Release of Soviet Dissident Anatoly B. Shcharansky in Exchange for Alleged Soviet Spies

Shcharansky's treatment had symbolized the plight of the Soviet "refuseniks," people who had been refused permission to emigrate and then harassed in various ways for insisting on their desire to do so.

Many of them have professional qualifications the Soviets deem sensitive to their national security. Shcharansky was sentenced in the Soviet Union on a charge of being a CIA agent, an accusation that the U.S. government denies. He insisted on his innocence in a telephone call to President Reagan the evening of his release: "As you know, I never was an American spy." After his release, Shcharansky met his wife, Avital, who had spent the last nine years fighting for his freedom, and the two went on to Tel Aviv.

In late 1985, however, after the historic first meeting between Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in Geneva, the new Soviet leader decided to make a gesture in the direction of improved relations. Still officially insisting that Shcharansky was a spy, the Soviets agreed to his release as part of an exchange of convicted espionage agents on both sides. He was released early on the morning of February 11, 1986, at the border separating East and West Berlin. Shcharansky was allowed to go alone to his freedom before the others, as if those releasing him were acknowledging his special status. His important role as a symbol of repression was thus evident at the end of his long ordeal, as it had been at the beginning. Perhaps to end the Shcharansky symbolism," the U.S.S.R. permitted five of his relatives to follow him to Israel in July 1986.