Street smart

Natan Sharansky spent nine years in the Soviet gulag. He is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

Once again, the world is amazed. As with the seemingly sudden appearance of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, or the gaudy, grand-scale collapse of the Soviet empire at the end of that decade, the massive revolt of Iranian citizens has elicited the unmitigated surprise of the free world’s army of experts, pundits and commentators. Who would have known? Who could have predicted this eruption of protest in a system so highly repressed, where a generally quiescent populace lives under such a deeply entrenched revolutionary regime?

And yet, just as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, there were those in Iran who did know all along, who foresaw and even foretold today’s events. These were Iran’s democratic dissidents, some at home, some in exile, some having served long sentences in Iranian prisons or on their way to those prisons right now.

At various Western conferences and forums in recent years, some of these dissidents even succeeded in gaining the ear of leaders of the free world. They were greeted with sincere expressions of sympathy and support -- but also with silent skepticism. Surely their assessments of the Iranian situation were unreliable at best. Heroic they undoubtedly were, but objective? After all, they lacked access to classified information, to satellite photography and the other tools of modern intelligence-gathering. They could not see the whole picture.

Now it turns out that, like their predecessors in the Soviet Union, they were right.

How is it that dissidents rotting in the gulag were able to predict, many years earlier, not only when but how the Soviet Union would collapse -- something that escaped all the world’s scholars and intelligence agencies alike? Andrei Amalrik’s book, “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?,” published underground in 1969, is only one of many examples of such predictions. How did the experts miss it? The reason is simple.


Every totalitarian society consists of three groups: true believers, double-thinkers and dissidents. In every totalitarian regime, no matter its cultural or geographical circumstances, the majority undergo a conversion over time from true belief in the revolutionary message into double-thinking. They no longer believe in the regime but are too scared to say so. Then there are the dissidents -- pioneers who dare to cross the line between double-thinking and everything that lies on the other side. In doing so, they first internalize, then articulate and finally act on the innermost feelings of the nation.

People in free societies watching massive military parades or vociferous displays of love for the leaders of totalitarian regimes often conclude, “Well, that’s their mentality; there’s nothing we can do about it.” Thus they and their leaders miss what is readily grasped by local dissidents attuned to what is happening on the ground: the spectacle of a nation of double-thinkers slowly or rapidly approaching a condition of open dissent.

To see the telltale signs, sometimes it helps to have experienced totalitarianism firsthand. More than once in recent years, former Soviet citizens returning from a visit to Iran have told me how much Iranian society reminded them of the final stages of Soviet communism. Their testimony was what persuaded me to write almost five years ago that Iran was extraordinary for the speed with which, in the span of a single generation, a citizenry had made the transition from true belief in the revolutionary promise into disaffection and double-thinking. Could dissent be far behind?

This suggests another notable fact about present-day Iran. In Moscow in the 1970s, demonstrations organized by dissidents in an effort to attract the world’s attention would often consist of no more than five to 10 individuals. Otherwise, the KGB would find out about the demonstrations in advance. They would last no more than five minutes. That was the longest we could last before the KGB would come, arrest us and ship the less fortunate to Siberia. Our main objective was to make certain that at least one foreign journalist was present so that, the next day, at least one Western news source would come out with a story that could in turn elicit a chain reaction of more and greater press attention and, we hoped, a vocal Western response.

This week, there were hundreds of thousands on the streets of Tehran, with the entire world following them in real time. My assistant, sitting in Jerusalem, received daily updates on Facebook from two dozen Iranian friends before they set out to demonstrate and again on their return. One can only hope that, in the White House and at 10 Downing Street, the leaders of the free world are as well connected as my assistant.

But will those leaders act? With all their sympathy for peoples striving for freedom, Western governments are fearful of imperiling actual or hoped-for relations with the world’s ayatollahs, generals, general secretaries and other types of dictators -- partners, so it is thought, in maintaining political stability. But this is a fallacy. Democracy’s allies in the struggle for peace and security are the demonstrators in the streets of Tehran who, with consummate bravery, have crossed the line between the world of double-think and the world of free men and women.

Listen to them, and you will hear nothing more, and nothing less, than what you your- self know to be the true hope of every human being on Earth. Listen to them and you may be amazed, but you will never again be surprised.