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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sharansky Returns to Prison -- By Choice

When Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky returned to Moscow's notorious Lefortovo Prison early Thursday, he brought a special gift for the prison library: five copies of his book, "Fear No Evil."


It describes, among other things, "how to stand up to justice and not give into Lefortovo interrogations," said Sharansky, a former Jewish refusenik who spent 18 brutal months in the dank prison before the Soviet Union sent him to a gulag labor camp.


He finally was released to Israel in 1986 after nine years of imprisonment.


Sharansky, now the Jewish state's trade and industry minister, said he returned to Lefortovo not for an apology, but to understand what has changed since the days when he was hounded endlessly and imprisoned simply because he believed people had the right to leave Russia if they wanted to do so.


"I came here to immerse myself in the past and attempt to understand the changes that have gripped this country through the context of Lefortovo," Sharansky said after an 80-minute prison tour with his wife, Avital.


"I feel that prison, that punishment cell, is really where I got my most important victory in life. I was very proud to show this place to my wife."


Plenty seemed to have changed inside Lefortovo's stone walls, he said -- though he suggested that much of it was for show. Inmates are fed more meat, he was told, and windows that were once bricked up are now clear again. Prisoners even have access to radios.


"He took it all with a grain of salt," said Eli Kashtan, Sharansky's senior adviser, who went along on the prison tour. "He was told one thing, and I could see Mr. Sharansky smile, as if to say, 'Yeah, right.'"


Even so, Sharansky, 49, found building: dissident Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov; Matthias Rust, the young German who landed a small airplane at Red Square; American journalist Nicholas Daniloff, accused of spying in 1987; and Ruslan Khasbulatov and Alexander Rutskoi, leaders of a 1993 Kremlin parliament uprising.


Inmates could spend years without seeing fellow prisoners because of an elaborate system for keeping them apart. Food was shoved in through hatches in the doors, and a warning light was supposed to alert guards to a prisoner transfer -- meaning no other prisoners were allowed in the corridors.


In Soviet times the building had no heat, cell windows were bricked up and inmates often did without blankets or pillows. Tiny, dark chambers were set aside as punishment cells.


Sharansky said he saw one person inside a punishment cell, but did not try to speak with him. One condition of his visit was that he not talk to inmates.


"I think I remember the cell bigger because I was making it bigger for myself by living there month after month, year after year," he said afterward. "You are feeling the cell with a lot of emotional power ... That's the power of the human spirit."


Sharansky remembers many of the old rules all too well. He pointedly did not autograph his donated books, recalling a strict rule under which any books with markings were immediately confiscated.


Another condition of Sharansky's visit to Lefortovo -- and a sign of the Russian government's sensitivity about it -- was that no journalists be allowed inside. Hooded OMON special police rigorously enforced the rule, even shoving some photographers into the snow outside.


Sharansky arrived in Moscow on Monday at the head of a 60-member trade delegation, his first visit to his homeland since he was released at a Berlin bridge in 1986 as part of an elaborate spy swap.


Though he has spent much of the week catching up with his past -- including visits to grave sites and his old home -- his main mission has been the business of enhancing Soviet-Israeli trade ties, which are on the rise since the fall of communism.


He also is laying the groundwork for a Moscow visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now expected by mid-March.