How Chess Helped Natan Sharansky Outlast the Soviet Union and Foster Jewish Unity
Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People by Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky (Hachette, 2020).
In 1977, Natan Sharansky, a leading activist in the democratic dissident movement in the Soviet Union and the movement for free Jewish emigration, was arrested by the KGB. He spent nine years as a political prisoner, convicted of treason against the state.
Never Alone reveals how Sharansky’s years in prison, many spent in harsh solitary confinement, prepared him for a very public life after his release. His story is suffused with reflections from his time as a political prisoner, his seat at the table as history unfolded in Israel and the Middle East, and his passionate efforts to unite the Jewish people.
Below is an excerpt from the book:
A punishment cell is a small, dark, cold place where there is no one to speak to, nothing to read, nothing to touch, and almost nothing to eat. Soviet law decreed that no prisoner should be left in one for more than fifteen days in a row. Any longer was considered too dangerous to the individual’s psyche.
But when the KGB wanted to break a political prisoner, there were no limits. They could keep you in for fifteen days and another fifteen and another fifteen. My longest stretch was 130 days in a row. And I spent 405 days in punishment cells in total.
My aim while inside was to survive mentally and physically while refusing to surrender. So I played chess in my head. I played one game after another, thousands of games. The good news is I always won. In each game, I would identify with one side and try to beat my opponent. I would check all the options that might work for me and consider which ones were reasonable for my opponent.
When the game was finished, I turned the board around in my head and became the opponent. Now I was trying to follow the rival strategy. Each time, I realized there were more and more opportunities for both sides. I had more than enough time to test each possibility. After all, I was not in a hurry — the longer, the better.
In a real game against an opponent, the aim is to win. Here, my aim was to survive. In this game, I was white but would be black in ten minutes. So, after a few hundred games, there was no difference between white and black, all these pieces were my allies in one mutual struggle for survival.
That’s how I feel about the dynamics between Israel and the Jews of the diaspora. Against true enemies like the KGB — or Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah — we play to win. We take no prisoners and make no compromises. But when we are involved in the debate between Israel and the diaspora on either side, we are not looking for victory. We are seeking ways to continue our journey together in our dialogue of one — all in, even if we’re on the outs.
It happens again and again. I turn the board around in the middle of a dispute. I try to understand the logic of the other side. Like a good yeshiva student, I seek the chidush, the innovation, the new idea — not to beat my opponent but as an opportunity for us all to move ahead.
In a community, we understand there will always be tensions, there will always be struggle. But we want to continue the joint journey through history, and I feel I belong to both camps, to both sides, to both Israel and the diaspora. At the same time, we also make different choices, live different lives, and play different roles. Having each other’s backs does not require speaking in the same voice.
In 2003, I published an article in Commentary, “On Hating the Jews.” I analyzed the common link underlying different types of antisemitism in different countries and civilizations over the millennia. I noticed that Jews have always stood against the tide. We are forever the other, the perpetual dissidents. We were monotheists in the ancient pagan world and unrepentant heretics in the Christian and Muslim worlds. In enlightened Europe’s modernizing world, we were traditionalists to some and ultra-modernists to others, and, of course, we were Rothschilds and Marxes, both the ultimate capitalists and the ultimate Communists. In the Purim story, the evil Haman sums it up, saying, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of other peoples, and the king’s laws they do not keep, so that it is of no benefit for the king to tolerate them.”
Haman is just one of many enemies over the millennia who justifies his Jew-hatred by emphasizing the Jews’ exasperating separateness, their rejection of the majority’s customs and moral concepts. This separateness, this catalyzing readiness to be countercultural and think unconventionally, explains why the Jews became what Leo Tolstoy called “pioneers of culture” and “pioneers of freedom.”
Today, we Jews stand against two powerful tides sweeping the world. One is the tide of illiberal liberalism. It speaks in the name of universal human rights, but in its extreme form denies the value of a nation-state while seeing Israel as the last remnant of colonialism. But Israel, the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, insists that its strong bottom-up grassroots national identity, consecrated by the will of the people, gives it the strength to be the only island of democracy in the Middle East.
Opposing illiberal liberalism is also the tide of the new nationalism, which appeals to a lost sense of national pride and helps to mobilize the energy citizens get from belonging. But it, in its extreme form, is illiberal. Most members of the progressive Jewish community oppose this extreme, insisting that their strong liberal society preserves their Jewish identity.
Each community is doing what it does naturally to survive. But when the Jewish world works together, as a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East and as a constellation of minority Jewish communities in Western democracies, we can bring out the best in each other. Benefiting from the best of liberalism and the best of nationalism, together we can champion the joint mission to belong and to be free as both central to human happiness. This synthesis could also help moderate some of the extremes afflicting the West and affecting each of us in our respective communities today. This approach requires a conceptual leap in all societies, accepting that we are complementary, not carbon copies of one another.
Perhaps my obsession with dialogue as a tool for survival is overcompensation for my years of silence in the Gulag, despite having been nicknamed by my older brother “a bloody chatterbox” when we were kids. No matter how lonely I might have seemed to be in my punishing cell, I survived by knowing I had not been abandoned by my people. We will continue as long as we all know that the balancing act goes on, the commitment persists, and the dialogue survives, guaranteeing that once you are a part of the Jewish debate, you are never alone.