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- May 12, 1986
- Vol. 25
- No. 19
A New Beginning
After Nine Years in Prison, a Soviet Dissident Immigrates to Israel and Learns About the Pleasures of Freedom and the Perils of Celebrity
Shcharansky, now 38, stepped out of the gulag and into a media and political whirlwind. He has been courted—some would say hounded—by journalists, politicians and Jewish religious leaders eager for interviews or endorsements. The fact that his marriage has become a focus of Israeli gossip—some citizens speculate that Shcharansky may not have been prepared for the ultra-orthodoxy that Avital, 35, has come to embrace—also causes him concern. Finally, no story of Western culture shock would be complete without wads of money. Random House reportedly has agreed to pay Shcharansky a seven-figure sum for his autobiography, with a portion of the money slated to go to dissident support groups. Shcharansky will begin a 10-day trip to the U.S. later this week.
Being in Israel is still miraculous to me. Although my mind understands that I live in freedom now, my face still can't get accustomed to it. When I look at the simple daylight I'd been deprived of for so long, I need to put sunglasses on. When I want to say something important, I find myself automatically reaching for a pen and paper. For so many years my apartment and cells were bugged by the KGB. Then I suddenly catch myself and remember that the KGB cannot hear me now.
I think that after what I went through, I am in very good shape. My heart isn't too good now, and I am not strong enough to walk for a long time because my heart starts aching. But I get stronger all the time. And at last I can eat fruit and vegetables. As much as I want! The first week, every half hour, even in the middle of interviews and press conferences, Avital would appear with a plate heaped with fruit. I hadn't had fresh fruit in nine years; some of the Israeli varieties I had never seen before. During my first week in Israel, coming back from a television interview, we passed a pizzeria. I asked Avital, "What is this?" She explained, and for the first time in my life I ate pizza. It was good!
The food in prison was uneatable, and anyway I was often on a hunger strike. The longest period was for 110 days. That was because for a whole year I wasn't allowed to send even one letter to Avital. The authorities said, "She is in Israel. You are a Soviet citizen, so you have no reason to write to her." They tried to break me, but on the 110th day, as a result of complaints from all over the world, they gave up and I was allowed to write again.
Altogether I spent 403 days in a solitary punishment cell. Officially you're there for only 15 days at a time, but they keep prolonging it. You're thrown in these cells for strange reasons. Once I was there because I was accused of having made a knife from my toothbrush. When you're lucky you get a good-size cell, which measures about 32 square feet. No windows, no fresh air. You can sit in it for weeks without knowing whether it's day or night. For food you get only some black bread and a cup of hot water three times a day. Every second day you get so-called hot food, a soup of sour cabbage and a little piece of herring and some boiled cereal.
Once you are in a punishment cell, they take away all your clothes and give you a threadbare shirt. You have no bed, no mattress, not a single blanket. A board of wood and metal is let down at night and you're supposed to sleep on it, but the nights are so cold you cannot sleep for longer than 15 minutes. We prisoners trained ourselves to wake up and rub our arms and legs to warm ourselves. Finally you start inventing things. I discovered that the glass cover of the single bulb in my cell could be taken off. When the glass got hot I unscrewed it and held it against my body for warmth. Then when it cooled off again I put it back on the bulb and waited till it warmed up. The guards eventually found out and took the bulb covers away from me.
To come to Israel from that was a dream. The first shock was when I was put on the aircraft in the Soviet Union. I had to wait one night on the border before crossing to East Berlin. I was put in a villa with a television and a real bed. I hadn't seen such luxuries in years, but I couldn't sleep, thinking about seeing Avital the next day.
She met me at Frankfurt airport and all during our flight to Tel Aviv she was listening to the news reports and telling me of the masses of people, including the Prime Minister, who were waiting for us at Ben Gurion airport. After we landed and were brought to the VIP room, Shimon Peres suddenly handed me the telephone and said, "The President of the United States is calling you." Everyone asked how it felt coming straight out of a prison and talking to the President. Well, I don't want to disappoint the President. I know how much he has done for me. But at that very moment, sitting with Avital was much more important to me.
I understand President Reagan will most likely receive me during my trip to the U.S. I will also be received in Congress. I will speak not only about the general problem of Soviet Jewry, but also about many individual people who are now in trouble. The line of people who come to me to seek help is endless. I will do whatever I can.
The Russians threatened that if I went to the U.S. the Jews in Russia would suffer. I don't know if this is true, but I have grown accustomed to their extortion and they know that I have never succumbed. However, if they promise that in exchange for my not coming to the U.S. they will let all the Jews leave, I will gladly cancel my trip.
For me to be able to stay one day near Avital is worth a hundred trips to the U.S. or anywhere else. All these years of parting have brought us even closer. It seems as if we had never parted spiritually. It was that connection that gave me strength in prison. I reminded myself of the beautiful things I loved and valued before I was thrown into that cell. I kept reliving every moment of our struggle. I remembered the first 20 years of my life, when I was unaware of my roots and lived as a loyal Soviet citizen. So when I had at last found my Jewish identity and became a Zionist and spoke out openly, the change was so big that, no matter what they offered me, I knew that I would never return to that previous life. During the first 16 months they tried everything. After I had spent long, sleepless nights in punishment cells, they tried to make me sign a confession that the CIA had used me to slander the Soviet Union; they said that if I signed the confession, I would be allowed to immigrate to Israel. They threatened that not signing would mean a death sentence, but I refused. Instead I remembered wonderful moments with Avital.
Little by little, since we have been back together, I have noticed ways in which she has changed. She has become very sophisticated. It is amusing to watch how acquainted she has become with all these politicians with whom she dealt while trying to free me. In Russia, when I discussed politics with friends, she was almost bored. Now she is my chief adviser. She knows everybody.
Sometimes, it seems like everybody thinks they know us, too. I have read about the "problems" Avital and I have. They exist only in the newspapers. Neither of us is trying to make the other do things contrary to our beliefs. They said she would brainwash me into becoming pious and observant. Everybody prophesied I would wear a skullcap because Avital has become so religious. It took many days until I understood that wearing one is not merely an act of religion in Israel, it has political significance. Now I do not wear one. Maybe in a year, or three or four, I'll do what Avital did, but only if it will be natural for me. I do not know a great deal about Judaism. I want to learn about our roots and traditions. I can't say how I'll feel later.
For now, I am trying to remain independent of all outside influences. Avital had warned me that I would find this shock of love for me here difficult, but I didn't expect it to be so strong. The problem is that there are so many Jewish organizations, all wanting to pull me in different directions. Sometimes I have nightmares. Some of them are about the Soviet guards outside the punishment cell, but nowadays I chuckle because some are about the heads of those Jewish organizations.
- Mira Avrech.
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