You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Natan Sharansky on Navalny and Keeping Hope Alive

Natan Sharansky on Navalny and Keeping Hope Alive

Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky on Russia today, Putin's hostage-taking spree, and his nine years in Soviet prisons.

Natan Sharansky, Jeffrey Gedmin, Sydnee Lipset

Celebrated Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky has served in four Israeli cabinets. He serves today as chairman of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy. Jeffrey Gedmin and Sydnee Lipset asked the renowned human rights advocate about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hostage-taking spree—and about how he kept hope alive for nine years in Soviet prisons.


American Purpose: This month marks ten years since Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea. It’s been two years now since the full-scale invasion. Are you surprised by the level of aggression?

Natan Sharansky: Being a dictator, Vladimir Putin needs this aggression for internal purposes, to unite the people against a supposed external enemy. At the same time, he needs it in order to implement his self-imposed historic role of rebuilding the Russian empire. But, importantly, he takes these drastic steps only when he sees the weakness of the West on display—for example, with President Obama in 2014 in Syria, and with President Biden in 2022 in Afghanistan.

AP: You have ties both to Russia and to areas of Ukraine where war rages today, having been born in Stalino (now known as Donetsk). How have you experienced the war on a personal level? Do you still have family and friends in Ukraine and in Russia?

NS: All of the places currently under attack by the Russian army in Ukraine are connected to the memories of my youth. Mariupol, for example—now completely destroyed, having been conquered by the Russian army at the cost of tens of thousands of people killed—was the place of our school summer camps. 

AP: Russian atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people have taken some observers by surprise. So, too, has the Kremlin’s rhetoric. Former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has called Ukraine “a cancerous growth” to be removed. He’s said that Polish fighters in Ukraine should be “exterminated like stinky rats." Where does this hatred and this eliminationist impulse come from?

NS: Well, encouraging an extreme hatred toward the external enemy combined with pursuing a policy of repression against the internal enemy have always been the main tools that dictators use in order to control their own people.  

AP: Is Putin engaged in a wider war with the West—perhaps with America in particular? What is it that Putin wants? 

NS: Putin wants to restore the Russian empire. And since he fully expects to be leader of this empire, he also wants to be a respectable member of the club of Super Powers. But to be respected has a particular definition for Putin: For Putin, to be respected means to be feared. 

AP: Putin seems to be on a hostage-taking spree. While he exchanged U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in 2022, he’s still holding several Americans captive, including ex-Marine Paul Whelan, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Alsu Kurmasheva. What is this about?

NS: Again, it’s about power and creating or exercising that “respect” that is actually fear, by getting the other Super Powers to cave to his demands. Putin feels that he can get as many Western people as he needs to use as bargaining chips, in order to get his own partners in crime released. The West has to be tougher in negotiations in this regard. And it must keep to a minimum the number of their citizens that are exposed to Russian power.  

AP: You spent nine years in Soviet prisons. In your memoir Fear No Evil, you wrote that you treated your captors like the weather, as something beyond your control: They could not humiliate you; only you could humiliate yourself. Can you explain this?

NS: Sure. What this means is that a person—you—should always feel responsible for the things that depend only and entirely on you. Whether you will be insulated, bitten, or even killed by the KGB—none of those things depends on you. Importantly, however, whether you will indeed cooperate in any way with the KGB—that does depend on you. There is some psychology at work here. Their aim is to make you feel that physical survival is the most important thing for you to hold on to and to pursue. But in captivity you must understand and accept that while physical survival is not in your hands, whether you will remain a free person till the end of your life in fact does depend only on you. That’s how you become a free and independent person in prison. 

AP: What sustained you during your years in prison? Do you have advice for the imprisoned. 

NS: One should continually remind himself why he is there in the first place, and also, nurture the feeling of connection with his comrades in arms. Also, it helps if you can play chess in your head.

AP: We’re hoping the U.S State Department declares Alsu Kurmasheva as “unlawfully detained.” How important are symbols, gestures, rhetoric, and the force of law in these matters? Does President Biden have a role to play here? 

NS: I believe that the only way to help these political prisoners today is to treat their fate as being connected with all of the political, economic, and military interests of the Russian regime. 

AP: You’ve said there’s no real peace without freedom and democracy. Are we losing this connection in the public mind?

NS: I’ll answer this question this way: Do I feel that progressive neo-Marxist approaches on the Left and attempts to “understand” dictators on the Right are endangering liberal society? Absolutely yes.

AP: How ought we to understand the wider implications of Alexi Navalny’s recent death?

NS: Alexei Navalny did more than anyone else in the world to unmask the true nature of the corrupted Putin’s corrupt regime. Putin killed Navalny. That fact shows not only Putin’s dictatorial and revengeful nature, but also his fear of Navalny and what Navalny stood for.  

AP: You'll be joining us on March 4 for a virtual discussion about Gaza, Ukraine, and the West’s wider struggle. Are there connective threads between the new illiberalism, resurgent authoritarianism, and today’s outbursts of virulent antisemitism?

NS: Today’s antisemitism has two components, both of which strengthen the other—on the one hand, classical antisemitism, historical prejudices, and the demonization of Jews; and on the other hand, the neo-Marxist progressive approach, which views Israel as the last remnant of colonialism. This latter fuels the widespread belief today that Israel (the oppressor) can only always be wrong, and that Palestinians (the oppressed) are always in the right. This turns the encounter between the demonization of Jews and of Israel into a very powerful, very violent attack on Jews, and as a result, threatens all the liberal world. 

In fact, I’d argue that the war in Ukraine against Russia and the war in Israel against Hamas—both are struggles for the future of the free world.

Natan Sharansky is a former Israeli politician and Soviet dissident.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Sydnee Lipset is editor of arts and culture at American Purpose.

Image: Natan Sharansky. (Genesis Prize)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropePolitical PhilosophyRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy