In January, 1986, Martin Gilbert was just finishing this long densely detailed book, which he had begun in July, 1983. He did not know that less than a month later, after nine years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, Anatoly Shcharansky would be released in a prisoner exchange with the West--an exchange which supplied Gilbert with an additional chapter and an unexpected happy ending.
This, then, is no “instant book,” hastily produced to cash in on Shcharansky’s much-deserved worldwide celebrity. Neither, however, is it the book for which many readers are waiting: an in-depth portrait of this remarkable man and his equally remarkable wife, Avital.
Martin Gilbert is a prolific scholar who has written widely on Jewish subjects, although he has also found time to produce a multi-volume authorized biography of Sir Winston Churchill. It is clear that in writing this book, he had two primary aims: to dramatize the plight of Soviety Jewry, and to focus attention on the continued imprisonment of Shcharansky, who, as an outspoken Jewish activist, had been arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for the West.
Gilbert’s experience as a scholar is evident in his command of detail and his intimate knowledge of the Soviet scene. On the other hand, his prose is workmanlike at best, and Shcharansky comes alive only in his letters, a number of which are given here in their entirety. Indeed, these letters--at once witty and morally passionate--are by far the best part of the book, and they whet the reader’s appetite for Shcharansky’s forthcoming memoirs, in which he will tell his own story.