From Gulag to Government - Sharansky Returns

Article excerpt

Pleading with Natan Sharansky for political support, the settler woman in Hebron appealed to his dissident past. "You're a tough and shrewd guy. You survived the Gulag by never letting the government trick you. Do the right thing."

But it is 10 years since Anatoly Shcharansky, as the name of the Soviet Union's most famous Jewish prisoner was then spelled, was freed from prison and flown to Israel. These days he is Trade and Industry Minister. "Yes," he told the settler, "but you know today I am the government."

Tomorrow, Mr Sharansky makes his first trip back to the former Soviet Union since he was released. He will head a 90-member delegation of officials and businessmen. He comes, not just as a visiting minister, but as the effective leader of the 600,000 Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel after 1989. There was nothing gradual about the return of 49-year-old Mr Sharansky to prominence, because he never quite sunk from sight. He set up a cultural foundation. He wrote a column for the fortnightly Jerusalem Report. But a year ago he was a dated figure trying, like many Israeli celebrities, to create his own political party. He had an unwitting ally in the Israeli government, which wholly underestimated the resentment of Russian immigrants at their treatment. At a meeting to found his Israel Ba-liya (Israel with Immigration) party, he said: "Russian immigrants want to become Israelis without leaving their culture at the airport." No fewer than 61,000 immigrants hold degrees in engineering, and many cannot find jobs of equivalent standing to their employment in the old Soviet Union. In the election last May, the party won seven seats in the 120-member Knesset. …