In assessing my own liberation, I recall a conformity that feels terrifyingly familiar today
BYNATAN SHARANSKY WITH GIL TROYFEBRUARY 10, 2021
My father, a journalist named Boris Shcharansky, was born in 1904 in Odessa, the cultural and economic center of the Pale of Settlement, where the Russian empire stuck most Jews. He studied in the Jewish Commercial Gymnasium, because most other gymnasiums accepted very few Jews, if any. By the time he was 16, he had already lived through the Czarist Regime with its anti-Semitic restrictions, the “February” Socialist Revolution, the “October” Bolshevik Revolution, and the years of civil war when power in Odessa seesawed back and forth from faction to faction, as hunger, pogroms, and destruction decimated the population.
When the Soviets finally emerged from the chaos, therefore, my father was hopeful. The Communists promised that a new life of full equality was dawning, without Pales of Settlement, without education restrictions, and, most important, with equal opportunities for all. Who wouldn’t want that? One of my father’s brothers discovered Zionism and went off to Palestine. But my father was excited about building a world of social justice and equality closer to his home.
From the time he was a kid, my bookish father loved making up stories. Lucky for him, Odessa was emerging as a center for a new cultural medium—cinema. As silent Charlie Chaplin-type movies started evolving into more scripted sketches, my father put his storytelling talents to work. Imagine his thrill when, as a twenty-something, he saw millions watch a script that he had written come to life.
Of course, to succeed in his career as a screenwriter, he had to follow certain rules. His scripts, like every other work of art, had to follow the script of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, seeing the world through the lens of class struggle and class exploitation. As Karl Marx argued, and the Bolsheviks now decreed, “the history of all hitherto-existing societies is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.”
Thankfully, in its final stage of class struggle, following Karl Marx’s teaching, the proletariat had seized power from its masters, establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat who would build a classless society of equals. So-called bourgeois freedoms, minor matters like civil liberties and human rights, were nothing more than facades for exploiting others. The old world and its retrograde values had to be destroyed in order to bring forth social justice. Today, such a singular vision might be called Critical Class Theory—or maybe The 1917 Project.RELATEDCoffin ProblemsHow Soviet anti-Semitism buried Jewish scientistsBYJULIA SCHULMANANDMICHAEL HSIEHDeath to Me!‘The New York Times’ and the creepy personal and ideological logic of public confessionsBYDAVID MIKICSIn a Birch Forest, With the KGBExtraordinary photographs of a refusenik picnic in 1974, when Soviet Jews were far from freeBYBURTON CAINE
Everything had to serve Communist ideology: every institution, every medium, every art form. Lenin particularly appreciated the propaganda potential of movies, declaring, “Cinema for us is the most important of the arts.” So while all creative artists had to subordinate plot, character, and complexity to advancing the Bolshevik political agenda, movie-makers endured extra scrutiny. The term “politically-correct,” which is popular today, emerged in the late 1920s, to describe the need to correct certain deviants’ thought to fit the Communist Party Line. Any positive characters with bourgeois origins had to eventually check their privilege, condemn their past as oppressors, and publicly take responsibility for their sins.
At first, True Believers who championed the Revolution’s noble aims easily accepted these restrictions. But as the Red Terror grew, the mounting attacks on religion and nationalism and private property destroyed most people’s illusions. The number of True Believers kept shrinking as the fear kept spreading.
Yet amid the disillusionment, no one wants to sacrifice their personal dreams; you still want to see your work produced. After all, it’s your chosen career path and it’s your only way to influence the world. As the Party Line you follow publicly becomes increasingly disconnected from what you believe or see or experience privately, your cynicism grows along with your mental agility—your skill in living and writing in two contradictory scripts at once. That’s how you become a doublethinker.
To keep his stories approved, and to lessen the risk of rejection—or exposure—my father scoured the official Soviet press, seeking pre-approved heroes. Once, he read about some White Army soldiers who escaped to Turkey, and wished to return to Mother Russia. The tension in the story centered around their former officers, who were blocking them from returning to their homeland. My father’s imagination—then his pen—created a tragic but adventurous script about ordinary people caught in the midst of a power struggle. The Ukrainian producer Alexander Dovzhenko, just launching what would be a legendary career, green-lit the script immediately.
The script jumped through the censorship hoops, from office to office. In one of the very last offices, one apparatchik questioned the story’s ideological purity. “Why should we be sympathetic—and possibly invite sympathy,” he asked, “to enemies of the Revolution?” The dreaded second question immediately followed: “Who is this scriptwriter who sympathizes with these class-traitors?”
A local newspaper soon ran an article about the young scriptwriter’s bourgeois origins and Zionist connections—because of the brother who moved to Palestine. My father was cancelled.
Fearing for his life, my father fled the film industry, Odessa, and his beloved creative world, in 1929. Landing in an obscure Ukrainian industrial center, which today is known as Donetsk, he spent the rest of his writing career as a journalist, celebrating the proletarians building the new Soviet world in a series of industrial journals. Every article he wrote perpetuated his double life, as he took whatever facts there were, and massaged them all into upbeat news that would make him look loyal and the Revolution look successful. Knowing that any deviations from the ideological vision would be dismissed as “bourgeois lies,” my father became part of a vast assembly line manufacturing the Soviet version of “fake news.” He understood that—as would be said a century later by an activist Member of the U.S. Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—more important than “being precisely, factually, and semantically correct,” he had to be “morally right”—meaning in line with the official ideology.
I was born almost 20 years later, in 1948. My father had fought as a soldier in the Red Army in World War II for four years, and had returned a hero. In a family which lost so many friends and relatives in the Holocaust, then watched so many friends suffer during Josef Stalin’s political and anti-Semitic purges, my father’s flight from Odessa had long ago paled in significance next to the horrors that he and others had lived through. My parents, now in their fifties, were thrilled that they finally had children after years of yearning—and thankful to have left the very worst years behind them.
Every day, my father went to work—still seeking interesting stories. But, when it came to writing them up, his imagination had to shrink, his mouth had to be wired shut, his hand had to cramp tight, as he produced what the Party required. He knew the handicapped journalism he created was not true journalism, the art that resulted was not true art, the thoughts triggered were not real thoughts and the conversations surrounding it all were not real conversations. Yet my father remained a storyteller at heart—and now he had an audience—my older brother by two years and me.
When my father came home from work, he could leave the suffocating grey false universe he helped to create behind, and welcome his beloved family into a full-color world. From the time we were very young, he would tell us stories on three levels—explaining to us what the author said, what the author wished to say, and what the author could not say. When we started, from a very young age, our ritual of weekly outings to the movies, he would recreate the movie for us on the way home, filling in what the screenwriter probably wanted to write, and explain what he could not write.
My father distracted himself—as a father, a husband, an overwhelmed 50-something-year-old Soviet citizen expending so much energy just to manage the daily lines, the weekly grind, the monthly strain of running out of money before running out of month. But he also had two other great escapes. Many neighboring dads frittered away their money every payday on vodka; my father’s vice was books. He loved to buy books, to read the classics, to throw himself into alternate realities, where his imagination could roam free—without a price to pay or a Party Line to uphold. He also kept tabs on the reality his articles regularly distorted by listening regularly, in secret, to the Voice of America, or BBC, or whatever other free Western radio channels the Soviets didn’t succeed in jamming completely at that particular moment.
Still, with all that, he never stopped looking for an opportunity to stop self-censoring and strangling his creative impulses. In 1962, nearly a decade after Stalin’s death, during the short period of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” my father was thrilled when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published, in the Soviet journal Novy Mir, a searing account describing suffering in the Gulag: “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Perhaps here was a chance to write something about Stalin’s purges in Donetsk before the war, or Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns after the war.
Encouraged after a few discrete inquiries, my father started writing away. When he took his draft to a local publishing house in 1963, the editors read it with great excitement. People had forgotten what it was like to read a compelling account of a complex moment in recent history.
Alas, the excitement faded quickly. “You had to have brought this kind of material to us a year ago,” they sighed. “Today, we fear a backlash”—which actually did come.
Many of my father’s youthful friends from Odessa kept writing, helping to generate Soviet art for half-a-century after my father’s flight in the late 1920s. Some went on to become famous cinematographers, journalists, writers, and poets. The greater their prominence, the higher the risk that they would be disgraced—or worse. Their desperation to produce, to publish, grew. If their work was ignored, they couldn’t justify their existence—or keep up their lifestyles and reputations.
But the price kept getting steeper. Each time, Josef Stalin attacked the intelligentsia yet again, their vulnerability grew, their juggling acts became ever-more elaborate—and their cultural output became ever-blander, safer, flatter.
This was the cost of tunnel vision writing with a hyper-partisan lens, the compression in insight and the plunge in quality that comes from only seeing the world as one big class struggle—then sacrificing literary freedom to prop up the delusion as the dream turns nightmarish.Share→︎TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkCopied link
I remember meeting my father’s friends from “the old Odessa days,” periodically, three decades later when I was a kid. I would overhear them trading stories about the Great Patriotic War, about the Holocaust, about their families. Inevitably, he and his visiting friend would compare notes describing their efforts to remain in the game. No one was ever quite sure what would be permitted or not, what red line they might cross tomorrow; what “macro-aggression” or “micro-aggression” they might suddenly be found guilty of committing. To be a man of letters in a sea of fear was to worry about drowning constantly.
Many writers had convinced themselves in the 1940s that there was one safe topic—the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Here, they hoped, was a chance to overcome this double life, an opportunity to lessen the ideological grip on their souls and their pens, by telling a story in which everyone had loyally united against the enemy. But they underestimated the Communist Party’s insatiable, uncompromising need to dominate, to impose its orthodoxy thoroughly, everywhere.
Alexander Fadeyev was one of the most successful writers in the Soviet Union. He remained a True Believer and Stalin devotee for years. In 1943, he interviewed more than 100 witnesses to recreate the story of a small group of young heroes in a marginal Ukrainian town who resisted the Nazis until all were killed. The book, The Young Guard, became wildly popular, and was turned into a film. But, at a certain point, Stalin himself supposedly objected, snapping at Fadeyev: “You have written a book that is not just worthless but ideologically harmful.” Stalin wondered how these young people could “have dealt effectively with the enemy in the occupied territory without Party leadership?” Such insolence suggested anarchy.
It wasn’t just truth that had to be faked, history itself had to be changed, becoming putty in the hands of the Party. A serious ideological flaw had been identified in Fadeyev’s work, by no less an authority than Stalin himself. Understanding that these criticisms could be life-threatening, Fadeyev rewrote and republished the book, with wise, heroic, completely-made-up Party hacks inspiring his heroes.
The humiliation was worth it to him. Despite the criticism, he could stay at the head of the Union of Soviet Writers. Membership in this massive union gave writers all kinds of privileges: vacations in fancy sanatoriums; shops with imported food but without lines, and, most important of all, permission to be published. Of course, every published work had to promote Socialist Realism. Alas, this ideological purity, which guaranteed millions of sales, was also a one-way ticket to literary mediocrity.
Fadeyev took great pride in looking after so many writers’ needs. He was very devoted to them—except when he had to sign off on one literary purge after another. Though sometimes it was just some outing, some shaming, some bullying—often it was far deadlier. Fadeyev even kept silent after Aug. 12, 1952, when Josef Stalin had 13 Yiddish writers executed, including some of Fadeyev’s close friends.
Outwardly, Fadeyev played the role of the literary grandee, the VIP, the loyal Communist. Inwardly, he was collapsing. Even after Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev rose to power, this former True Believer turned unhappy doublethinker continued filling the growing guilt-induced emptiness inside with vodka. Finally, in 1956, Fadeyev wrote to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: “It is impossible for me to live any further since the art to which I have given my life has been destroyed by the self-confident, ignorant leadership of the Party and can no longer be corrected. … Literature—this holy of holies—was handed over for extermination to bureaucrats and the most backward elements of the people, and from the highest tribunals.”
Fadeyev remembered the incredible “feeling of freedom and openness” when “my generation entered literature during Lenin’s life.” But, then, the Party “brought us down to the level of children; they destroyed us; they threatened us ideologically and called this “the Party spirit.” Today, he lamented, the “few individuals who have retained the holy fire in their souls” are pariahs. As for him, all his “lofty thoughts and feelings,” propelled by “the excellent ideas of Communism,” crashed and burned. Now, he was “a horse pulling a broken-down cart,” watching literature become “debased, persecuted, and destroyed.” After finishing the note, he shot himself in the heart.
This was the cost of tunnel vision writing with a hyper-partisan lens, the compression in insight and the plunge in quality that comes from only seeing the world as one big class struggle—then sacrificing literary freedom to prop up the delusion as the dream turns nightmarish.
Looking back at the history of Soviet literature, it’s hard to find any of the thousands of writers from Fadayev’s union who wrote anything worth reading or remembering. Their books, published on a massive scale—often selling millions—simply disappeared. It was inevitable: the heroes of the books, like their authors, were doublethinkers, living a life of lies. Eventually, their lies consumed both the characters and their authors, leaving nothing behind.
By contrast, the works that lasted defied Stalinist orthodoxies in the service of truths, both immediate and internal. Stalin killed some of these honest writers, like the poet Osip Mandelstam. Some killed themselves, like the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Some lived daily with the fear of arrest, or under the shadow of purges, like Anna Akhmatova. Some, like the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, accepted the fact that their books would go unpublished in Russia—his classic The Master and Margarita didn’t see the light of day for decades. Others, like Boris Pasternak, who smuggled Dr. Zhivago to the West, sought readers elsewhere and paid the price back home—where Pasternak was punished for his betrayal by being expelled from Fadeyev’s Union of Soviet Writers.
In short, the lesson I have learned from the writers of my father’s generation is that those who resisted the life of doublethink then are the one who keep influencing us now.
I started my own life as a doublethinker at the age of five in 1953, when Josef Stalin died. The seventy-four-year-old despot was at the peak of his anti-Semitic campaign—and Jews were increasingly nervous. On that March day, out of any neighbor’s earshot, my father told my seven-year-old older brother and me, “Today is a great day that you should always remember. This is good news for us Jews. This man was very dangerous to us.” But,” he added, “don’t tell this to anybody. Do what everybody else does.” The next day, in kindergarten, as we sang songs honoring Stalin, “the hope of all the people,” and mourned his death, I had no idea how many children were crying sincerely, and how many were only following their father’s instructions.
The end of Stalin’s life, therefore, marked my entry into the Soviets’ deceptive order of doublethinkers. This round-the-clock public charade defined the typical life of a loyal Soviet citizen. You knew to be politically correct in everyday life. You said and wrote and did everything you were supposed to do, while knowing it was all a lie. You only acknowledged the truth with your family and a very close circle of trusted friends.
If in the first generations after 1917 the choice had been between being a True Believer and a doublethinker, by my generation there were few True Believers left. Your field of vision had to be very narrow indeed to still see the crumbling society around us as some kind of Communist paradise. My peers were choosing between Doublethink and Dissent. True, after the Communist Party turned away from Stalin’s policy of murderous purges, dissent usually only cost you your career or your freedom rather than your life. Nevertheless, few were willing to cross the line from Doublethink to Dissent.
Still, it was hard to pick out the doublethinkers. As in kindergarten, I could never know who was sincere and who was playacting—even though we all knew that more and more of us were living lies. External observers watching millions of citizens marching loyally in May 1 demonstrations, saluting their leaders, concluded that we were all True Believers. The KGB secret police, however, knew how few within the adoring crowd were sincere.
To keep the growing mass of doublethinkers under control, the KGB turned our daily life into a series of tests. There were constant probes, some subtle, some direct, to determine your loyalty. You had to watch your language, your gestures, your reactions, your friendships—because “they” were always watching you.
In the Soviet web of lies, even as a child, your main job is to fit in. At the age of ten you join the Pioneers, proclaiming your patriotism. Then you join the Komsomol, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, proclaiming your patriotism. You mouth their platitudes, you play the good citizen, in order to get ahead in your own life.
My father—and mother—had one more maneuver for coping with doublethink—the classic Jewish dance of escaping through their children, sacrificing, doing whatever they could, hoping their kids would have a better life than they did. When I was five, my mother taught me to play chess. “Here you can think freely,” she said. “In chess, you can fly.”
I tried playing and fell in love immediately: thoughts soar, risks are taken, wits and courage are prized, not punished. Chess became my first passport into the world of free thought, my first great escape. Watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix this fall, I identified with Beth Harmon the chess prodigy. Chess can easily feel like a great escape from the prison of your life, be it psychological or political.
Alas, while chess could free my mind and sharpen my wits, it was only a game. It offered no wisdom, no ideological worldview, no way of life, nothing greater than myself and my skills. It was a great diversion, freeing me from doublethink for a few hours every day, but it wasn’t real. It was an escape into a parallel black-and-white world of 32 pieces on an eight-by-eight board.
Science and mathematics seemed to promise a better escape from the smothering Soviet reality. While as objective and creative as chess, the scientific method illuminated the real world. We scientist applied whatever talents we had to understand how the universe worked.
Mastering these fields seemed to offer the best path to a better life. To pass every exam, no matter how difficult, with the highest marks and to be accepted to one of the best universities, became my great ambition. It was the dream driving every Soviet Jewish parent—who drilled into their children that as Jews, the best way to overcome the handicap of being Jewish was by being the best in your chosen profession.
With each passing year, my faith grew in the world of science as my Ivory Tower, my escape.
I spent my high school years as an academic grind, drowning in problem sets, working around the clock to amass five out of fives in mathematics and physics. Because I knew that I had to follow a very specific script to get the character reference I needed from the local Komsomol authorities, I also spouted the right slogans, participated in the right youth activities, and sang the right songs. Yet even after I fulfilled my young dreams and made it to MFTI—Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the Soviet equivalent of MIT—the scrutiny continued. We math and science students had to keep paying lip service to the Soviet gods, like everyone else. We kept taking tests on Marxist doctrine every semester, even when studying at the postdoctoral level. A few years later, I would be amused when, during my interrogations, I spied my KGB tormentors studying their Communist handbooks whenever they could. I liked knowing that these never-ending trials kept tormenting them.
Our professors subtly encouraged us to brush such annoyances aside. We were the elite, they kept telling us, racing toward a golden future. It was all worth it. I was luxuriating in the sanctuary of science, an asylum protected from the daily insanity the Soviets imposed on nearly everyone else. I decided that the deeper I was into my scientific career, the less stressful this double life would be.
It was a comforting illusion—until I read Andrei Sakharov’s manifesto.
Sakharov was our role model, the number one Soviet scientist sitting at the peak of the pyramid each of us was trying to climb so single-mindedly. In May 1968, this celebrity scientist circulated a ten-thousand-word manifesto that unleashed a wrecking ball which smashed my complacent life. “Intellectual freedom is essential to human society,” Sakharov declared. Bravely denouncing Soviet thought-control, he mocked “the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favorite weapon, ideological censorship.”
Sakharov warned that Soviet science was imperiled without “the search for truth.” Imagining “two skiers racing through deep snow,” Sakharov explained. While the Soviet skier had started catching up to the American one—who first “broke the snow”—our suffocating lack of freedom kept us “not only lagging behind but … also growing more slowly.” At the time, there were few who could understand the depths of this critique. The Soviet Union wasn’t just relying on its scientific wizards to develop nuclear weapons; we now know that the research ran in tandem with an elaborate spying operation that stole as many of America’s atomic secrets as it could.
The message was clear for us. Sakharov helped us realize that the Soviet restrictions on free thought ran deep. You now only have to control your political opinions, but every interaction with your colleagues, every new insight, has to be checked and rechecked, for fear of ideological implications that could destroy a career in this world where even entire fields of inquiry were cancelled for being politically incorrect. Soviet scientists spent so much time looking over their shoulders and in their rear-view mirrors that they could not plunge ahead and catch up with their Western peers.
Long before most others, Sakharov saw in the Soviet scientific community the equivalent of the literary mediocrity we all saw in Soviet Realism. He was warning me and my peers that there was nowhere to run to escape the suffocating realities that had handicapped my father’s work. Life in a dictatorship offers two choices: either you overcome your fear and stand for truth, or you remain a slave to fear, no matter how fancy your titles, no matter how big your dacha.
I would never escape from this life of doublethink with all my Ivory Tower half-measures, I realized. Eventually, I became a Soviet Jewish Refusenik and a Soviet dissident, fighting for my identity, which included insisting on my right to live as a free Jew in our homeland, Israel, while fighting for freedom, which included championing human rights for all people, whether they lived in the Soviet Union or Israel, or anyplace else on earth.
In fact, I underwent a two-step process. There was Sakharov. And there was Jewishness.
In June, 1967, Israel abruptly entered our lives. Suddenly, everyone around us was connecting us as Soviet Jews—for good or bad—to Israel and to “our” victory after the Six Day War. Intrigued, I started reading about the Jewish State I barely knew. As a result, I discovered the history, the people, the state I soon I realized wanted to belong to.
In embracing my Jewishness, I inherited a 3,900-year-old identity—the history, values, ideas, and country that would shape me. That breakthrough, that realization that there was something greater than my personal struggle for survival and professional success, propelled me to end a life of doublethink. Only by ending that sterile careerist life could I speak freely.
Breaking the shackles is the hardest thing to do as a doublethinker. Once you do that, the released energy gives you a rush you’ve never experienced before. Step by liberating step, I was running toward freedom. By the time I was imprisoned in 1977, I had been free for at least four years. As thrilling as it was to be released from prison after nine long years in 1986, leaving the prison of doublethink years earlier made me even more euphoric.
Over the last three decades in freedom, I have noticed that—with apologies to Tolstoy—every dictatorship is oppressive in its own way, but the doublethinkers’ mental gymnastics are all alike.Share→︎TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkCopied link
In my post-doublethink life as a free person, I would have to make many difficult decisions. As an activist in the Soviet Union, I spent 13 years constantly weighing how far to go in my confrontations with the KGB, knowing that my freedom and my life were at stake. In 1974, I had to decide with my fiancée, Avital, if we should stay together in Moscow, or if I should watch her move to Israel the day after we married, separating us for who knew how long. While in the Gulag, I had to decide whether to submit to the Soviet terms for my freedom or to prolong my imprisonment indefinitely.
Decades later, while serving in the Israeli cabinet, I had to decide many times whether to keep my hard-fought position as a minister serving my voters, or to resign on principle when the government moved in a direction I couldn’t accept.
Still, none of these decisions terrified me as much as my choice in 1973 to request a simple letter from my friendly boss, certifying where I worked. It should have been nothing, something procedural that I, as a good careerist, had done many times in my life. All I had to do was walk down the very familiar hallway in the Institute of Oil and Gas, where I worked as a computer specialist, to speak to my boss, with whom I got along just fine. But that move was so nerve-racking that I had to take a tranquilizer that morning, for the first and only time in my life.
That was my first public step in applying for a visa to Israel. With that request, I formally ended my life as a doublethinker, playing their game by their rules. As I committed suicide within the Soviet system, as I ended my double life, which began with Stalin’s death when I was five, I could practically see the Ivory Tower I had built to protect me crumbling before my eyes.
Once I had done it, once I was no longer afraid, I realized what it was to be free. I could live in history, a real history, with ups and downs, fits and starts, not the bland, ever-changing history-like-putty dictated by the authorities. I could live with real people and enjoy real friendships, not the cautious, constricted conversations of winks and nods among fellow doublethinkers. Most important, I could live without that permanent self-censorship, that constant checking of what you are going to say to make sure it’s not what you want to say. Only then do you realize what a burden you’ve been carrying, how exhausting it is to say the right thing, do the right thing, while always fighting the fear of being outed for an errant thought, a wrong reaction, an idiosyncratic impulse.
And that was why, during nine years in prison, when the KGB would try tempting me to restore my freedom and even my life by returning to the life I once had, it was easy to say “no.” I knew what they wanted. They wanted to take me back to this open-caged prison of doublethink.
It was easy enough to remind myself and them who was really free and who is a scared doublethinker. All I had to do was tell some joke about the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Thank God, there were plenty of yarns about his arrogance, his crudeness, his senility. One kidded about him forcing Soviet cosmonauts to outdo the American astronauts who landed on the moon by rocketing to the sun, then reassuring them they wouldn’t be incinerated because they’d be launched during the night. As I’d tell my interrogators a joke, I’d laugh. And, as normal Soviet doublethinkers themselves, they would want to laugh. But they couldn’t, especially if two of them were there together. Laughter would end their careers.
So they’d covered up that temporary glint in their eyes with a tantrum. They’d pound the table, shouting, “HOW DARE YOU?”
“Look,” I’d say to them calmly, “you can’t even smile when you want to smile. And you claim that I’m in prison and you’re free?”
I did this to irritate them, because they spent so much time trying to irritate me. But, mainly, I was reminding myself that I was free, as long as I could laugh or cry in accordance with my own feelings.
Over the last three decades in freedom, I have noticed that—with apologies to Tolstoy—every dictatorship is oppressive in its own way, but the doublethinkers’ mental gymnastics are all alike. The feeling of release from the fear and giddy relief when crossing the line from doublethink to democratic dissent is also universal across cultures. This understanding prompted the Town Square Test I use to distinguish between free societies and fear societies: Can you express your individual views loudly, in public, without fear of being punished legally, formally, in any way? If yes, you live in a free society; if not, you’re in a fear society.
In the West today, the pressure to conform doesn’t come from the totalitarian top—our political leaders are not Stalinist dictators. Instead, it comes from the fanatics around us, in our neighborhoods, at school, at work, often using the prospect of Twitter-shaming to bully people into silence—or a fake, politically-correct compliance. Recent polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans report self-censoring about politics at least occasionally, essentially becoming a nation of doublethinkers despite the magnificent constitutional protections for free thought and expression enshrined in the Bill of Rights
To preserve our integrity and our souls, the quality of our political debate and the creativity so essential to our cultural life, we need a Twitter Test challenging bottom-up cultural totalitarianism that is spreading throughout free societies. That test asks: In the democratic society in which you live, can you express your individual views loudly, in public and in private, on social media and at rallies, without fear of being shamed, excommunicated, or cancelled? Ultimately, whether you will live as a democratic doublethinker doesn’t depend on the authorities or on the corporations that run social media platforms: it depends on you. Each of us individually decides whether we want to submit to the crippling indignity of doublethink, or break the chains that keep us from expressing our own thoughts, and becoming whole.
This essay is based in part on Sharansky and Troy’s book ‘Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People,’ recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.