Campus & Community

Democracy, freedom always right choice

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Israeli minister and former Soviet gulag inmate addresses KSG Forum

Natan Sharansky, former 13-year prisoner in a Siberian gulag and current minister in the Israeli government, is clear about his views on democracy: ‘It is better to deal with a democracy that hates you than a dictator who loves you.’ (Photo by Marc Halevi)

Almost as soon as it happened, Western leaders forgot the lesson of the Soviet Union’s fall: that freedom, democracy, and human rights go hand in hand with security, according to former Soviet dissident and current minister in the Israeli government Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky, who was a champion of freedom even during 13 years in a Soviet gulag cell, said that’s true because dictatorships need enemies in order to survive. Enemies give dictatorships a reason for existing and allow them to better control their populations. And if real enemies don’t exist, dictatorships will create them.

“With a dictator, you can never have a stable peace, because tomorrow he may need you as an enemy,” Sharansky said.

Sharansky said that lesson has been taught over and over again in history and is apparent today with the autocratic rule in Saudi Arabia, which has resulted in the religious extremism that has fostered terror.

“The price of stability in Saudi Arabia has been instability all over the world,” Sharansky said.

Sharansky spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Thursday (Feb. 10). His talk was titled, “Is Democracy for Everyone?”

The event was moderated by Public Service Professor and Center for Public Leadership Director David Gergen. Associate Professor of Public Policy Nancy Katz introduced Sharansky, saying many of Sharansky’s ideals are shared by President George W. Bush and are reflected both in recent speeches by the president and in the recent global events, such as elections in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In addition, Katz said, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has cited Sharansky’s “town square test” of freedom, where a nation is free if one can state one’s views, whatever they are, in the middle of the town square without fear of punishment.

Sharansky sees totalitarianism and democracy as black and white. Democracy, he said, is always preferred and he rejects arguments that it may not suit a particular culture, such as was argued in the past with Russians, Japanese, and, today, with the Arab world.

Sharansky also rejects the course of action, sometimes preferred even by democratic leaders, of propping up friendly dictators rather than supporting the rights of another nation’s unpredictable electorate.

“It is better to deal with a democracy that hates you than a dictator who loves you,” Sharansky said.

Sharansky’s hard-line democratic values are hard won. Growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, Sharansky said he remembers the first time he engaged in what he calls “doublethink.” Stalin’s death was a cause for private celebration in Sharansky’s family because of his persecution of Jews.

The next day in kindergarten class, however, Sharansky kept his personal views quiet, crying for Stalin and praising him along with the rest of his class.

Millions living in dictatorial regimes around the world live in similar straits, keeping their private thoughts to themselves for fear of reprisal and conforming to the official line in public.

Sharansky eventually became an activist for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, and in 1977 he was arrested and charged with treason. He was sentenced to 13 years in the Siberian gulag. Sharansky said during those years he shared cells with people of many different stripes imprisoned for many different reasons. All of them agreed on one thing: that they wanted to live in a society where people weren’t punished for their views.

Sharansky said he felt the freedom from doublethink even while in prison. When being questioned by KGB interrogators, he would crack anti-Soviet jokes and then laugh while his interrogators stifled their own laughter for fear of being seen. Sharansky would ask himself which of them were truly free and which in prison, as the interrogators weren’t even free to laugh at a joke.

Sharansky was freed in 1986 during an exchange for captured Soviet spies and, in 1989, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. He began a new Israeli political party in 1995 and has held numerous posts in the Israeli government, including deputy prime minister. He currently serves as minister of Jerusalem affairs.