The miracle of Anatoly Shcharansky is that when he made his way across the Glienicke Bridge to freedom, he was not a bitter man like Solzhenitsyn nor a beaten man like Gary Powers nor a broken man like many who merely survived the gulag. He arrived in good humor, in control, serene. Free he went into the gulag and free he came out. He took on the Soviet state and won. It was a stunning, miraculous triumph.
The melancholy thing about miracles, however, is their rarity. Shcharansky's uniqueness shows the potential of the human species. But uniqueness has another aspect, an aspect worth remembering amid the exhilaration and euphoria attending Shcharansky's release. The unique is, by definition, anomalous.
Shcharansky himself once noted that many of his fellow dissidents, acing trial or in labor camp, told the authorities they could be "rehabilitated." For every Shcharansky, there are scores who compromise, confess and leave the gulag beaten, though blameless.
Blameless, because no one has the right to judge those who lack Shcharansky's fortitude. Certainly not those of us living in the comfort of the West. ("Sometimes I ask myself how I'd stand up under torture," muses Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall." "You?" replies Woody Allen, "If the Gestapo took away your Bloomingdale's card, you'd tell them everything.") We have no right to make judgments, but we can make assessments. And one assessment seems to me inescapable: force works.
Shcharansky's triumph nurtures in us the belief that freedom is an irrepressible idea that, like truth, must out. Yet the greatest modern exponent of liberty entertained no such illusion. Wrote John Stuart Mill, "It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake." It is precisely because Mill was so aware of what the dungeon can do to truth that he sought to forbid any contest between the two. He demanded toleration because he knew that force can indeed expunge ideas and crush the spirit.
The Soviets, too, have an appreciation of what force can do to spirit. The melancholy fact is that while the Soviet state could not break Shcharansky, it did break the dissident movement that he and Orlov and Sakharov and others founded. It was so utterly crushed that by 1982 only three of the original 11 members of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group remained (i.e., were not in jail or in exile). At that point, with no choice and less hope, they were forced to disband. In its larger objective, the KBG succeeded.
And in even larger objectives too. Look at Poland. It was a commonplace just five years ago to say that the Soviets faced an insoluble problem: no amount of force could ever crush the spirit of freedom that had seized an entire nation. Things had gone too far. Some accommodation had to be made with Solidarity, 10 million strong, said a host of starry-eyed critics. Polish expert Abraham Brumberg, for example, opined at the time that "if the (communist) party is to stay at the helm of the state, it can do so only by reforming itself, ruling by consent rather than diktat."
In fact, Brumberg later wrote that the Poles were "a people who have already shown that they will not tolerate any more repression." Within three weeks, Gen. Jaruzelski had declared martial law, "suspended" Solidarity and demonstrated that, under the influence of a sufficient number of tanks, Poles could be made to tolerate an entirely new order of repression.
The history of the Soviet state is testimony to the efficacy of force -- force applied with the requisite speed, cunning and ruthlessness. The dark side of he Polish story, as of the Shcharansky story, is that the state won. Force cannot break some men. But it can demoralize most. And it can destroy movements, reverse "tides of history," as romantics persist in calling them.
How exceptional is Shcharansky? To the end, he obeyed his iron law: no compromise with the KGB. His last order from the KGB was to walk straight from the airplane to the car waiting to take him to freedom. Shcharansky walked from the plane -- in a zig-zag.
Compare his relentless resistance to the reaction of airline passengers to their hijackers. Almost invariably they are compliant, sometimes to the point of collaboration, even sympathy. (The phenomenon is sometimes called the Stockholm syndrome, as if it were a form of mental illness, rather than a fully human response to terror.) Allyn Conwell, the TWA hostage "spokesman" in Beirut, thanked his captors. Shcharansky mocked his.
The difference? When the KGsingled out Shcharansky, it picked the one in a million who distinguished himself by defiance. When hijackers take prisoners, theirs is a random sample of humanity. Shcharansky is measure of what can be. Random samples are a measure of what is.