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The Ordeal of Shcharansky

Anatoly Shcharansky, who changed his given name to Nathan when he arrived in Israel Tuesday night, told of the brutal punishments he endured during his nine years in the Soviet Gulag and spoke of his plans for the future, in his first television interview here Wednesday.

He said he expected his mother, Ida Milgrom, and his brother, Leonid, to join him in Israel “within a month.” “I am hoping for this. This was part of the deal” for the East-West prisoner exchange of which he was a part, Shcharansky said.

The 38-year-old, slightly built, balding mathematician, computer expert and cybernetics scientist proved deft in his responses to questions on matters that are fiercely controversial in Israel. Asked if he was “a religious man,” a matter that has intrigued Israelis because his wife, Avital Shcharansky, seated by his side, became Orthodox since she immigrated to Israel in 1974, the aliya activist gave no direct reply.

But in the course of the interview, he recalled that he was punished by 130 days in solitary confinement in his Soviet prison because he had gone on a hunger strike to protest the confiscation of a book of psalms.

RESERVES JUDGEMENT ON ‘ERETZ ISRAEL’ ISSUE

Asked his opinion of the “Eretz Israel” issue, the question of whether Israel should retain all of the Arab lands it conquered in the 1967 war or trade land for peace, Shcharansky said he reserved judgement because he still had much to learn about the subject; to which the TV anchorman interjected, “Don’t worry, you will.”

Shcharansky said he hoped to resume his profession in Israel — he was a computer and cybernetics technologist at the Moscow Research Institute before his dismissal in 1975 for applying for an exit visa — but he was concerned that his knowledge is outdated considering the rapid advances in those fields during his nine years incarceration.

“I think I will have problems, but these aren’t very difficult problems….But it is too early to make concrete plans,” Shcharansky said. Asked if he planned to enter politics in Israel, he replied, “I certainly won’t be a professional politician. But I think I have a duty to use my unique experience in order to help other people who….are still in Russia. We — Avital and I — must consider how to use our experience. Hers is even more unique than mine,” he said.

With respect to the ongoing controversy in Israel and world Jewry over tactics in the struggle for Soviet Jews — activism versus quiet diplomacy, Shcharansky said in effect that he favored a two-track approach.

In the early 1970’s, he recalled, he and other Moscow activists opposed the quiet diplomacy approach of President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “But on the other hand, pressures without diplomacy are also ineffective,” he said.

On the subject of his health, Shcharansky said: “I had some very bad periods…problems with my heart and my eyes. This was the result of their holding me in solitary confinement for more than 400 days in all… Today I told a doctor here about conditions in solitary and he was frankly stunned and asked how it was possible to survive such conditions.”

Shcharansky noted that under Soviet penal law, 15 days was the longest time allowed to keep a prisoner in solitary confinement. But his warders ignored the law. “For instance, when they took away this little book of psalms, claiming I was not allowed to have religious books, I began a hunger strike. And (as punishment) for that they put me in solitary for 130 days. After 92 days I collapsed.”

Recalling his years in prison and labor camps, Shcharansky said, “Many times in my dreams I would see how I arrive in our land and how Avital greets me. Each time it ended the same way: I woke up. Now, too, though this dream is lasting for three whole days, since they took me from the KGB prison in Moscow, I am afraid to wake up.” (See related Shcharansky story. P. 3.)

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