A tale of two dissidents: Alexei Navalny’s moving letters from jail to Natan Sharansky

The Russian opposition leader was inspired to write to the Israeli former refusenik after reading his Soviet prison memoir


Letters from the Gulag: Alexei Navalny, in Moscow in 2019, before his poisoning and final imprisonment (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Moving letters between the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who died in a brutal Russian prison camp last week, and Natan Sharansky, the Jewish refusenik who served nine years in similar camps in the Soviet Union, have been revealed.

The correspondence was published on the US platform The Free Press.

Navalny started the correspondence last April after reading Sharansky’s prison memoir Fear No Evil, published in 1988 after he was released from prison and left the USSR for Israel, where he eventually became a leading politician and chairman of the Jewish Agency.

“I want to thank you for this book as it has helped me a lot and continues to help,” Navalny wrote from penal colony IK-6.

“Your book gives hope because the similarity between the two systems — the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia — their ideological resemblance, the hypocrisy that serves as the very basis of their essence, and the continuity from the former to the latter — all this guarantees an equally inevitable collapse. Like the one we witnessed.”

Sharansky replied immediately that he was both shocked and excited to hear from a man he so admired, from his “alma mater”, the “university” where he had spent so much of his youth.

He wrote from Jerusalem on the eve of Passover and concluded: “I wish to you, Alexei, and to all of Russia, an Exodus as soon as possible.”

Navalny wrote back: “In your alma mater everything is as it was. Traditions are honoured. On Friday evening, they let me out of the SHIZO [punishment cell], today on Monday — I got another 15 days.”

He added: “Everything according to Ecclesiastes: what was, will be.”

Sharansky replied: “I know that for your freedom you are having to pay — with health, worries for your family, and eventually with your life.”

His words were prophetic. Navalny died in a Siberian penal colony on 16 February, aged 47. He had returned to Russia from Germany in 2021 after being treated for a near-fatal Novichok nerve agent poisoning attack, assumed to have been carried out by Russian agents.

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