Navalny and Sharansky

Navalny and Sharansky

It is impossible to imagine how brave Alexei Navalny was.

Because of his charisma and dogged refusal to give up, even in the face of physical and legal and emotional threats, even after he was jailed, when he continued to run for office as if running for office were a genuine thing in Russia, the Russians took action.

He was poisoned with Novichok, the toxic substance the Russians use when they think they’re being subtle. Apparently someone put it in his underwear; he went into a coma on an airplane that landed in Tomsk, and eventually — astoundingly — he survived. Later, he was able to call one of the poisoners, pretending to be a Russian official, and got the digusting, immoral, thoroughly idiotic story from him.

Navalny was treated outside Russia, and he could have stayed away. He was a husband — his wife, Yulia, perhaps unsurprisingly also is extraordinary, and is taking on his mantle — and the father of two children. He could have decided that he’d done enough to try to restore the promise of freedom that Russia had dangled when the Soviet Union collapsed.

But he went back anyway. He was sent to Siberia on trumped-up charges and an ever-growing sentence, he grew increasingly gaunt and ill because a Siberian prison is in itself a death sentence, and on Friday he died. In a last bit of ghoulishness, the Russians have refused to let his mother and widow have his body; online speculation is that they’re waiting for the signs of more Novichok to leave his body.

It turns out that he exchanged letters with another man who had been held prisoner in Siberia, unlike Navalny a “prisoner of Zion,” and unlike Navalny a man who wanted out rather than in of the Soviet Union. Another man of charisma, formidable intellect, and towering morality.

Natan Sharansky — or, as he was then, Anatoly Scharansky.

The two men exchanged two letters each last April; a photo of each them, handwritten in Russian, is followed by an English-language translation. They’re online at the Free Press,

They describe a life and a future that is beyond grim, but they are written with a light pen, even if it’s not possible that the hand holding the pen was anything but heavy. The two men had never met — and now clearly never will meet — but they share experiences that the rest of us should be very grateful we never will know.

Navalny writes about Sharanky’s book “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” which he’s read; he talks about the differences between the USSR and Russia, which are minute. The two men joke about how Sharansky’s extreme shortness allowed him to be a bit warmer, because he could tuck his hands inside his too-long sleeves; that joke made it clear how punishingly cold it is, and you, the reader, remember that yes, it’s Siberia.

Sharansky writes about his admiration for Navalny’s refusal to stay away; Navalny appreciates Sharansky’s ability to get out. They understand each other.

And Sharansky closes with this:

“I wish to you — no matter how hard it may be physically — to maintain your inner freedom.

“In prison I discovered that in addition to the law of universal gravitation of particles there is also a law of universal gravitation of souls. By remaining a free person in prison, you, Aleksei, influence the souls of millions of people worldwide.”

We have seen hatred and evil run amuck, in Israel, in Ukraine, in Russia. And we have seen people fight back. Those of us lucky enough to be safe, called up to do nothing other than be as decent and as supportive and as clear-eyed and as loving as possible, also can marvel at the strength and courage of those heroes.


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