Friday, February 17, 2017

Fear No Evil

Fear No Evil: 
© 1988 Natan Sharansky
437  pages

Fear No Evil chronicles one man’s psychological war against the KGB and the entire Gulag system. Born a Jewish subject of the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky wanted nothing more than to emigrate peacefully to Israel, along with his fiancé. Forcefully denied exit, Sharansky became an advocate for other ‘refusniks’, and a human rights activist in general, within the Soviet Union. Denounced as a traitorous spy in the employ of the Americans, Sharansky was arrested and thrown into the prison system of the Soviets, subjected to long periods of isolation and physical destitution which was moderated only by the Soviets’ desire to appear to be behaving. This is not a mere prison memoir, however, detailing the abuses of the Soviet state. Instead, Sharansky takes us through his campaign to maintain his character despite being in the clutches of a system that was designed precisely to erode or demolish individual spirits, leaving nothing but the New Soviet Man – an institutionalized zek, a placid cow who existed to be milked and slaughtered as the State wished.

From the beginning, Sharansky approached the KGB and the Soviet state strategically. Even while fighting against them, he did so completely in the open. He maintains that he concealed nothing, met with no one secretly, never once scurried in the dark like a criminal who had something to hid. He was a man, speaking ‘truth to power’ like a man (to borrow from King). While in interrogations, he listened between the lines, attempting to discern what sort of case they were trying to build against him. While the KGB sought to alienate him, he spent his prison hours revisiting every moment of his life, swaddling the memories of loved ones around him to remind him constantly of what he was fighting for. If the KGB wanted to divorce him from his Jewish heritage, he would be the best Jew he could by praying constantly and learning Hebrew – despite not being observant in the least in the outside world. If they wanted to threaten him with death, he would bring the subject so much that the word lost its sting. At every step, he engaged in noncooperation. He mocked the KGB relentlessly, spending day after day in solitary confinement. When threatened with the loss of ‘privileges’ for not cooperating, he deliberately broke rules to ensure that his happiness and peace of mind were never predicated on what the KGB could offer him, or could do to him. From the beginning he maintained that nothing they could do could humiliate him: only he could humiliate himself. Though he never once references Greek philosophy, Sharansky lived as a Stoic in the same way that James Stockdale did while similarly imprisoned. He used his mind to defend his character, his very person, from being broken and cast in an inferior mold.

Fear no Evil is an incredible and commendable chronicle of a man conducting himself brilliantly, who faced a system built on inhumanity and emerged triumphant. This is excellent stuff -- Arete in action.

I think it's high time I hunted down a copy of Gulag Archipelago...


  1. Sounds like a really good read. A couple of years back, I read "The Power of the Powerless," by Czech writer Václav Havel. His theme was along the same lines - resistance by "living within the truth," starting with the simplest actions, like not putting up a propaganda poster in a shop window. I was impressed by how right he was (but also how truly hard that could be).

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I've heard of that author before, and the same example given. I cannot remember the context, but I know it was in an article responding to some government action a couple of years ago.

  2. This sounds like such a good and important book. The importance courage and strength that people like Sharanskyhave shown in the face of prison and mistreatment cannot be overstated.

    I would like to read this book.

    1. The person who lent this to me described it as her absolute favorite, which she reads once a year. I can see why, now..


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