Natan Sharansky Reaches Israel
Sharansky with prime minister Shimon Peres, foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon, upon arriving in Israel. Photo: Moshe Shai/FLASH90

February 11, 1986

After eight years in a Siberian labor camp, Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharansky arrives in Israel using his new Hebrew name, Natan Sharansky, after being released to the U.S. ambassador in Berlin as part of a prisoner exchange.

Born in 1948, Sharansky earned a degree in applied mathematics. He became a human rights activist after the Soviet Union refused to let him emigrate and make aliyah to Israel in 1973. Sharansky reprimanded the Soviet leadership for nullifying the “universal human rights its constitution professed.” He was charged with treason and espionage in 1977 and sentenced in 1978 to 13 years in a gulag labor camp. A child chess prodigy, he kept his mind strong during periods of solitary confinement by playing chess matches in his head.

As his wife, Avital, campaigned for his release, Sharansky became a symbol of the plight of the Soviet Union’s Jewish refuseniks and their yearning to escape repression and anti-Semitism. Jews in the United States and Western Europe rallied to his cause and that of the nearly 3 million other Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. That pressure combined with the new openness brought by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after he took power in 1985 to make Sharansky’s release possible.

In Israel, Sharansky writes a memoir of his time in captivity, “Fear No Evil,” which is published in 1988. He and fellow Soviet Jew Yuli Edelstein in 1995 found Yisrael BaAliyah, focused on the issues of absorbing some 1 million Soviet immigrants, and the party wins seven Knesset seats in 1996. Sharansky serves in the Knesset from 1996 to 2003 and again in 2006. His Cabinet positions include minister of industry and trade, minister of the interior, minister of Jerusalem affairs and deputy prime minister. After leaving politics, Sharansky is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel from 2009 to 2018.