The Kremlin called just as Natan Sharansky was wrapping up a quick trip to Russia. The Russian request reached him at a Moscow airport as he awaited his flight home to Israel: Could Sharansky make it to a private lunch with President Vladimir Putin at 2 p.m. sharp?
Sharansky--once a Soviet dissident, now an Israeli politician--glanced at his watch (it was 1 p.m.), jumped in his car and raced back into town. After a pit stop to change from a T-shirt and jeans into something presentable, he appeared at the Kremlin's Borovitsky Gate, from which he was ushered into Putin's suite of offices.
And so for 90 minutes on Sept. 19, Sharansky, the man once hounded and imprisoned by the KGB, and Putin, the former KGB spy, lunched in the Russian president's dining room. There were a few awkward moments, as when Sharansky, who keeps a kosher diet, sent back a succession of meat dishes prepared by the Kremlin chef.
"You can't take chicken?" asked the slightly puzzled Russian leader, according to Sharansky.
By and large, though, the lunch went smoothly, the conversation veering from the Middle East peace talks to Israeli politics to Russia's Jewish diaspora and, at Sharansky's initiative, Putin's crackdown on independent Russian media. It concluded with Putin giving a guided tour of his resplendent offices, vast, gilded and silent as a church, as the two awaited a Kremlin photographer to record the moment.
All of which left Sharansky wondering: Why had Putin invited him to lunch?
"If you ask me today, what was the reason why he did it, I still don't know the answer," he said in an interview in his living room in Jerusalem.
Sharansky said Putin spent much of the lunch expressing, in occasionally lavish terms, his sympathy for Israel, his distaste for antisemitism and the importance he attaches to Jews in Russia and the Jewish diaspora, as well as his glowing memories of a family vacation some years ago in Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Golan Heights.
"He said it wasn't simple in the KGB being sympathetic to Jews," Sharansky said. "But he told me how he grew up in [a] communal apartment and there was a Jewish family there which for him were almost like relatives. He liked them very much."
All that may have provided a clue as to Putin's motives, according to some Russian analysts.
In recent months, Putin has overseen a crackdown on the independent media empire controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky, a TV and print baron who is also among the most prominent leaders of Russia's Jewish community. Gusinsky, who runs the only major independent television channel in Russia, NTV, fled the country in July after being imprisoned on what many critics regarded as trumped-up charges. He is currently living in Europe.
The crackdown on Gusinsky, who is president of the Russian Jewish Congress, has generated an outcry in the West, particularly among American Jewish leaders. It coincided with a maneuver--in which some saw the Kremlin's hand--to depose the chief rabbi of Russia, Adolf Shayevich, who is close to Gusinsky. A new chief rabbi appears to have been installed in his place--Berl Lazar of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, who is believed to be more to the Kremlin's liking.
More broadly, the crackdown has reinforced fears that when it comes to freedom of expression, Putin's instincts are those of the Soviet intelligence agent he once was.
Sharansky, who is close to Gusinsky, said he raised the subject of the Kremlin's crackdown with Putin, who defended himself vigorously. The Russian leader insisted he was not trying to restore exclusive state control of television, but rather to broaden the narrow ownership of Russian media properties.
Sharansky said he was impressed by Putin's overture to diaspora Jews--regardless of the motivation behind it. But he acknowledged his invitation to lunch at the Kremlin was born of more than Putin's "simple curiousity."
"It's an interesting episode in terms of developing relations between Russia and Israel and the West," said Sharansky, an opposition lawmaker in Israel's parliament. "The way a new president is looking for new ways of building dialogue--looking at the diaspora not as enemies but as partners and maybe even as ambassadors, looking at former KGB victims as partners with whom he can develop some kind of understanding."