Anatoly Shcharansky: A Symbol to the World, but a Desperately Missed Husband to Wife Avital
"Everybody tells me that my husband is a political symbol," says Avital, 28, campaigning for Anatoly's freedom while living with friends in Jerusalem. "But not for me. He is my husband. I've never thought of what I would do if he isn't released. I won't even think of it. He will be released. He must be."
On their wedding night in 1974 the Shcharanskys stayed up all night in their rented room in Moscow talking about their future in Israel. Avital emigrated the next day, after assurances by a visa clerk that her husband would be permitted to follow in six months. They haven't seen each other since.
Avital has been struggling for five years to be reunited with him, especially since he was arrested on a Moscow street by the KGB on March 15, 1977. Now there is an even greater sense of urgency. Anatoly, 31, is permitted one letter a month; he sends it to his mother in Moscow, who then contacts Avital. In his most recent message he wrote: "My dear ones, this letter will be much shorter than previous ones. The reason is my eyes, which hurt."
A fellow prisoner also recently wrote to relatives, "Avital's husband has constant shivering fever and is dramatically losing weight. There is definitely some dangerous process taking place, maybe in the brain."
Avital has already visited 10 nations to enlist support for her husband. On trips to the U.S. she extracted promises of help from Walter Mondale, Tip O'Neill and Zbigniew Brzezinski. At a White House dinner last March celebrating the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wangled her an invitation), she approached the President. "I didn't have an evening dress, but I did not care," recalls Shcharansky. "I went in my short white Shabbat dress." Though she's now fluent in Hebrew, her English is limited ("All my knowledge of English is criminological—words like 'interrogation,' 'sentence' and 'trial' ") so she memorized a plea. "I had the feeling he didn't understand my English, so I repeated the whole speech like a parrot," she remembers. Finally, she says, Carter told her, "I will take care of it."
Unfulfilled promises aside, such encounters are inevitably arduous for Shcharansky, but she says, "What else can I do? I can't wait till they finish him off. I would even plead with the devil if I thought he would help."
The object of such long-distance devotion is a once stocky, balding computer expert who used to be known for his genius at chess. The son of a Communist party member in the Ukraine who worked briefly on a party newspaper even though he was Jewish, Anatoly studied at the prestigious Moscow Physical-Technical Institute and in 1971 was offered a coveted position in the Academy of Sciences. He turned it down, however, fearing that as an academy member he would never be allowed to emigrate to Israel, his dream.
By 1973 he was working as an engineer and applied for a visa. After it was rejected, he joined other "refuseniks" in demonstrations and served as liaison with Western reporters because he had learned passably good English in school. That involvement led to three brief arrests.
His wife's early experience with prison was more benign. She spent her childhood in Siberia, close to Soviet labor camps. Born Natalya Stiglitz, she changed her name to the Hebrew Avital in 1966 after learning that her family was Jewish. (Her parents had tried to keep it secret to spare their children from persecution.) Later, as an art student in Moscow, she read an underground copy of Exodus and became obsessed with her ethnic heritage. Soon she decided to emigrate to Israel with her older brother Michael.
A few weeks after Michael applied, though, he was arrested by the KGB. While seeking news of him at a synagogue, Avital met Anatoly in the street outside. "All the refuseniks stood there, exchanging news. Next to me stood a young man who had a terrible cold. But his eyes were brown and warm and brilliant and full of life."
He went back to her home for coffee. Three days later they were talking marriage, and after three weeks they were living together. Avital's brother had been released from jail. The future looked hopeful. But when they asked for a marriage license, it was denied because of Anatoly's record.
Finally, after combing Soviet legal books, they found a clause permitting marriage by religious law. A rabbi agreed to perform the ceremony July 4, 1974. Ten days before the wedding Anatoly disappeared. "I was crazy," remembers Avital. "I went to the KGB and burst into tears. They said if I didn't go away immediately, they would arrest me, too." Then Avital was inexplicably granted a visa to Israel, four days before her wedding date. "The woman in charge said if I didn't go now, I would never be allowed out," she recalls.
As it turned out, Anatoly had been rounded up with other dissidents because of President Nixon's visit to Moscow. When Nixon left, Anatoly was released in time for his wedding.
After Avital flew to Israel, they exchanged letters, waiting for Anatoly's visa. Then came his capture by the KGB and an apparent attempt to force a "confession" of, among other things, working for the CIA. "For 16 months, they held my husband in solitary confinement. They gave no news whatsoever of him." Avital, meanwhile, "tried to write him everything I did, describe the streets, houses, people I met, even the grocery store. I wanted us to share everything, as if we lived together."
At his trial last summer, Anatoly told the courtroom: "I am now addressing my people and my Avital. Next year in Jerusalem."
The year has elapsed, to Avital's misery. While waiting, she is sharing a flat with a couple and their three children who emigrated from the U.S.S.R. Money is tight. A book advance went for travel expenses. After she ran up a $10,000 phone bill, her service was cut off and reinstated only at the intervention of Israel's minister of communications.
"Sometimes I just don't know what to do," Avital says, "and then I think, 'If Anatoly were here now, he would tell me.' He is so much more clever than me."
For now she is relying on her own courage and an emotional bond that defies repression. "No matter how many miles and fences divide us," she says, "we are like one."