Natan Sharansky, former refusenik and Soviet prisoner, current Israeli cabinget minister, is one of the great men of our time. We have frequently written about him on this site, most recently in “Facing down the pacifists.” In that post we quoted Tom Rose’s interview of Sharansky (“The view from the Gulag”) from the issue of the Weekly Standard that commemorated Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his death last summer.
The interview in its own way provided special testimony in support of the proposition that Reagan should be known as the Great Liberator, a point made by our friend Steve Hayward in another article in that issue of the Standard. In his interview with Sharansky, Rose asked: “Were there any particular Reagan moments that you can recall being sources of strength or encouragement to you and your colleagues?” Sharansky answered:
I have to laugh. People who take freedom for granted, Ronald Reagan for granted, always ask such questions. Of course! It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.
It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s “Great October Bolshevik Revolution” and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution–Reagan’s Revolution.
When Sharansky was released from the Gulag in a prisoner exchange engineered by the Reagan administration in 1986, Sharansky himself had the opportunity to tell Reagan the story:
The first time I met President Reagan I told him this story. I felt free to tell him everything. I told him of the brilliant day when we learned about his Evil Empire speech from an article in Pravda or Izvestia that found its way into the prison. When I said that our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration and that the world was about to change, well, then the president, this great tall man, just lit up like a schoolboy. His face lit up and beamed. He jumped out of his seat like a shot and started waving his arms wildly and calling for everyone to come in to hear “this man’s” story. It was really only then that I started to appreciate that it wasn’t just in the Soviet Union that President Reagan must have suffered terrible abuse for this great speech, but that he must have been hurt at home too. It seemed as though our moment of joy was the moment of his own vindication. That the great punishment he had endured for this speech was worth it.
Today NRO has posted a column by Joel Rosenberg that is the perfect companion to Rose’s interview with Sharansky: “Two great dissidents.” Among other things, Rosenberg’s article tells the story of Sharansky’s meeting last week in the Oval Office with President Bush. What President Bush told Sharansky was off-the-record, but here’s Sharansky’s account of what he told President Bush:
“I told the president, ‘There is a great difference between politicians and dissidents. Politicians are focused on polls and the press. They are constantly making compromises. But dissidents focus on ideas. They have a message burning inside of them. They would stand up for their convictions no matter what the consequences.’
“I told the president, ‘In spite of all the polls warning you that talking about spreading democracy in the Middle East might be a losing issue