Activist Natan Sharansky: ‘Moral Behavior Is the Most Profitable Behavior’

Natan Sharansky has been in the news for 40 years, since he first gained worldwide renown as a Soviet dissident and human rights activist — a “refusenik” as it was often referred to back in the 1970s. He spent nine years in the Soviet gulag as a result, half of that time in solitary confinement, before being released thanks in part to pressure from the United States. Sharansky also has been a leading Israeli politician, holding a number of top ministerial positions, and a top-level chess player who once beat world champion Gary Kasparov. In this interview with Israel Knowledge@Wharton, Sharansky discusses these experiences and also some leadership lessons he has learned along his unorthodox career path.

An edited version of the transcript appears below

Knowledge@Wharton: Welcome, Natan Sharansky to Knowledg@Wharton. Mr. Sharansky’s name has been in the news for some 40 years as a Soviet dissident, a leading Israeli politician and the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the 1970s, he was a noted human rights activist in the Soviet Union and founder of the Refusenik Movement at a time when that might result in a heavy prison sentence in the gulag or worse. And, in fact, it did lead to the gulag for Mr. Sharansky. Much of the time, half of it, was spent in solitary confinement. He had been sentenced for 13 years, I believe, but the term was shortened by President Reagan, who pressed Mikhail Gorbachev for an early release.

Mr. Sharansky also was a chess prodigy as a child — something that helped him to survive prison, where he played chess in his head against himself while he was in solitary. And chess is another reason for Mr. Sharansky’s notoriety. In 1996, he beat Gary Kasparov, who was then the world chess champion. Mr. Sharansky also has been in the Israeli Knesset and has held a number of top ministry positions there in Israel. He’s been a deputy prime minster, and also a minister of industry and trade, and minister of internal affairs. Thank you for joining us today.

Natan Sharansky: Thank you.

Knowledge@Wharton: You were a child prodigy at chess and I’m wondering, are chess prodigies usually quiet an introspective people, and if that’s true, how did you overcome that to become an outspoken dissident in the Soviet Union?

Sharansky: I think I was a very ambitious person, so at the age of five, six, seven, I wanted to be number one in the world with chess. When it became clear to me that I cannot be number one, I moved to math. Then, when it became clear that I cannot be number one in math, I was looking at what else I can be. And I thought I could be a great political prisoner. That’s how I [ended up] in political prison.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s an unusual career path for anyone. So you didn’t have to push against your nature to become outspoken and seek some attention? For the benefit of younger viewers, what did it mean to be a refusenik in Moscow in the 1970s?

Sharansky: I was a loyal Soviet citizen until the age of 20. What it meant to be a loyal citizen is to say what you are supposed to say, to read what you are permitted to read, to vote the way you are told to vote and, at the same time, to know that all this is a lie. In fact, the reality is different, but the reality you can discuss only with your friends and the family. So the moment I felt enough strength to speak truth to power and say that I really don’t want to belong to this system, I want to go to Israel, I want to live as a proud Jew, I want to enjoy human rights, it was then that you cross the line between double think and dissent.

So, you fight for a job. There will be searches in your apartment, you’ll be called to interrogations, you’ll be threatened to be arrested. Then your friends will ask you to take their name from your [address book] — from a telephone book — because they don’t want to be interrogated themselves. But at the same time, you start living as a free person. You really say the things that you believe in. So I enjoyed having the life of a refusenik and a human rights activist, and that’s what gave me strength to speak for my rights, the rights of other Jews and then for the rights of many others everywhere.

Knowledge@Wharton: You must have known what you were risking of course, that it could lead to prison and what that meant.

Sharansky: No one explained to me that I would be arrested, but when I was arrested, they were busy explaining to me that I would be sentenced to death if I do not cooperate with them. But I had to explain, first of all to myself, that my aim should not be physical survival, because if my aim is physical survival, then the KGB will defeat me. They will destroy me, they’ll know how to use it [against me]. My aim should be how to remain a free person, even when in prison, and the moment you change the aim, they have one set of aims and you have another game. They want to convince you that physical survival is the only way to live and you believe that the real value is in how to be a free person. So that’s the difference.

Knowledge@Wharton: You did end up in prison. They accused you of treason, spying for the United States, and you were there for nine years, about half of those years in solitary confinement. A lot of people say extended solitary is really a form of torture, and you were able to survive. How?

Sharansky: Well, first of all, I was half of the time in solitary confinement, but solitary confinement is not a torture by itself. Being in a punishing cell, where I spent a year and a half, which is the real torture — by hunger, by cold, by blackness, by being able to do nothing. So first of all, you have to explain to yourself, to remind yourself why you are there, to feel yourself in the middle of an historical struggle and to feel yourself mobilized. But secondly, you also have to know how to use your brains and I was really lucky, I had the great hobby of chess, and I loved playing chess blind simultaneously with some partners, but it was only for [sport]. Now I know why I needed it. I was playing hundreds and thousands of games in my head. I won all of them, I felt myself getting very strong intellectually, so while they were expecting that [with the passage of time], they were destroying me — in fact, I succeeded in strengthening myself.

Knowledge@Wharton: And when you were released and you moved to Israel immediately. Looking back at that point, how do you feel that it changed you and your view of the world, of yourself?

Sharansky: Well, first of all, once I was out, I enjoyed continuing to live as a free person and those who think that it is easier to live as a free person in our world than in prison, they are wrong. In the free world, suddenly there are thousands of choices. You can waste all your life on making different choices and losing perspective. [In prison] the aim there — you had a vertical understanding of what is good and what is bad, and where your friends are. So it makes, in fact, your life very easy and very clear and with one strategy. In our daily life, we have thousands of possible strategies — to choose the one which gives you a lot of meaning in your life is not so simple. But I enjoy continuing the life of a free person.

Knowledge@Wharton: So when you got what you actually wanted, which was being a free person, it was a little bit overwhelming.

Sharansky: It was very dramatic. In one day, I was taken from a Soviet prison, put on an airplane, brought to Germany, crossed the bridge, saw my wife who I had not seen for 12 years, came to Israel and at night, together with all the people of Israel, celebrated my release. So I do know what it is to go straight from hell to paradise.

Knowledge@Wharton: In many ways, you’ve been a visionary throughout your life. You saw there was an opening for what you did in the Soviet Union to get some kind of a reaction. It got a lot of international reaction at the time. You paid a heavy price, but it did get the word out, it did have an effect. Do you feel that you always had those innate leadership qualities, or did you have to learn or teach yourself those things along the way?

Sharansky: Look, if I knew in advance that what I am doing will bring me to prison, to nine years in prison, to 12 years of separation with my wife, to the station — yes, you will not know whether you will stay alive or not — I’m not sure that I would have started it. It is good in advance that you don’t know about everything that will happen in your life and you are learning, you are building yourself and you are strengthening while going through this. So did they know from the beginning that I’ll be a leader? No, I didn’t know. But with every step, I felt more and more determined to keep my freedom, to remain a free person, and to defeat or to fight against those who are trying to restrict this freedom for me and for the other people. So I think leadership is something that you are developing in the process, not something that you are born with.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you look around today at today’s leaders in business or in government, there are a lot of ethical lapses that we’ve seen across the board. What do you think is the most overlooked quality about leadership today in business or in politics? In other words, what leadership qualities are most lacking in general in your opinion?

Sharansky: Well, first of all, the very basic, simple understanding that moral behavior is the most profitable behavior. I think it’s an American idea. I think all the American philosophy, [Benjamin] Franklin’s philosophy in fact … started from this. That it is good, it is profitable to be a moral person. I think somehow it’s ignored, it’s forgotten, definitely in international relations and you can see how real political considerations in politics and in business, and everything, are prevailing. That’s unfortunate because in that, a heavy price is paid for this.

To go from the level of morality simply to, let’s say of chess, I think the real talent in every game, in a business game, in a political game, in a chess game — is how to keep as many options as possible open as long as possible. Some people think that the best chess player is the one who can think; someone who can count moves longer, from 10 moves ahead or 12 moves ahead. The really strong chess player is the one who knows how to keep as many opportunities as possible as long as possible, because then your opponent will be lost in their attempts to respond to all of them. That’s something which I always find is ignored or forgotten, or undermined by people in daily life.

Knowledge@Wharton: So leave yourself an escape hatch? Leave yourself a way out of a tight position?

Sharansky: [Rather, you] try to keep as many opportunities [open] as possible, as long as you can do it, which can move you to success.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re running an organization that is focused on Jewish immigration into Israel at the moment, which surely has some business-like aspects to it. I know you spent many years in government in Israel. Could you offer some advice for how businesses and government can work more closely together? We see some big gaps in our country today, for example.

Sharansky: Well, in fact, my view is very traditional for Americans, though I come from a Communist country. I think the less the government is involved in telling people what to do, the better. And because of my Soviet background, I believe in it to the extreme. In fact, I was lucky to be the minister of industry of trade in the first government of Benjamin Netanyahu, when Israel was a very Socialist country with very little opportunity to compete because it was the state built in the underground by Zionist Socialists who came from the Russia at the beginning of the [20th] century. So they built it without the ideas of Communism.

[Today that has changed and] the government is building business opportunities and we spent a lot of time encouraging competition. I signed more free trade agreements … than all the previous ministries of trade together, and I had [a lot of] the phone calls [with the] prime minister because we [both] … believe in free competition. At the same time, I have to say that with every free trade agreement which I was signed, whether it was with Turkey or with Mexico or with any other country, there were demonstrations in front of my house by workers from the companies who felt that they’re threatened. [They complained that] now the production of glass will be in Tokyo and not in Israel, and production of textiles will be in India and not here, and so on. And to some extent they were right because, their jobs were in real danger.

But on the other hand, that’s what gave the opportunity to Israel to use its relative advantage, and our relative advantage is the very high level of intellectual capabilities of the whole labor force. And Israel today has more start-ups than all of Western Europe together. That small country has more start-ups, technological start-ups than all of Western Europe. The only place in the world which can compete with Israel is Silicon Valley…. So, I believe the role of government is creating good opportunities for the people to use their talents. But yes, on the other hand, if you go this direction without looking around, without thinking about the needs of society here in America and in Israel, you suddenly find big social gaps. So, there must be a balance of promotion and we have to keep many opportunities at the same time.

Knowledge@Wharton: Thank you very much for coming to speak with us.

Sharansky: Thank you.

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