MOSCOW -- It wasn't your typical VIP tour of Moscow -- the Bolshoi, Kremlin and Red Square.
It was a dissident's tour of the ugly past that refusenik-turned Israeli Cabinet member Natan Sharansky took this week on his first visit to Russia since being expelled 11 years ago.
The little man with huge courage, who battled the Soviet state for the right of Jews to emigrate, even rode around with journalists in a tour bus, calling out landmarks over a microphone.
There was the KGB maximum-security prison where he spent three years; the square where he was arrested for leading a demonstration; the snow-covered grave of his dissident mentor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov; and the synagogue where he met his future wife at a demonstration.
But when the press finally got to debrief the Israeli minister of trade at length in a one-hour news conference yesterday, Sharansky displayed none of the barbed edges of bitterness so common among his dissident contemporaries.
Indeed, with his sharp-eyed gaze and outsized smile, he shifted seamlessly from personal business to official business, from Russian to English, and from the brutal past to the present.
"When one arrives in Moscow, going around its streets, this is a city with good weather -- I like this weather immensely -- with wonderful streets and buildings, but sometimes you are seized with fear, for this is very much like the country I left," he said.
"But whenever you start talking to people, you understand that the country may be the same but the regime is different, the environment is different -- we all can enjoy life under conditions of freedom, without self-censorship."
Sharansky, 49, was here leading an official delegation of 60 Israeli businessmen on a mission to boost bilateral trade, which was nonexistent just five years ago.
His visit, which ends today, barely registered in the Russian media. The majority of Russians have never heard of his struggle because the Soviet press didn't report on it.
But the foreign press stuck to him the way KGB agents once did.
Sharansky's struggle was an international cause celebre in the 1970s and 1980s.
Known then as Anatoly Shcharansky, he was accused in 1977 of treason for fighting for Soviet Jews' right to emigrate to Israel. He spent nine years in Soviet labor camps, two-thirds of it in cells for special punishment and 110 days of it on a widely publicized hunger strike. He was freed in 1986 in a dramatic East-West prisoner swap on a Berlin bridge.
Sharansky settled in Israel, where he became a political leader of Russian Jewish emigrants. His emigrant's party won seven seats in the Knesset in May and joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.
Dressed for the news conference in a gray suit and open collar -- a touch of Israeli informality in the stiff power circles of Moscow -- Sharansky said yesterday that his minister's post is his first "establishment" job.
"It's really much easier to be a dissident and to be VTC anti-establishment than to be part of the establishment and take responsibility for things that you agree or you disagree with," he said.
He was asked how he reconciles his reputation as a human rights activist with his work in the Israeli government, often accused of violating the rights of Palestinians.
"It is obvious that if arms supplies continue to flow to a number of nondemocratic -- to put it mildly -- states, this could pose a serious threat to our existence. I repeatedly expressed willingness to grant any rights to the Palestinian people, except for one right -- the right to be capable of destroying me," he responded.
Asked if his visit hasn't opened painful memories, he said that his prison memories are actually "pleasant."
"They are memories of years which might have been hard in the physical sense but morally, those were pure and bright years. It was absolutely clear what you ought to have done, for all you had to do was say 'no' to the KGB every day, and thereby you were fulfilling all your duties in that world.
"Besides that those are memories of our common victory, for that regime is now a thing of the past," Sharansky said.
His strongest impression of the changes Russia has undergone since he was plucked from life in Moscow 20 years ago, he said, was in discussions with teachers from Jewish schools.
"The teachers of these schools were complaining that their programs are not always appropriate to the needs of the time. They were complaining that they don't always have enough finances. Complaints which you can hear all over the world from representatives of the normal Jewish and non-Jewish schools.
"And if you remember, 20 years ago our problem was how to get another group of four pupils to study Hebrew in the underground."
Pub Date: 1/30/97