I was a student of Russian and Soviet history in college, and spent a considerable amount of time in the Soviet Union. While a student in Moscow, I became close friends with the Yakir family (more on them in a later post), a family steeped in Soviet tragedy and controversy. During my many afternoons at the Yakir apartment, I met a wide range of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents. Of all the refuseniks in that era, none was more famous than Anatoly (Nathan) Sharansky, now an Israeli politician. (For some general background, see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/sharansky.html)
I have thought about Sharansky much lately, during our presidential election, when the character of the candidates is so at issue. We all now know about John McCain’s refusal to take early release from a Vietnamese prison camp because the military code of conduct required that prisoners leave in the order captured. John McCain felt duty bound to honor that code of conduct, and spent years more in prison because of that commitment.
When I think of John McCain’s prison story, I am reminded of Sharansky’s equally great triumph of the spirit. Sharansky spend almost a decade in Soviet prison because of his activities on behalf of Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel. Sharansky was subjected to torture and other indignities, but never lost his spirit.
Sharansky notoriously refused to obey even the most mundane orders from his captors. Sharansky understood that to compromise even a little would lead to compromising a lot. Throughout his ordeal, Sharansky kept his spirits alive by reading a small book of psalms.
In 1986, the Soviets finally agreed to release Sharansky from prison, in a deal in which he was exchanged for Soviet spies in the West. As he was being led to the airplane that would take him away, the Soviets confiscated his book of psalms.
It would have been easy for Sharansky simply to keep walking towards the plane and freedom, just as it would have been easy for McCain to take early release from prison. But Sharansky understood that the Soviets confiscated his book of psalms not because they wanted the book, but because they wanted to show that even in this last moment, they were in control.
In front of reporters covering his departure, Sharansky sat in the snow refusing to move unless the Soviets gave him back his book of psalms. Here was this diminutive man, after 10 years in prison, on the verge of freedom, refusing to budge unless one of the world’s two superpowers gave him back his book. And give him back his book of psalms they did. Sharansky proceeded to the plane, where he read Psalm 30: “I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.” (See Jay Nordlinger’s 2005 interview with Sharansky in which this event is recounted, at http://nrd.nationalreview.com/article/?q=Yzc4NzdmZDk0M2NmZTZkODUyMzllNjZlYmU3ZWJkNmQ=).
When I think of John McCain and Nathan Sharansky, I think of what it will take for our country to succeed in the war being waged against us by al-Qaida and other fanatics. And the type of leader we need. No compromise, no negotiation, no nuance. As Ronald Reagan said, when asked how the cold war would end, “we win, they lose.”