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Sharansky’s visit to Moscow filled with personal emotion

MOSCOW, Jan. 28 (JTA) — At the entrance to Moscow’s central synagogue, two men surrounded by dozens of cameras embraced one another. Lev Mishkin, a 74-year-old Moscow Jew, had come to the synagogue to greet the most famous former Soviet Jewish dissident who returned this week to Russia as a senior Israeli minister 11 years after his release from the gulag. Mishkin remembers when Natan Sharansky, then known as Anatoly, was a young activist in the underground Jewish movement in Moscow. “Sharansky suffered for us Soviet Jews. He was the first to raise his voice to defend our rights,” said Mishkin, his eyes full of tears. Sharansky, now Israel’s minister of industry and trade, came to Moscow for the first time since he was arrested by the KGB here in 1977. Apart from the trip’s official goal of improving trade between his adopted country and his native land, the visit was full of deep personal emotions for the man who started his struggle for human rights and freedom of emigration in 1973 and today can see the fruit of those efforts. Sharansky says he came to Russia wearing more than one hat — as a minister, as a Jewish activist and as a former dissident and defender of human rights. “I have come back to a country where I have spent many years of my life, whose language I know, whose culture I share,” said Sharansky, wearing a traditional Russian fur hat, upon his arrival here Monday. Sharansky came with his wife, Avital, and mother, Ida Milgrom. Both women led an intense international campaign to win his release from Soviet imprisonment. He was swapped for several Soviet spies in a 1986 prisoner exchange with the West. Unlike many of his fellow dissidents who eventually left Russia and then paid visits to their native country shortly after the fall of communism, Sharansky waited until he was given a chance to return to Moscow as a high-ranking Israeli official. But there was an occasion, back in 1989, when Sharansky did want to return, after the death of his friend, Andrei Sakharov, the leader of the Soviet dissident movement and Nobel laureate. “Then I was denied permission to come for [Sakharov’s] funeral because I was still considered a spy in the Soviet Union,” Sharansky said. Sharansky was sentenced in 1977 to 13 years in jail on charges of treason and espionage for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He was fully exonerated by the Russian authorities only five years ago. On his first day in Russia, Sharansky visited his father’s grave, which he said he had never seen before because his father died when he was in prison. Sharansky appeared happy to be in the city of his youth, to see the changes that had occurred in Russia since he immigrated to Israel after his release. “The same streets, the same snow, but when you talk to people, you can see that these are different people, people without that fear, without self-censorship, as it used to be years ago,” Sharansky said. Today people even “smile differently” on the streets of the Russian capital, he added. Accompanied by his wife, Sharansky visited sites in the Russian capital associated with his Jewish and human rights activities in the 1970s. Avital herself had not visited Russia since she was granted permission 23 years ago to leave for Israel without her husband. On Tuesday, the Sharanskys paid homage at Sakharov’s grave and visited the Sakharov museum, which is devoted to human rights activities in the Soviet Union, including those of Sharansky himself. It was Sakharov’s personal example that led Sharansky and a number of intellectuals of his generation to join the ranks of human rights activists. Sakharov, also known as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, showed that “even in the most difficult situation you can live in accordance with your consciousness, you can say things you believe in, you can display solidarity with those who suffer,” Sharansky said.
During his four-day visit, Sharansky was scheduled to meet with the Jewish community and to visit the former KGB Lefortovo prison where he spent what he describes as “some of the most interesting days” in his life before being shipped to a northern labor camp. He said he also wanted to visit that camp in the Ural Mountains but was denied permission because of some “technical difficulty.”
Meanwhile, accompanied by dozens of reporters, Sharansky led a bus tour of 1970s dissident Moscow. The sites passed by included the U.S. Embassy, Pushkin Square, where the first demonstration of Soviet Jews took place in 1973, and the Central Telegraph building where the dissidents practiced silent indoor demonstrations. The bus also passed the infamous KGB building on Lubyanka Square, where many dissidents had been interrogated, and the former office building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to which Sharansky and his colleagues had brought human rights petitions. And most importantly — the Choral Synagogue that served as a magnet for all Jewish activities during the Soviet era. It was outside the synagogue where Sharansky first met his future wife, Avital, about 25 years ago. The retired Moscow Jew who came to the synagogue Tuesday for the purpose of seeing Sharansky was alone in his recognition of the former dissident. “The younger generation doesn’t know who Sharansky was,” Mishkin said. “And those who knew, had already left the country.” Teen-agers at a Moscow Jewish day school proved that Mishkin was right. “I hadn’t heard [Sharansky’s] name until it was announced he would come to our school,” said Natasha, a 16-year-old high school student. Sharansky was scheduled to visit the school during his trip. The official part of the visit included meetings with a few members of the Russian Cabinet and the mayor of Moscow and participation in an Israeli-Russian seminar on economic cooperation.

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