“In the Soviet Union, the important thing was to overcome the fear.” That is what former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky told me over tea in a Jerusalem cafe.
In the totalitarian, atheist Soviet Union, Jewish identity was forcibly submerged. “The only Jewish thing that was in my life,” Sharansky says, “was anti-Semitism!” That was until 1967. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Sharansky says, changed the way the Soviets viewed Jews, and changed the way Soviet Jews viewed themselves. They were now, to friend and foe alike, part of something larger than themselves, connected to the Jewish state and to Jews the world over. With this knowledge, Soviet Jewish dissidents were no longer afraid and had the courage to confront the Evil Empire.
Sharansky has told this story many times before, but faced with the rising tide of anti-Semitic attacks and libels against Jews worldwide, I asked him about an often forgotten aspect of the crusade for human rights in the Soviet Union. There were many dissident groups with different goals, but the group that was best organized and had the most reliable contacts with the outside world were the Jewish “Refuseniks” (Soviet Jews who were denied the right to emigrate to Israel).
Sharansky, their spokesperson, was happy to help others. And that included many, many persecuted Christians.
Reports about the abuses suffered by Christians in the Soviet Union made their way through Sharansky’s network to the Western press and human rights groups. With each new revelation, demands on the Soviets to respect freedom of religion increased.
The importance of this channel wasn’t lost on Christians. “A group that I helped to establish their first contacts to reach the foreign press and to speak to the world were Pentecostals. I was very pleased later to find out that when I was arrested, there were tens of thousands of Pentecostals in Siberia who were fasting in solidarity with me.”
When the Soviets arrested Sharansky and sent him to the Gulag, his communist tormentors thought they might break him by placing him in a cell with a Christian activist. A religious Jew and a religious Christian would surely tear each other apart, they thought. But it did not turn out that way.
“You discover in prison [that] you can never know who is an informer and who is not. (That’s what you discover in general in Soviet life.) But what you discover is that with people with strong identities, there is less chance that they will be informers. Because, exactly as you have other values than physical survival — you have your identity you want to be a part of — they also have their own identities.” Strong identities give people values worth fighting for. “And that’s why if he was [an] activist, like Pentecostal or Christian activist, you knew that the chance that he [was] KGB [was] much less.”
Sharansky’s closest friend in the Gulag was a Christian activist named Vladimir Poresh. “I describe in this book,” he says, pointing to my copy of his 1988 memoir Fear No Evil, “ecumenical readings of the Bible, which we called ‘Reagan’s readings.’ Because in 1983 it was in the Soviet press that Reagan called it the ‘Year of the Bible.'”
I recalled that in Fear No Evil, he describes going on a hunger strike so his friend can get back his Christian Bible. “Oh yeah! It was a very long hunger strike!” he said. When I expressed my amazement at this, he said that the fact that they were of different faiths was not an issue. “It was all about our rights to be free people and live in accordance with our conscience. And then you feel at this critical moment that, after all, we all have one God.”
The Soviet Union was a regime that depended on fear and control. When people found the courage to speak out, control would slip a little more, and more people would then find their courage. It was a death spiral, and the strain became too much for the regime to bear.
Here in the United States, the land of the free, Jews should not have to live in fear of being attacked. Christians must stand with them. The bonds of brotherhood between Jews and Gentiles should not require the Gulag to bring to the surface.