MOSCOW (Jan. 27)
Former Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky returned to Moscow this week, two decades after he was arrested here by the KGB for his underground Zionist and human rights activities. “I’m glad to be back in Moscow, the city which I was forced to leave 20 years ago,” Sharansky said during a meeting Monday with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Prior to his arrest in 1977, Sharansky lived in downtown Moscow very close to the Moscow mayor’s office.
On Monday, he was received by the mayor as Israel’s minister of industry and trade.
Accompanied by a delegation of Israeli businesspeople and industrialists, Sharansky was scheduled to meet this week with senior Russian officials for talks focusing on developing Israeli-Russian economic ties.
But for Sharansky, 47, the visit also has a very strong personal meaning.
In 1978, Sharansky was found guilty on charges of treason and espionage and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Eight years later, as a result of an international campaign for his release, he was freed from a jail in northern Russian as part of a much-publicized East-West prisoner swap.
He has not been to Russia since February 1986 — the day of his release.
After arriving soon after in Israel, he changed his first name from Anatoly to Natan.
He became a minister in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his immigrant-rights party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, won seven seats in the Knesset in last May’s elections.
“I started my first day [in Russia] by seeing my father’s grave, which I have never seen before,” said Sharansky, whose father died when he was in prison.
“I’m surprised that after so many years I can recognize many things” in Moscow, he said. “But when I see the people, I realize that this is a different country.”
Sharansky’s visit was also slated to include meetings with members of the Jewish community and visits to Jewish institutions.
He was also to meet with a few friends with whom he was active during the 1970s underground Jewish movement.
“Most of them are no longer in Russia, but a few are still here,” Sharansky said.
One of these friends is Mikhail Chlenov, a former underground Hebrew teacher who later became president of the Va’ad, the first Jewish umbrella organization in the Soviet Union.
In 1973, he was Sharansky’s first Hebrew instructor.
According to Chlenov, the current visit is important for Russian Jews because it will give them the opportunity to learn who Sharansky and other Jewish activists were during the Soviet era.
“Today, they still know very little about the underground movement of Soviet Jews back in the 1970s,” said Chlenov.
“Many non-Jews might also be proud to see how their former fellow countryman is received by high-ranking [Russian] officials,” he added.
During Monday’s meeting with Luzhkov, Sharansky secured a promise from the mayor to help the Steinsaltz Yeshiva find a new home in the Russian capital.
The yeshiva founded by Israeli Talmud scholar and translator Adin Steinsaltz, was destroyed last August by what was believed to have been an electrical fire.
Luzhkov promised to help the yeshiva, saying that he respected Steinsaltz as an outstanding scholar.