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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Politician and Chessplayer Natan Sharansky


    Garry Kasparov has to be the best chessplaying politician in the world, but the chess world lost a promising player to politics in the person of Natan Sharansky.
     Sharansky was born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky on January 20, 1948 to Jewish parents in Donetsk (then called Stalino), Soviet Union. He graduated with a degree in applied mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
     As a child, he was a chess prodigy and gave simultaneous and blindfold displays, usually against adults. At the age of 14 or 15, he won the championship of Donetsk. Before his imprisonment as a refusenik in the Soviet Union in the 1970s Sharansky had developed a computer program to play endings. The program utilized a "decision tree analysis", or, as Sharansky puts it, "building a logical set of aims and the means to reach these aims".
     He's competitive, a risk taker, obdurate, fearless and determined to be the best. All aspects which made his will impossible for the Soviet authorities to break. The 125 times he was hauled in front of the KGB, he adopted the same strategy to resist their pressure, working out what his objective was and how he could accomplish it.
     Sharansky marriage application to his wife, Avital, was denied by the authorities, so they were married in a friend's apartment in a ceremony not recognized by the government as the USSR only recognized civil marriage and not religious marriage. He was denied an exit visa to Israel in 1973 because it was claimed that at some point in his career he had been given access to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave. After that he became a becoming a refusenik...a human rights activist, working as a translator for dissident nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Group and a leader for the rights of refuseniks.
     On March 15, 1977 Sharansky was arrested on multiple charges including high treason and spying for Americans. Supposedly he passed to the West lists of over 1,300 refuseniks, many of whom were denied exit visas because of their knowledge of state secrets. High treason carried the death penalty, but in 1978, he was sentenced to 13 years of forced labor.
     Sharansky spent time in the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, followed by Vladimir and Chistopol prisons, where for part of the time he was placed in solitary confinement. His health deteriorated, to the point of endangering his life. Later he was detained in Perm 35, a post-Stalin-Gulag-type so-called "strict regimen colony." 
     He kept himself sane during solitary confinement by playing chess with himself, in his head.  Of the nine years he spent in a Siberian prison, half was spent in solitary confinement and for more than 400 days he was locked in a punishment cell, given barely any food and clothes so thin that in the winter it amounted to torture. 
     During those games in his head he would tell his jailers, "Don't disturb me, I'm playing chess." and to them it was evidence that he was going insane. His cell had no bed, chair or table, let alone a chessboard and pieces. With no-one to talk to and forbidden to read or write, he played thousands of games and later pointed out that he won them all!
     In his early days in the Soviet Union Jews faced discrimination and his parents instilled in him the lesson that the only way to combat anti-Semitism was to be outstanding in whichever career he chose. 
    He originally wanted to be the world chess champion, but realizing that this wasn't going to happen, he studied math and physics. And after it became clear that he wasn't going to be the best physicist in the world, he joked that he decided to become the number one political prisoner.     
     As a result of an international campaign led by his wife, East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel, New York Congressman Benjamin Gilman and Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, Sharansky was released on February 11, 1986. He was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev due to intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan.
     Sharansky and three low-level Western spies were exchanged for Czech spies Karl Koecher and Hana Koecher held in the USA, Soviet spy Yevgeni Zemlyakov, Polish spy Marian Zacharski and East German spy Detlef Scharfenorth (the latter three held in West Germany).
     At his release in 1986 at Berlin's Glienicke bridge, dividing East from West he was exchanged for two Soviet spies. Sharansky was ordered to go straight across the bridge, but instead as he walked across the bridge he zigzagged.
     Sharansky immediately immigrated to Israel, adopting the Hebrew name Natan and eventually simplifying his surname to Sharansky. His wife had become religiously observant during his detention, but he did not follow her on this path. 
    In Israel he entered politics, taking contentious hawkish positions on several issues, and rising to the office of deputy prime minister Due to his age and poor health, he was exempted from the standard mandatory three years' military service, but had to undergo three weeks of military training and do a stint in the Civil Guard.
     In 1986, the United States Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal, in 1987, Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America awarded him the Henrietta Szold Award and in 2006 US President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2008, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation awarded Sharansky its 2008 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award.

     In 1995 he co-founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party (a play of words-"aliya" means both Jewish emigration to Israel, and "rise", thus the party name means "(People of) Israel immigrating to the State of Israel. Since then he has served in numerous positions in the Israeli government. Sharansky is the author of three books. The first is the autobiographical Fear No Evil, which dealt with his trial and imprisonment. His second book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror was co-written with Ron Dermer. His book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, is a defense of the value of national and religious identity in building democracy.
     In the following game against Kasparov taken from a simultaneous exhibition in Jerusalem in 1996 shows Sharansky is quite a strong player His sacrificial attack beginning with 15. Nxf2 is very nice.

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