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Sharansky on Navalny: Lessons from a dissident

By Nora Berman, The Forward

The KGB, referred to throughout, is now known as the FSB.

Alexei Navalny, left; and Natan Sharansky, right (Wikimedia Commons)

Alexei Navalny, left; and Natan Sharansky, right (Wikimedia Commons)

Natan Sharansky — the Russian-Israeli refusenik, author and human rights activist who was imprisoned by the former Soviet Union from 1977 to 1986 — is what you might think of as an elder statesman of the gulag.

He withstood deprivation, torture and 400 days in solitary confinement, including a 110 day-long hunger strike.

Upon his release, he made aliyah and has had a long career as an Israeli politician and human rights activist — including as an ally to Russians standing up to the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir Putin, foremost among them Alexei Navalny, who died in prison at 47 last month on Feb. 16.

Navalny, a legendary political opponent of Putin, corresponded with Sharansky during his final imprisonment, which began in January, 2021, on his return to Russia after surviving an attempted poisoning.

Having been given a Russian-language copy of Sharansky’s 1988 memoir, Fear No Evil, which he read in prison, Navalny, who spent nearly 300 days in solitary confinement during his last prison term, wrote to the former refusenik to express his admiration and gratitude.

A total of four letters written between March and April, 2023 were exchanged between the two legendary dissidents, which The Free Press published after Navalny’s death.

I spoke to Sharansky, now 76, about their relationship; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me what it was like to receive that first letter from Alexei Navalny?

It was really shocking. I followed Navalny’s struggle with Putin very closely, especially when he was poisoned. He turned his investigation of his poisoning into a work of art. I really was very impressed.

When he decided to go back to Russia, I got very irritating questions from journalists. There was a clear division: those who thought he was crazy, and those who thought that he was stupid. I felt that without knowing him, I knew he was in the middle of the struggle. The message that he was giving all these years to his people was: “Don’t be afraid.”

And then three years later, I suddenly get a letter which comes through his lawyers. As I write to Navalny, he was the voice from my alma mater from 50 years ago. From the very first words that he wrote, I felt that we are like kindred spirits.

And the fact that he is writing it, because he read just now in prison, my book — it was really very meaningful. As he wrote, life repeats itself.

It was clear he was really being pressed by punishment. I think that Putin always had this idea that he has to kill him, so they tried to kill him through punishing him. And so all his spirit at this moment, all his fighting spirit, I felt it very, very strongly in his letters.

After two letters, it became even more difficult to contact him, and then his lawyers started having problems, and now I think his lawyers are in prison themselves.

In your second letter to Navalny, you wrote that he was “paying for your freedom with health, with worries for your family and eventually with your life.” Did you expect him to die in prison?

I hoped that he would survive.

In my case, when I had a long hunger strike for 110 days, I was very close to death. But then, it was clear they didn’t want to kill me because of the impression it would give to the world. Today, the ways to press Putin are much more limited, because he burnt already most of his bridges with the free world.

When he expressed his view that “reading your book makes me optimistic,” it was clear that it’s not optimism about his own survival. His optimism was about the results of the struggle. So I think he remained optimistic to the last moment, but not about his own life. He definitely understood that the moment your only aim is to survive, then you’re finished. You’re not fighting anymore.

Have you been in touch with his wife or family at all?

I sent her a letter and told her that whatever I can do to help with the struggle, I will.

You mentioned in your letters corresponding with another dissident, Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was arrested in 2022 for speaking out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How does it feel to be sort of this elder statesman of the gulag?

You feel very old. On the other hand, the struggle continues.

Communicating with them is bringing me back to this fighting spirit of the youth. Volodya Kara-Murza is not like Navalny, because I knew him for many years. He was also poisoned twice and went back to Russia and was arrested. Now we are concerned also about his fate. His health is very weak, not like Navalny, who was very strong physically.

Putin is probably relaxed if he sees he can kill his opponents and the world is, more or less, accepting it. So yes, Volodya Kara-Murza and other political prisoners are in big danger.

Your letters with Navalny felt so profoundly Jewish, but Navalny was not Jewish. When he wrote “L’shana ha’ba b’Yerushalayim” were you surprised?

He had just read it in my book. I think the pages where I say, “next year in Jerusalem,” they’re very sentimental. He told me, “I am simply rewriting from your book now.”

This prophetic feeling of living inside history is, of course, very Jewish, but it was always the feeling of Russian intelligentsia or the best Russian fighters. When you go “through the valley of death and fear no evil,” it’s very Jewish, and that’s exactly the thing with which they live.

You told Alexei that he was a dissident with a style. Can you say a little more about that?

He definitely did more to unmask the real face of Russia and the corruption of Putin and his people than anybody else. But he did it also in such a spectacular way. The way he forced the officer who was responsible for his poisoning to say it publicly in front of all the world without realizing that he was doing it . . . it was genius.

It was an unbelievable performance, but it was in the real world! That’s why I say that he was the dissident with style: the way how he dealt with KGB always with humor, with a sneer. That’s exactly what I was trying to do, but I couldn’t compete with him in this. I think it’s something very surgical, how he was fighting with the KGB.

What do you think comes next for Russians who are mourning Navalny right now? Do you think his death could be a rallying cry for a new movement?

There will be more people who will, as a result of the personal example of Navalny and the actions of this awful criminal regime, be crossing the line between doublethink into dissent, I’m sure. It also depends on the regime itself becoming weaker and weaker, because of the war in Ukraine, because of other things. I hope so.

How would you like to see Navalny’s legacy honored?

His legacy is not to be afraid. And his courage is next to nobody that I know. He is the most courageous person. And at the same time, it’s to be a free person. So to live as a free person without fear. It’s not: “Wait until Putin will be overthrown, and then you’ll become free.” Be free now, and Putin’s energy will be destroyed. That’s Navalny’s heritage. Navalny was one of the most free, if not the freest person in Russia.
And I hope that many people will now live with it.

Nora Berman is deputy opinion editor of the Forward, where this interview originally appeared.

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