Despite the momentous changes within the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian government is still distinctly ambivalent about Natan Sharansky, one of its most nettlesome dissidents: In September of last year, it permitted the display of Sharansky's 1988 memoir, "Fear No Evil," at the Seventh Moscow Book Fair; in December, it denied him a visa to travel from his home in Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Andrei Sakharov.
Well before a worldwide human-rights campaign freed him, Sharansky's ordeal in Soviet captivity struck me as something eerily similar to what I had read and seen decades ago in "The Fixer," Bernard Malamud's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on the case of Menahem Mendel Beilis, and the subsequent movie of the same name.
Beilis, called Yakov Bok in the Malamud novel, was charged with the "blood libel"--killing a Christian boy to use his blood to make Passover matzo--in Czarist Kiev in 1911. Before the brickyard superintendent was acquitted, his two years of pre-trial confinement split the Russian intelligentsia and drew protests from Jews around the world, much like the case of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus in France. Sharansky, initially an English translator and go-between for better-known Moscow dissidents needing to contact Western correspondents, was charged and convicted of anti-Soviet slander and treason, serving nine years in prisons and labor camps before his release in 1986.
Rereading Malamud's novel (which also won the National Book Award) together with "Fear No Evil" (Vintage: $10.95, to be released next month in paperback), the resonance of recollection is reinforced. Like Malamud's hero, Sharansky grew up in the Ukraine fearful of pogroms, ultimately spending more than a year in pre-trial detention while in his 30s, facing the death penalty on trumped-up charges. Like Malamud's skinny handyman, the little computer programmer carried papers identifying him as a Jew but was not particularly observant before his arrest. Clearly, both the real and the fictional hero were caught up by the forces of history, imprisoned by successive orthodoxies and forged in the furnace of Russian captivity. On the office wall of Bok's interrogator was an icon and a portrait of Czar Nicholas II; on Sharansky's, a hammer-and-sickle and Brezhnev.
There are differences. Bok was largely unlettered and a total innocent, while Sharansky was a well-educated intellectual and conscious participant in the Jewish emigration movement. Nevertheless, there are striking similarities in the way Malamud imagined Bok's interrogation in a 19th-Century prison fortress in Kiev and what Sharansky actually experienced in Moscow--and even more in the manner in which the two resisted: What Malamud imagined, Sharansky actually did.
"During the long months of interrogation and isolation before my trial," Sharansky writes in his memoir, "and for all the years that followed, my captors were determined to break me, to make me confess to crimes I had never committed, and then to parade me before the world." Yakov Bok also refuses, asking the beefy secret police colonel offering him freedom, "Confessing what, your honor, if as I told you I didn't do it? I can confess to you some things but I can't confess this crime."
In addition to a defiance born of desperation, each parries his interrogator with humor and irony, pointing out the "Jewish" noses of anti-Semitic secret-police officers. Both men fast to protest the refusal of prison authorities to send letters out; both endure humiliating strip searches several times a day, along with several stretches in damp, solitary punishment cells. Both sniff out Jewish criminals placed in their cells to act as informers. The meager meals described are almost identical, as is the sound of ancient metal door bolts being thrown and the sight of a guard's eye in the peephole.
Their stubborn, hardheaded resistance does not endear them to their captors, who insist that their situations are "hopeless" and remind them that they face possible execution. An exasperated prosecutor tells Bok, "I'll keep you in prison till the flesh rots off your bones piece by piece." A KBG colonel tells Sharansky, "You continue playing the hero. . . . But we don't let heroes out of Lefortovo (prison) alive."
As with Sharansky, the role of world opinion was a critical factor in freeing Beilis. A character in "The Fixer" tells his cellmate Bok: "They say when a Jewish rooster crows in Pinsk they hear him in Palestine." Like Sharansky, the real Beilis emigrated to Israel after his release from prison, eventually settling in the United States, where he wrote a book, "Story of My Suffering."
While reporting on the 1988 American Booksellers' Assn. convention in Anaheim, I asked Sharansky, appearing at a press conference to promote his memoir, whether he felt there were any similarities between his case and that of Beilis. Sharansky said he was not familiar with Malamud's novel, but he was well aware of the case itself.
"Definitely there are parallels," he replied, "but there are also differences."
When the Beilis case took place, he said, "the Russian intelligentsia . . . organized public hearings on this case, public defense . . . Russian society was always split between (the) judge and officials . . . supporting these accusations that he was using Christian blood for matzo, and those who were against it. . . . At the end, at the open trial with the judge and (jury), he was admitted to be not guilty, and he was released. That's the principal difference between Russian (society, which was) definitely non-democratic, a very closed system where, nevertheless, you could have some kind of opposition press, where people were not afraid to express their disagreement and where the trial could bring justice; and the Soviet Union, where not one dissident in the history of the Soviet Union was brought to (open) trial, or ever declared not guilty. . . . Why? The trial is simply an additional function of the government. Everything is."
In addition, Sharansky said, in his case the Russian public "behaved differently, at least the intelligentsia. Here, when Sakharov was raising his voice, first of all, he was never given (an) official tribunal to speak, and second, he finally was arrested."
And the similarities?
"Yes, really there are some patterns of thinking which were inherited by the Soviet powers from the Russians. Anti-Semitism is definitely one of them. Why just me was accused . . . of having some kind of international plot against the Soviet Union? Why the Zionist movement? Why Kremlin doctors in the '50s were accused (of fomenting a) Zionist plot against the Soviet Union? Because it's something you don't have to explain to the people; it's something understood very easily and very naturally. So, that's definitely traditional--and some of this . . . type of mentality that government knows best . . . some of that is inherited. But nevertheless, Soviet power contributed lots to making it much more closed, much more authoritarian . . . and, of course creating the Gulag."
In this country, we tend to blame many of the evils of the modern Soviet system--anti-Semitism, imperialism, bureaucracy, obsessive secrecy, internal exile, Great Russian chauvinism--on the Communist system. In fact, as the Beilis case reminds us, all of these characteristics were ingrained and entrenched in the Russian body politic well before the Bolshevik revolution. And while the Communist Party can be fairly faulted for not uprooting and eradicating the the evils, it cannot be charged with originating them.
The anti-Semitic utterings and publications recently unleashed by glasnost are only the latest proof, and Sharansky recently announced a multimillion-dollar program to resettle Russian Jews in Israel. In a telephone interview from Jerusalem last month, Sharansky predicted that ultimately all those Jews who identify themselves as Jews will leave the Soviet Union, as Russians unable to accept the failure of Communism seek "traditional scapegoats," including numerous Bolshevik revolutionaries with Jewish names.
"I believe the historical perspective is that the end of Communism in the Soviet Union (will bring) not only the rise of a new anti-Semitism but also the end of the Russian chapter in Jewish history."
At the close of "The Fixer," Yakov Bok offers the lesson of his own experience:
"One thing I've learned, he thought, there's no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can't be one without the other, that's clear enough. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed. Afterwards he thought: Where there's no fight for it there's no freedom. . . . If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature, it's the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!"