Natan Sharansky

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Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky.jpg
Date of birth January 20 1948 (1948-01-20) (age 76)
Place of birth Donetsk, Soviet Union
Year of Aliyah 1986
Knesset(s) 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th (current)
Party Likud
Former parties Yisrael BaAliyah
Gov't roles
(current in bold)
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister of Industry and Trade
Minister of Internal Affairs
Minister of Housing & Construction
Minister of Jerusalem Affairs

Natan Sharansky (Hebrew: נתן שרנסקי, Russian: Натан Щаранский, born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky Russian: Анатолий Борисович Щаранский) (January 20, 1948 - ) is a notable former Soviet dissident, human rights activist, former Prisoner of Zion, Israeli politician and author.

As a refusenik and dissident, he became a member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, under the leadership of noted Russian nuclear physicist, Andrei Sakharov. The group was organized in response to monitor Soviet compliance with the so-called Basket Three of the Helsinki Accords. Sakharov, Sharansky, and other prominent dissidents recognized that these accords could be used to legitimize their demands for human rights. Sharansky was imprisoned and ultimately expelled from the country, emigrating to Israel.

In Israel, Sharanksy has held many prominent positions both in and out of government. From March 2003 until May 2005, he was a Minister without portfolio in the Israeli government, responsible for Jerusalem, social and Jewish diaspora affairs. Previously he served as the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Minister of Housing and Construction since March 2001, Interior Minister of Israel (July 1999-resigned in July 2000), Minister of Industry and Trade (1996-1999). He resigned from the cabinet in April 2005 to protest plans to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. He was re-elected to the Knesset in March 2006 as a member of the Likud Party. On November 20, 2006, he resigned from the Knesset to form the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies.


Born in Donetsk, Soviet Union (now in Ukraine) to a Jewish family, he graduated with a degree in applied mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. As a child, he was a chess prodigy—something highly valued in the U.S.S.R. He performed in simultaneous and blindfold displays, usually against adults. When incarcerated in solitary confinement, he claims to have played chess against himself in his mind. Sharansky beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a "Simul" game that was held in Israel.


Sharansky was one of the founders of, and spokesmen for, the Jewish and refusenik movements in Moscow. Denied an exit visa to Israel on the grounds of national security in 1973, he became an activist in the human rights movement led by prominent physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, and became internationally known as the spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.

The Helsinki monitoring efforts began shortly after the publication of the Helsinki Final Act in Soviet newspapers. On May 12, 1976, physicist Yuri Orlov announced the formation of the "Public Group to Promote Fulfillment of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR" (Общественная группа содействия выполнению хельсинкских соглашений в СССР, Московская группа "Хельсинки") at a press-conference held at the apartment of Andrei Sakharov. The newly inaugurated NGO was meant to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. The eleven founders of the group also included Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Mikhail Bernshtam, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Pyotr Grigorenko, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Anatoly Marchenko, Gregory Rosenstein, Vitaly Rubin, in addition to Shcharansky.

The group's goal was to uphold the responsibility of the Soviet Union's government to implement the commitments on human rights made in the Helsinki documents. They based their group's legal viability on the provision in the Helsinki Final Act, Principle VII, which establishes the rights of individuals to know and act upon their rights and duties.

The Soviet authorities responded with severe repression of the group's members over the next three years. They used tactics that included arrests and imprisonment, internal exile, confinement to psychiatric hospitals, and forced emigration. On October 18, 1976, 13 Jewish refuseniks came to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet to petition for explanations of denials of their right to emigrate from the U.S.S.R., as affirmed under the Helsinki Final Act. Failing to receive any answer, they assembled in the reception room of the Presidium on the following day. After a few hours of waiting, they were seized by the agents of the militia, taken outside of the city limits and beaten. Two of them were kept in police custody. In the next week, following an unsuccessful meeting between the activists' leaders and the Soviet Minister of Internal Affairs, General Nikolay Shchelokov, these abuses of law inspired several mass demonstrations in the Soviet capital. On Monday, October 25, 22 activists, Sharansky included, were arrested in Moscow on their way to the next demonstration. They were convicted of hooliganism, a standard charge against those who protested any decision of the government, and incarcerated in the detention center Beryozka and other penitentiaries in and around Moscow.

In March 1977, he was arrested again, and in July 1978 convicted on charges of treason and spying for the United States, and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor. After 16 months of incarceration in Lefortovo prison, he was sent to Perm 35, a Siberian labor camp, where he served for nine years. The fate of Sharansky and other political prisoners in the USSR, repeatedly brought to international attention by Western human rights groups and diplomats, was a cause of embarrassment and irritation for the Soviet authorities. As a result of increasing pressure of a mounting international campaign led by his wife, Avital Sharansky, in 1986, he was released to East Germany and led across the Glienicke Bridge to West Berlin where he was exchanged for a pair of Soviet spies: Karl Koecher and his wife, Hana Koecher. Famed for his resistance in the Gulag, he was told upon his release to walk straight towards his freedom; Sharansky instead walked in a zigzag in a final act of defiance.

Emigration to Israel

Sharansky emigrated to Israel, adopting a Hebrew given name, Natan.

In 1988, Sharansky founded and became the first President of the Zionist Forum, an umbrella organization of Jewish activists from the former Soviet Union groups dedicated to helping new Israelis and educating the public about absorption issues. Sharansky also served as a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report and as a Board member of Peace Watch.

Sharansky was the chairman and founder (in 1995) of the political party Yisrael BaAliyah ("Israel for aliya," or a pun, "Israel on the rise") promoting the absorption of the Soviet Jews into Israeli society. With another ex-Soviet dissident, Yuli Edelstein, as a co-founder and a slogan stating that their political party is different—its leaders first go to prison and only then go into politics—the party won seven Knesset seats in 1996.[1]

From 2003 to 2005, Sharansky was a member of the Israeli cabinet (the second Ariel Sharon government). He resigned on May 2, 2005, in protest of the ruling Likud party's plan to withdraw Israeli communities from the contested Gaza Strip.

In 2005, Sharansky participated in "They Chose Freedom," a four-part television documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement.

He was number eleven on the list of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2005 in the "Scientists and thinkers" category.

On June 18, 2007, Sharansky became the Chairman of the Board of Beit Hatefutsot, the Jewish diaspora museum.[2]

Sharansky and Avital live in Jerusalem and have two married daughters, Rachel and Hannah. In the Soviet Union, his marriage application to Avital was denied by the authorities. In spite of this rejection, they were married in a Moscow synagogue in a ceremony not recognized by the government.


Sharansky has penned three books. The first is the autobiographical Fear No Evil, which dealt with his trial and imprisonment.

His second book, The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, co-written with Ron Dermer, became a "must read" on Embassy Row. It had a major influence on United States president, George W. Bush, and other government officials, who urged their subordinates to read the book:

If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy… For government, particularly—for opinion makers, I would put it on your recommended reading list. It's short and it's good. This guy is a heroic figure, as you know. It's a great book.[3][4]

In it, Sharansky argues that freedom is essential for security and prosperity, and every people and nation deserve to live free in a democratic society. Suggesting his "town square test," Sharansky argues that human rights, safety, and stability can only be assured by releasing people from their oppressors and turning them into free societies where each would have the freedom to express his or her opinion. Therefore, he concludes, the free world must insist of promoting democracy for oppressed people, instead of appeasing dictatorships and doing business with tyrant regimes,

I then explained why democracy was so crucial to international stability and security, why linkage had been so successful during the Cold War, and why the free world had betrayed its democratic principles at Oslo. I outlined my plan to help the Palestinians build a free society and help Israelis and Palestinians forge a lasting peace.[5]

Sharansky takes what many of his critics call a hardline position towards the Palestinians, arguing that there can never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians until the latter rid their society of terrorist groups like Hamas and of anti-Semitism. His critics see an incompatibility between his ardent Zionism and his commitment to the struggle for universal human rights and democracy.

In a recent Ha’aretz interview, he maintained the “Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state… but not at the expense of the state of Israel.”[6]

His third book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, is a defense of the value of national and religious identity in building democracy.[7]


Sharansky was a leading figure in both the Refusenik (Jewish) and dissident communities in the Soviet Union. Finally allowed to emigrate, he has become a leading politician and scholar in Israel, and one of the unofficial spokesmen for the over one million Russian Jews who took up residence in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


In 1986, Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2006 U.S. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On September 17, 2008, Sharansky was awarded the 2008 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, by former U.S. first lady Nancy Reagan.[8] Those present at the ceremony included U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Senator John McCain.[8]

See also

  • Refusenik (2008 film)
  • Natan Sharansky's views on the New anti-Semitism
  • Refusenik (Soviet Union)
  • Gulag


  1. Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, xxiii.
  2. YNet News, Sharansky new Beth Hatefutsoth head—Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  3. CNN, What the president reads. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  4. Weekly Standard, Honoring Democracy. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  5. American Daily, Sharansky’s Case For Democracy. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  6. Amcon Mag, Sharansky’s Double Standard. For the advocate of universal democracy, human rights don’t begin at home. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  7. Inkwell Review, Sharansky Interview regarding Defending Identity, July 14, 2008. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1 JTA, Sharansky gets Reagan award.] Retrieved February 25, 2009.

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External links

All links retrieved November 10, 2022.


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