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Reagan's Freedom Fighter By: Paul Kengor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 18, 2005

As freedom and democracy make unprecedented gains in the Middle East, as they once did in Eastern Europe in 1989, parallels are being drawn between presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. These links are apt. Both men realized astonishing achievements that were once unimaginable; they pursued their goals almost completely alone and against vicious opposition. Yet, there is another common but unacknowledged link among the two men, one that would have thrilled Ronald Reagan.

George W. Bush recently read Natan Sharansky’s book, The Case for Democracy, a work that makes the case for freedom in the Middle East. The influence of this book on Bush is being overstated. One enthusiast claimed that it taught Bush the power of democracy to transform the region. Quite the contrary, the book reaffirmed what Bush has long articulated; that said, it no doubt provided an important impact nonetheless. In that sense, the book was to Bush what Whittaker Chambers’s classic Witness was to Reagan: a very important source of affirmation, while, indeed, also enriching and enlightening.

This has brought a lot of new attention to Sharansky. However, many of those now recognizing Sharansky are unfamiliar with his amazing story. Reagan was not:


Sharansky was a Russian Jew held captive in the Soviet prison system. In March 1977, as a 29-year-old, he was abducted by the KGB outside his apartment on Gorky Street in Downtown Moscow. He was charged with espionage and treason against the USSR—crimes punishable by death. He was sent to Lefortovo Prison. He spent nine years there, where he symbolized Ronald Reagan’s description of the “religious dissident trapped in that cold, cruel existence.”


Sharansky’s time in prison was marked not merely by periods of isolation and hunger strikes but also special interrogation and indoctrination. “They wanted to use me to destroy the two groups I worked for,” said Sharansky, “Jews who hoped to leave for Israel and dissidents who spoke out on behalf of human rights.”


Amid his prison stay, Sharansky fell in with his old camp friend Volodia Poresh—a Christian. Sharansky’s discussion of Poresh reminds of Solzhenitsyn’s Alyoshka, the imprisoned Baptist in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Both Alyoshka and Poresh drew support and peace of mind through their religious faith, standing out among the other poor souls in the gulag.


Poresh endured hunger and work strikes in an attempt to get his Bible back from prison authorities. He and others were surprised when he actually got it back by the end of 1983. It was impossible to know why the KGB allowed the Bible. In any case, Sharansky followed suit and decided not to let the occasion pass without trying to obtain a Bible of his own. Though he failed, he was able to read the Bible with his Christian friend. He and Poresh began their Bible study every morning after returning from the exercise yard, reading both the Old and New Testament and discussing what they read.


The two men called their Bible sessions “Reaganite readings.” Why did they choose this strange title? Sharansky later explained in his memoirs, Fear No Evil: “First, because President Reagan had declared either this year or the preceding one (it wasn’t exactly clear from the Soviet press) the Year of the Bible, and second, because we realized that even the slightest improvement in our situation could be related only to a firm position on human rights by the West, especially by America, and we mentally urged Reagan to demonstrate such resolve.”


The resolve was demonstrated. It is interesting to see that a gulaged Sharansky was able to learn that Reagan had declared a Year of the Bible, which he did in 1983. This Reagan designation was dismissed by Western elites as simplistic and childish—words they now use to describe George W. Bush’s faith. There was particularly sharp ridicule in the Soviet Union.


Indeed, in Moscow the designation caught the disapproving attention of the communist publication, Krasnaya Zvezda. It derided the overture and sarcastically dubbed Reagan the “prophet of ‘divine will.’” On Moscow radio, defiance poured from the three commentators on the weekly program “International Observers Roundtable.” Among them, Igor Belyayev, chief of the foreign desk at Literaturnaya Gazeta, countered that 1983 ought to instead be declared “the Year of Karl Marx.” His atheist comrades joined him in speaking of the great one in god-like language. Fellow journalist Vladlen Kuznetsov said that Marxism-Leninism “has been and remains” the “firm ideological foundation … for solving the new tasks arising in life. Few people are destined to continue their omnipresence in men’s minds over many generations after their death.” Then 100 years after Marx’s passing, Kuznetsov assured that Marx remained one such omniscient creature. The three observers agreed that the absolute “truthfulness” and “historical correctness” of Marxism had been “conclusively proved” and it was the future, contrary to the cocky confidence of Mr. Reagan.


Despite the disapproval of Soviet hardliners and Western sophisticates, Reagan’s Year of the Bible designation mattered—making an impact even inside the Soviet gulag.


A reward for Reagan was the strength gained by Sharansky and Poresh from that Bible study. The two jailed prisoners of conscience learned to pray to cope with the “evil” (Sharansky’s word). Sharansky said he found strength in the Psalms, especially in the “proud, daring, and resolute” King David of the Old Testament – that “live, indomitable soul.”


Something else that Reagan did—also lampooned by liberals—strengthened Sharansky. One day in March 1983, confined to his eight-by-ten-foot prison cell in Siberia, Sharansky’s jailers allowed him the privilege of reading the latest Pravda. There, splashed across the front page, was a condemnation of Reagan’s description of the USSR as evil. Using Morse code, Sharansky tapped out the president’s missive to the next cell, from where it was sent around the camp via walls and toilets. “We dissidents were ecstatic,” Sharansky later wrote. “Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth—a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”


Throughout the 1980s, Sharansky was a special concern to Reagan. His name was scribbled on a list of imprisoned Soviets that Reagan carried inside his suit pocket. When Reagan knew that one of his staff was about to meet with a high-level Soviet official, he shared the list in the hope that the Soviets might release a few prisoners. He personally raised Sharansky’s name with Mikhail Gorbachev. Sharansky was soon released.


Shortly before he left the Oval Office, in January 1989, Reagan met with a freed Sharansky and presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal. Sharansky told Reagan that his Evil Empire speech had been “a great encourager” for him and his fellow inmates at Permanent Labor Camp 35. Reagan “was one who understood the Soviet Union … and was calling a spade a spade,” said Sharansky. “I told [that to] Reagan.” During the ceremony that followed, Sharansky told Reagan that once he left the presidency, if he was ever saddled by any “sad moments,” he should just think about Sharansky’s “happy family” and the “thousands and thousands of people who are praying in Soviet camps.” He thanked Reagan for the Soviet citizens who were “free today not because of some good will of Soviet leaders but because of their struggle and your struggle.”


A decade-and-a-half later, in June 2004, it was fitting that at the memorial service for Reagan at the National Cathedral, Sharansky was among the select few permitted to attend to pay their respects.


All of this explains how and why Ronald Reagan would be elated over Sharansky’s impact on the world today. Sharansky has taken that freedom that Reagan worked so hard to help grant him and has, in turn, himself pushed for freedom for others—he is working to advance freedom, just as Reagan would have wanted. When Reagan spoke of “freedom fighters” he referred to those battling communism in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Poland. He had in mind men like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Now, Reagan’s legacy lives on in the guise of his latest freedom fighter—Natan Sharansky—to the benefit of another freedom fighter in the White House right now.


Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan, executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution.

Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006) and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

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