A Hero's Return

updated 02/17/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1997 01:00AM

THE LAST ORDER THE KGB EVER gave Anatoly Sharansky came on Feb. 11, 1986, just moments before the world-renowned dissident was to be released on an East Berlin airfield. "See that car? Go straight to it and don't make any turns. Agreed?" said an agent, pointing to the vehicle that would take him to freedom after nine brutal years as one of the Soviet gulag's most famous prisoners. "Since when have I started making deals with the KGB?" asked Sharansky, who proceeded—before a cadre of officials and news crews—to stroll in a leisurely zigzag to liberation.

With the same spirited sense of defiance that made him a symbol of human rights in the face of Communist oppression, Sharansky, 49, now Israel's Minister of Industry and Trade, returned last month for a visit rich in irony and nostalgia to the country he had spent two decades trying to flee. Back in 1977, largely because he had become an outspoken advocate of the rights of his fellow Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, Sharansky was imprisoned on trumped-up espionage and treason charges. Now known by the Hebrew name Natan, he returned to find a country transformed, in part because of the fight he had led. "Every place we pass reminds me of our struggle," says Sharansky. "On the other hand, there are free people walking these streets now."

Officially the visit was billed as a trade mission, an effort to foster business ties between his old country and his new one. Yet for Sharansky, who was accompanied by his wife, Avital, 46, his mother, Ida Milgrom, 89, and brother Leonid, 50, it was also an emotionally charged journey into his past. He visited the grave of his father, Boris, who had died in 1980 while Sharansky was in prison, as well as the tomb of his mentor Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and human-rights activist. Stripped of his citizenship 11 years earlier, Sharansky now found himself embraced by officials. "I don't say welcome, I am saying welcome back" Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told him at Moscow's city hall, just 100 yards from the apartment where Sharansky had been arrested.

Returning to Lefortovo Prison—where he had endured merciless interrogations and solitary nights in unheated cells—Sharansky seemed at times almost wistful, calling some memories of his stay "pleasant." "They are memories of years that might have been hard in the physical sense," he says, "but morally, those were pure, bright years when it was absolutely clear what the good and evil was." At Sharansky's request, he was left alone with his wife in a cell he had once occupied. There, in a room about six feet square, Avital sat on a solitary wooden stool as he recalled his memories of oppression. "Now," he told her as they emerged, "I have no secrets from you." ("He told me," she said later, "this is where he won his greatest victory—the victory over himself.")

His separation from Avital had been the most painful part of his years in the gulag. The two—he was a computer programmer, she an art student—had met in 1973 outside a Moscow synagogue that had become a meeting place for the underground network of Jewish activists. Yearning to live in Israel, they had both studied Hebrew. In a cruel twist, Avital was permitted to emigrate but forced to leave the day after their 1974 wedding. As her husband wasted away in a series of prisons and labor camps, she waged an international campaign to win his release.

In 1986, Sharansky was abruptly flown to Berlin and released as part of a prisoner swap. Soon afterward, as the Soviet regime crumbled, the emigration movement he had championed succeeded: More than 750,000 Russian Jews have relocated to Israel. Last year the immigrant party he founded unexpectedly won enough seats in the Knesset to bring him a cabinet post. Now he hopes to attract another million Jewish immigrants from Russia. "In the past, the struggle for emigration meant a struggle against the Soviet regime," he says. "Today, it means cooperation with Russia and building bridges."

Inevitably he was asked throughout his trip whether he felt bitterness toward the Russian people. "I never saw this as a fight with individuals," he says. "I saw it as a fight with the system, and the system is dead. Do you forgive those who are dead? Of course you forgive."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
ABE RABINOVICH and IGOR MALAKHOV in Moscow

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