F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives, but Natan Sharansky — a Russian “prisoner of Zion,” and now an Israeli public figure — has had an exquisite second act to rival the agony of his first.
History doesn’t often provide happier endings and beginnings than the one experienced 25 years ago this week, Feb.11, 1986, when Sharansky was freed after nine brutal years in the Soviet Gulag, crossing the Glienicke Bridge over the Havel River, walking from East Germany to West Berlin and freedom.
If all he did was symbolize the Soviet Jewry movement and era, a symbolism he shared with the advocacy and devotion of his wife Avital, that would have been enough. The movement not only liberated hundreds of thousands of Russian lives, but liberated the American Jewish imagination and activism, as well. Now, as a free man, his insights, humor, leadership and inspiration have endeared him to a new generation as a journalist, Russian émigré leader, cabinet minister, deputy prime minister, chairman of the Jewish Agency, clear-eyed prophet for democracy, and defiant advocate for Jewish rights in their historic homeland.
His influence went far beyond his original world. He’s been honored by Congress, two presidents, and was listed in Time magazine as one of 2005’s most influential “Scientists and Thinkers.” He, in turn, honored the Psalms, and the tradition that kept his spirit strong.
For those who think that the world is simply what it is, unchanging except for the worse, to see Sharansky, now 63, with his wife and two daughters, is to see that history can have more happy endings than some of us might suppose. After years of only seeing his face on a black-and-white placard at rallies, to see him now on a New York or Jerusalem sidewalk is still a thrill, even a quarter of a century later. A few years ago, we even saw him on a Moscow sidewalk, talking casually to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, before Putin helped install a mezuzah on the doorpost of a Chabad center not far from the Kremlin.
Sharansky saw that and applauded. We see Sharansky and do the same.