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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Life of Rights Activist Rivals the Best Fiction

His family escaped the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, Stalin called him a "good boy" and he campaigned for the release from Gorky of physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.


While Marek Halter's past is that of a man caught up in the chaos and struggle that has characterized 20th-century Europe, his life story rivals the most intriguing fiction.


"I like to tell stories," Halter, 61, said with a mischievous, infectious laugh.


A writer by trade, Halter is a naturalized Frenchman who currently serves as editor in chief of The French News bimonthly and as director of two French universities operating as colleges within Moscow State and St. Petersburg universities.


A veteran campaigner for democratic values and human rights, Halter sees his role in promoting the university programs and the newspaper in Russia as the natural evolutions of his life's work because they help bring new, more democratic ideas to young Russians.


Born in Warsaw in 1936, Halter's childhood was marked by the twists of fate that scattered his generation. After suffering the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Halter's family fled the capital, landing in the arms of the Red Army, which took them to Moscow and then on to Kokand, Uzbekistan, for the duration of the war.


It was during this period as a refugee in Central Asia that Halter experienced his "only one true moment of glory in Russia." At the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow following the war, 9-year-old Halter found himself impounded into the local Uzbek Pioneer troop that was chosen to present flowers to Stalin on Red Square.


As the self-described "hooligan" would have to describe again and again for the people back home in Kokand, Halter said Stalin put his hand on his head and murmured, "Good boy."


"'He told you good boy?' they would demand of me back home," Halter recalled. Despite all the work he's done fighting for democracy in Russia, Halter said almost nothing else makes Russians' eyes light up like his story of meeting Stalin.


At the end of the war, the Halter family was repatriated to Poland and then made their way to France, arriving in 1950. "It was a shock for me," Halter said, "it being the first democratic place I had seen."


Halter, who never went to high school or attended college, nevertheless made the most of his opportunities in France, trying his hand at a few different occupations before making the decision to become a writer. He has published several novels, including "The Book of Abraham," which he said sold 4 million copies in the United States and 1 million copies in France.


It was his interest in the plight of the Jews that led him to become concerned for the rights of all persecuted people. In the 1980s, Halter moved in the circles of intellectuals that helped organize a global campaign to help Sakharov when the Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner was exiled to Gorky. Through this work lobbying the French and Soviet governments for Sakharov's release, Halter came into contact with cellist Mstislav Rostopovich and an increasing number of Soviet dissidents.


Returning to Moscow in 1987, Halter said the dissidents he spoke with saw the establishment of a French university in the Soviet Union as a project that could help to promote democracy and would be acceptable to Mikhail Gorbachev during the years of perestroika.


Halter said Sakharov once compared democracy to an orange. Following Sakharov's example, Halter said, "A person who has never seen an orange won't desire it." Their goal became that of introducing the "orange" to the Soviet people through two French universities.


The universities were years in the making; Halter inaugurated the first French university at Moscow State University in 1990 and the second one opened in St. Petersburg the following year. The schools, which offer a liberal-arts curriculum, have attracted about 3,000 students. The students, who are taught by visiting French professors, may apply for yearlong exchanges to France, and they receive French university diplomas.


While Halter was raising money for the universities, he had trouble getting sponsors. Peugeot's chairman, Jacques Calvet, told Halter that the car firm declined to sponsor the university, saying they only have money for advertising and publicity.


Halter credits his wife, Clara, with pursuing this angle. She suggested the creation of a bilingual, French-Russian newspaper to attract advertising dollars to support the universities and "to give Russian readers a chance to smell the French perfume a little bit."


The perfume analogy refers neither to scratch-and-sniff Chanel No. 5 advertisements nor, as Halter said, to giving Russians advice on how to run their own country.


Rather, his newspaper seeks to promote the exchange of ideas and knowledge -- something he considers essential to the development of democracy.


The French News, which was first published in May, has expanded from the first issue's circulation of 65,000 to 100,000 last September. A slick color publication, The French News offers news and commentary, business profiles and sections on art and culture.


With two universities and a newspaper under his direction, Halter spends his time between Paris, Moscow and St. Petersburg.


But he thinks his life will only become busier as the universities and the newspaper's circulation grow.


"My dream is to bring our journal to all the regions of Russia -- to introduce some dreams in this country, which I love very much, because this country saved my life," he said.


Growth may just be in the works. On a recent visit to Russia, French President Jacques Chirac discussed an expansion of the university program and the establishment of a separate institution with President Boris Yeltsin, said Halter, who said he was present at the meeting.


Halter has faith in both his projects and in Russia. "My students don't remember [the old regime]," he said. A tabula rasa, or clean slate, "exists, and when they reach positions of power, things will change.


"They will invent their own Russian form of democracy."