world and to open the doors of every leader of the free world. And not only to open the doors, and not only to meet them, but then to make sure that he or she will not forget, and will not abandon our cause. So she was very tough with the leaders.

I was a child who grew up wearing a little bracelet with your name on it. I thought about you, I would imagine what it would be like to be you in that cell, and it connected me to my family members who were still in the Soviet Union. I saw Avital speak, but the person I thought about was you, not her.

But the older I get, I have more and more admiration for her. What you did, I can understand as stubbornness, fuck you, I refuse to give in. I can feel that easily, even if I am not as strong or as brave as you are. What she did had a different source and a different kind of power. She fired the minds of first hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people around the world with a cause, of which you were a symbol. How do you understand what she did, and where it came from?

Well, first of all, I don’t try to understand my wife. It’s enough that I love her. Second, there is no doubt that her spirituality and the fact that in Israel she very quickly met people who helped her to become religious, to be not only part of our physical history but part of our spiritual life, helped her a lot.

She felt very strongly that she not only was fighting for her husband but she was doing something very important to make sure that Tachnit Alokit, the divine design will be implemented in the world. And I think that gave a lot of power to her words, and it gave her a lot of self-confidence.

Because in daily life, she is an extremely shy person who is afraid to raise her voice. And she had to lead demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, to threaten to Soviet leaders with the most awful plans, and to demand from Reagan, Mitterand, from everybody, to release Soviet Jews.

And when you were sitting in Siberia and elsewhere, how aware were you of what she was doing and what others were doing?

I knew very, very little. In 9 years, I had 2 meetings with my family so I could get some information. Sometimes, you meet a person who was arrested after you, so from him you can find out what happened 2 or 3 years earlier, because you met him a few years after he was arrested.

Surprisingly, the third source of important information was Soviet newspapers. If you are not in a punishment cell, you could read the official Soviet newspapers, Pravda, Izvestia. And sometimes, you can find that, for example, they condemn provocations of Western propaganda for a provocative meeting of the adventurist who calls herself the “wife” of a Soviet spy, who met with the American Secretary of State. That was a very nice way of informing me what was happening.

But in general, of course, I knew practically nothing and they did their best to convince me that I am alone, that everybody abandoned me. After all, who is supporting you, just a bunch of students and housewives, and even they are already scared. That’s what they were saying to me. And I knew very well that they were lying. I was absolutely sure. I already knew the power of Jewish solidarity for the 2 or 3 years of working as a middle-man between our movement and American Jewry, journalists, diplomats, different organizations I was in contact with. I was absolutely sure that Jews of the world were fighting for our release. And I was also very absolutely sure that my wife would not let anybody sit quietly.

You also served as the translator and middleman for Helsinki Watch and for Dr. Andrei Sakharov. How did he understand this idea of a Jewish people and the movement of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.

Andrei Sakharov was a person who deeply sympathized with the desire of other people to be free. He himself made the journey from loyal Soviet scientist to dissident in order to be able to express freely his views. He loved to see people free. That’s first.

Second, Sakharov personally had a lot of sympathy for Jewish people. Many of his colleagues were Jewish, and his wife was partially Jewish. But also I think he felt a lot of sympathy towards the history of the Jewish people. And so he believed, and here he was, he differed from some other dissidents like Solzhenitsyn.

Sakharov believed that the struggle of Jews for freedom of immigration was a very important step towards freedom in Russia in general, while Solzhenitsyn was saying, it is a narrow Jewish interest, this freedom of immigration. Why should we be supporting the efforts of the free world to put everything on this issue? We have our own problems. After all, the Russian people are deprived of freedom, we have to work for a change in the regime.

Sakharov agreed that it was important to change the regime. But he was saying, “the moment there will be freedom of immigration, everything will change. Because one of the main tools of keeping people in fear is that Soviet Union is like a big prison, and people don’t dare even to think about leaving it. The result is that they depend fully on the authorities. The moment Jews will help us to open the gates, all of life will change.” And he was right. So he was extremely sympathetic, and extremely supportive.

And I can tell you that practically each time when we Jews wanted some support from Andrei Sakharov, he gave it—that he will write a letter which I will send to American Congress, or if there was a trial, that he will personally come and stand in front of the doors of the court in order to draw the attention of the world press. So he was ready to work as an activist of our movement, although of course his interests were much broader.

Talk about the impact made by Sen. Henry Jackson and other members of the U.S. Congress who were determined to link the moral authority and the practical power of the legislative branch of the American government to tie trade and other benefits with Russia directly to increased freedoms including, especially, the freedom of Jews to emigrate?

Well I’ve asked, “Who are the people responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union?” And of course I believe that our movement played a very important role. But if you are speaking about specific names, I will speak about Andrei Sakharov, about Senator Jackson, and about President Reagan. The contribution of Senator Jackson was in the fact that he was the first who made the direct linkage between freedom of emigration and very important economic interest of the Soviet Union. And he did so against all the political thought in the United States of America and in the free world.

Many of those people were saying, “It is our interest to have more trade with the Soviet Union, and when there is more trade there is less war.” And we, Soviet Jews, knew that our only hope to be released was that the interests of the Soviet Union, economic and otherwise, would be so closely linked to our fate that the Soviet Union would have no choice.

Sen. Jackson was the first to understand the power of this linkage, and he proposed the famous Jackson–Vanick Amendment. American [conventional wisdom] was against it, the Soviet Union, was of course against it, but in the end, this amendment passed, and then this idea of linking the question of human rights with the national relations of the Soviet Union with other countries prevailed. The Helsinki Agreement was the next step. I believe that that in the end was the most important factor that altered our struggle.

It’s true that in my court sentence, the long text of my sentence in which I was accused of high treason, there were many accomplices mentioned: American tourists with whom I met, American journalists to whom I gave interviews, the leaders of Jewish organizations, they were all my accomplices. But the accomplice whose name was mentioned more than the others was Senator Jackson, because they realized what a historical role this Amendment plays. Every press conference, every meeting with senators, with congressmen that I organized, where support was expressed for this amendment, was put forth as evidence of high treason.

The Jackson–Vanick Amendment split the American-Jewish community and President Nixon put great pressure on American Jewish leaders to oppose it. Do you remember ever meeting with American Jews who would ask you how you felt about it?

As one who was very actively involved in this connection, I was meeting practically every day with American Jews who were coming, at the request of different organizations, and sometimes you had to send the same letter twice because these organizations in New York which are on the same street will never share information between themselves. It was after all a Jewish movement. Jewish were all also fighting with one another, as we were fighting with one another in Moscow. So it was a normal solidarity struggle, where everybody disagrees with everybody, but all together are working for one cause.

And practically, in 73, 74, maybe in 75, the question number 1 was, “Do you feel that we should support the Jackson Amendment?” Doesn’t matter whether these people were for or against, but it was very important to hear our voice. And we were very strongly in support and we were condemning Nixon, condemning Kissinger, condemning Brezhnev, of course, and we were praising Senator Jackson and we were praising Sakharov for supporting this. So that was a struggle.

These people, who were wearing their American clothes, they had their American ideas about the world, and they were probably frightened. What did they feel like to you? How did they feel different from you, and how did they feel similar? You must have developed a good understanding of their psychology.

First of all, I believe that those American Jews and Jews from other countries were coming to us, they were going through the same transformation as we did. They were discovering their Jewish identity. Of course, they were not as assimilated as I was, they did have their bar mitzvahs and brit mila, and they knew what is pesach. And we just now had discovered all those things. But this unique opportunity which they got to be involved actively in advancing Jewish history, in fighting to help their brothers, it was to them also a very important connection that they were building between their own pasts, the past of their fathers and grandfathers who left Russia, who left Europe, who were escaping pogroms. And their mutual future and our mutual future was in Israel, whether they were going to Israel or not, but it was clear that’s something that unites us.

And also there was practically everybody was repeating that in the times of Holocaust, American Jewry missed it, and we will never permit it to happen again. So they were really feeling that they had a very important role in Jewish history. And so when we were thanking them for giving us support, some of them were saying, no it’s we who have to thank you because you reminded us of our own Jewishness, and what it means to us. You turned our identity into something really meaningful to us. So I think it was really a mutual process of discovery that both sides were discovering the other part of our people, and as a result we were discovering that we are one people.

On the other hand, of course all these American Jews seemed like very, very naive people who understood nothing, even when they invested so much time helping us. I remember one funny case, they are coming to the synagogue, they hear all the stories of refuseniks, and there was one refusenik who was explaining that the authorities won’t let him leave because formally he didn’t have permission from his parents. That was a way not to let people go: Even if you were 70 years old, you have to get permission from your parent who was 90 years old, and without it you cannot leave, which was an attempt to make people feel responsible for one another and to threaten your parents, and so on. So he explains that he cannot leave because his parents are not giving him permission. And this American, who just got instructions, and brought information, and is ready to take risks, and to take information back, he says, “You know, I think you can go without permission. Nobody in the West will condemn you for going without permission, I can assure you. Go without permission of your parents.” So that was a good reminder that with all this desire to help, they really don’t understand the situation in which you live.

You are now the head of the Jewish Agency, which for a while was not very enthusiastic about the idea of supporting any kind of mass immigration of Soviet Jews, because Israel, then—as now—was worried about its relationship with Moscow. How did you feel, thinking back to the early 1970s, about the role of the Israeli state?

I think it’s absolutely wrong to say at any stage that the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, were not enthusiastic about massive aliyah. They were always enthusiastic and they always wanted it. On the other hand, yes, Israeli leaders, and Israeli establishment, were afraid to irritate the Soviet Union, and were afraid of public pressure coming from Israel. Sometimes when I was one of those activists who were going on demonstrations, irritating and infuriating Soviet authorities, the message was coming, “don’t do it, we want quiet diplomacy.” So it’s not that they didn’t want aliyah, but they somehow naively hoped that maybe we will succeed to do it through quiet diplomacy.

And the other major conflict between some of us and the Israeli government was that when some Jews started using this channel, going to Israel through Vienna, they were changing their way and going to America. Israeli authorities were infuriated. They really believed that it’s very unfair. “We are working so hard to bring these Jews to Israel, and they are deceiving us, they are getting an invitation from Israel and then go to America.”

And then there was attempt to use us to convince American Jews to close this gate, to close HIAS, so that everybody has to go to Israel. I was one of those refuseniks who sent a letter saying that we are Zionists, we really want to be in Israel, but we don’t believe it is a function of Israel as a state to close any doors for Soviet Jews. You should do everything to attract every Jew in the world, but we should not work to close any doors. That was my position then, and that is my position today when I am the head of Jewish Agency. I do our best to help every Jew and to attract every Jew to come to Israel, but I believe it is the personal decision of each and every one. We have to work to strengthen Jewish identity of every Jew, those who are coming to Israel and those who choose not to come.

Talk about how strange religion felt at first, to you and to many Soviet Jews. I know that Yosef Mandelevich, your wife Avital, and other some refuseniks did in fact become quite religious. However, thinking back to my own Soviet family, I remember that religion was primitive superstition, it was not scientific, it was a product of a different period of human historical development, and most of all it was just an empty category of experience. What did that encounter feel like?

I would say that hostility toward religion is something that I found only in Israel, when I discovered that there is a big split between the secular world and religious world. In the years of our activism, though I was a secular Jew, I was an assimilated Jew, we didn’t have any objection or resistance to religion because religion was the enemy of the Soviet Union, and we believed that all the ideology of the Soviet Union is inhuman. One of the first official lessons that Soviet school children were taught was the phrase of Marx, that religion was the opium of the masses, it’s poison. So we knew that is a good thing, because everything that the Soviet Union is against is a good thing.

It’s true that when we started reading the Bible, it was very difficult for us. For people who were very advanced, as we believed in physics and chemistry and mathematics, we understand that all this is myth, story, it cannot be real. But parallel to this, very quickly, you are reading about the history of your people, you want to be part of this history, and you discover your identity. So religious stories also become part of your identity, and you love it. And of course then when you’re in prison, that’s the best place to understand that there are things which you cannot explain by logic, and the fact that you are saying no to the KGB is not for some material reasons. The fact that you feel very strongly that your physical survival is not the highest value in your life means that there are different values, which are spiritual values. Prison is a good place to become close to religion.

Do you remember what you felt thirty years ago, in 1986, when you crossed the famous Glienicke bridge from East Germany to the West?

I crossed the bridge when the American ambassador to West Germany took me together with a representative of the German foreign ministry, and they said, “Now we will go slowly.” And so we started moving very slowly and then I see on the Western side, there are some crowds, journalists. I said, “Is my wife there?” He said, “No, she will wait for you in Frankfurt, we will take you to stay there.” And then I said, “And where is the border?” He said, “That big line on the side is the border.” So when we crossed the bridge, I jumped. I said, “That’s the freedom!”

And when I jumped, my pants, I had very big pants, which day before they gave me in Soviet prison. But they didn’t give me a belt, because I was still in prison, they gave me some rope, and the rope was broken. So I had to catch my pants at the last moment. So whenever I’m asked, “What was your first feelings when you entered the freedom? It was how not to lose your pants.”

There’s a story that you told me the last time we met, that I would like to end on today. You spoke well earlier about how the Soviet Jewry movement was a catalyst for Jewish self-discovery not only inside the Soviet Union but perhaps for just as many people who were living comfortable lives in the West. There’s nostalgia for this moment now.

Well, of course it was a great time. And a few years after I was released, when I was playing with my daughters in my yard, our neighbor, who made aliyah from America some years before, looked to me playing with my daughters and with a very nostalgic sigh she said, “Natan, it was such a great time when you were in prison. We all were going to demonstration, we had our dates, we had our twinned bar mitzvahs, we were all friends. Where did it all go?”

So I almost apologized to her for being out of prison, but I have no intention of going back. The Jewish people will have to find other reasons to love one another.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.