My Interview with Natan Sharansky.

Natan Sharansky: Chairman of Jewish Agency and former Soviet Prisoner

Natan Sharansky: Chairman of Jewish Agency and former Soviet Prisoner

On the 25th anniversay of his release from a brutal soviet gulag, Natan Sharansky spoke to me about Russian immigration, Egypt and chess. (The interview appears in this week’s Jewish News).

What is your greatest personal achievement of the last 25 years?

Apart from becoming a grandfather twice-over this year, one million Jews moved to Israel since the Soviet Union fell apart and have successfully integrated. I was heavily involved in that.

This has also been Israel’s greatest achievement during this time. I don’t know of another country that has increased its population by 20% and where those immigrants have been as successful as anyone else in society.

And Israel remains a vibrant democratic Jewish society, with one of the most successful economies in the world, despite being surrounded by dictatorships and fundamentalists and being demonised in the free world.

How important is the Diaspora to Israel?

Israel is an important part of the Jewish identity for all Jews. I’m very happy for Jews to move to Israel, but Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews are all part of the same important process.

Are you worried by current events in Egypt?

There’s always reason to be worried. We always have to be ready to defend ourselves against our enemies. But events in Egypt are also a unique opportunity.

The 100-year pact between the free world and Arab dictators to keep the Arab street stable has finally been broken. I have always believed in the power of democracy and the desire of people to live in freedom.

Yes, but democracy led to Hamas governing Gaza.

Islamic fundamentalism has more chance of succeeding the longer the Arab world is ruled by dictators, including the likes of Yasser Arafat. Democratic dissidents from places like Egypt have been telling the free world for a long time that they are the only true partners for peace, not the dictators. Now that millions of Arabs are saying the same thing I hope the leaders of the free world will, finally, embrace this call.

So what is happening could be good for Israel?

Much depends on whether the leaders of the free world link the assistance they give to Arab leaders to democratic reforms. The people of the Middle East have made their choice. But if the free world doesn’t support them we could end up with more dangerous regimes like Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Will the Arabs ever accept a Jewish state in the Middle East?

Initially, it isn’t easy for people to lose something they believe is theirs. On the other hand 63 years of a Jewish state is long enough for it to be accepted. Middle East dictators have kept Israel as an external enemy for their own internal stability.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the free world, including Israeli leaders, did not, or chose not to, understand that it was important for these dictatorships to encourage hatred towards Israel. Tunisians and Egyptians have now demanded a new life, but haven’t been mentioning Israel.

If Middle East leaders now concentrate on improving their citizens’ lives, instead of encouraging hatred towards Israel, the chances of Israel being accepted will improve. Democracy will encourage this, so it’s in Israel’s interests for democracy to succeed in the Middle East.

Are you critical or supportive of Avigdor Lieberman?

He is part of our democracy. I don’t agree with him on everything but his demonisation is part and parcel of Israel’s demonisation. As long as he is acting within the framework of Israeli democracy he cannot be a threat to that democracy.

Finally, did you really beat Gary Kasparov at chess?

Yes! I had many years of playing chess in my head while in prison in the Soviet Union, so I was very well prepared!

22 responses to “My Interview with Natan Sharansky.

  1. I heard him speak here, in TA, a couple of weeks ago. Lovely bloke. And I asked him, on a personal note, if he’d be kind enough to ensure that more young Russian girls were brought to Israel to fulfil the Zionist dream (or, at least, mine).

  2. Michael Goldman

    The question must be asked
    Was his victory against Kasparov in a one on one game or a simultaneous exhibition?

  3. Michael Goldman

    Sorry Mike
    I don’t think even Russian girls would be willing to fulfil your dreams!

  4. thank you Richard!

    for the chess-buffs amongst your readers this looks like it may be a treat:

    • richardmillett

      Funny, Mike. Thanks, Silke. Looks a great book. I went to see Short v Kasparov a couple of times when they played in London in 1993 and it was one fo the most tense sporting events i have seen. It is a shame the world chess championship has fallen apart.

  5. Though I wasn’t at the match, my impression was that at no point was Kasparov really in trouble and had Short won it would have been the greatest upset since Capablanca-Alekhine. Short was a top class grandmaster, but no match for Kasparov the living legend – probably the greatest player ever.

    Looking through their games, I was gratified to recall that Short scored excellently (2/3) with the Sozin variation of the Najdorf. This Fischer variation of the Sicilian has always been a favorite of mine and I have regularly used it to thrash the likes of M. Goldman.
    1. e4 c5
    2. Nf3 d6
    3. d4 cxd4
    4. Nxd4 Nf6
    5. Nc3 a6
    6. Bc4 Nc6!? (6…e6)
    7. Nxc6 bxc6
    8. e5! etc

  6. what a lovely discussion – keep it going
    I seem to remember that somewhere at commentary is a post by Gabriel Schönfeld on chess with Sharansky.

    this must be it

    – I am chess illiterate (and not only that), but I like to read stuff like that because I like to read about competitions.

  7. richardmillett

    You say that, Daniel, but if i recall Kasparov at one stage looked as if he had lost the plot. He made a crazy move and lost his Bishop, electricity went around the auditorium as no one could understand it. But is was a Greek gift and he went on to win the game. Even thinking about it now makes me shiver.

  8. Like I say, I wasn’t there. so I’ll bow to your eyewitness account.

    More than two decades ago I was the chess columnist of the Jerusalem Report and had some dealings with Sharansky. There came a time that I had put a difficult problem in the previous week’s magazine, but lost the solution. He took one look and found it immediately.

    That having been said, it is not unusual for top chess players to concede draws or even resign games against celebrities. I find it hard to believe that Kasparov couldn’t have beaten AS if he’d have wanted to.

  9. sorry it’s in German but around 5:00 comes the “Sharansky-Moment” i.e. where the “nobody” beats the world champion.

  10. At the risk of bringing a more physical sport into the discussion. When Bjorn Borg was the top tennis player he was practically unbeatable by the top players but would end long unbroken runs by losing to nobodies who no one had never heard of before or since.

    Perhaps Kasparov had a lapse of concentration?
    They say once is accident; twice is coincidence and three times a trend. Sharansky winning once against Kasparov still counts as accident.

  11. Changing the subject, a friend sent me this. Read it and then guess:

    1. Who wrote it?
    2. When was it written?

    “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries, improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

    A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement, the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

    Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.

    No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

  12. Daniel
    Who?- no idea!

    When the same – many periods possible so I do wild guesses while totally neglecting the words that are used and which seem not to fit any of the periods I mention more or less randomly but maybe that is due to it being a translation from ??? this is suggested to me by the mention of Central Africa at the neglect of all the other areas.

    That said how about sometime around the invasion of Spain or even earlier, the fall of Constantinople or when they were before Vienna or any such event up to the battle of Omdurman or when they came into India or or or

    i.e. since they have been at it all the time you must be a bit more generous with clues.

  13. forgot – “splendid qualities” sounds like 19th century language …

  14. complete edition for free here and quite a read – so battle of Omdurman and 19th century guess wasn’t far off – but yes except for modern and Central Africa it could have been written at any time between 600 something and today.

    if one wants to get a bit of a feel for Churchill’s world view – Eminent Victorians, the part about Chinese Gordon, the one who was hacked to pieces on the steps of the governor mansion in Khartoum, is worth a look. Also available for free at

    And as always when Churchill is mentioned I recommend with all the warmth I can muster a look at The Malakand Field Force where he had an earlier encounter with another Mahdi-phenomenon and which is also available at

    And never forget that the guy is such a good writer that he beats any beach novel for page turning power.

  15. Form the Malakand field force available at

    In that strange half light of ignorance and superstition, assailed by
    supernatural terrors and doubts, and lured by hopes of celestial glory,
    the tribes were taught to expect prodigious events. Something was
    coming. A great day for their race and faith was at hand. Presently the
    moment would arrive. They must watch and be ready. The mountains became
    as full of explosives as a magazine. Yet the spark was lacking.

    At length the time came.

  16. Daniel
    you are opening a can of worms, there are lots of people in the UK who work hard at accusing Churchill of racism – everybody who has read his “Early Years” however, must have noticed that the man is completely colourblind. He operates by a different set of rules. Everybody who has good polo horses is a gentleman by his standards and everybody who shows valour under fire is admired by him.

    I doubt whether he would have agreed that he is the greatest ever (after all he had some ancestors – For example he wrote a book on the Duke of Marlborough, but having not read it yet, I don’t even know whether he praises him for being a soldier or a statesman) I doubt but surely he deserves a place amongst them.

  17. “I don’t agree with him on everything but [Lieberman’s] demonisation is part and parcel of Israel’s demonisation. ”

    Abject, amoral, nonsense. And not worthy of a serious thinker.