Incarceration is said to leave you with a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. But the truth of life for a political prisoner, even for one on a hunger strike, is the opposite. As a prisoner, I have been forced to focus on what is essential about myself, my political beliefs, and my country. So I can almost feel the presence of the brave women and men, old and young, who have gathered in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities to defend their dreams of a democratic and European future. In prison, your hopes and dreams become your reality.
I am sure that Nelson Mandela would have understood my feelings and agreed. The South African apartheid regime may have locked him away for almost three decades, but in the great Soweto protests and the other demonstrations for freedom and equality, courageous young South Africans invariably looked to his example and felt his presence.
Around the world, most people now rightly celebrate the gentle dignity with which Mandela led South Africa out of the political wilderness. Even here, behind prison bars and 24-hour surveillance of the type that he experienced for so long, I can conjure the warmth of his broad smile, merry eyes, and those colorful Hawaiian-style shirts that he wore with such panache.
And I can admire his unyielding — and, yes, sometimes wily — commitment to reconciliation, which saved his country from the race war that those who refused to accept the end of white-minority rule saw as inevitable. How wrong they were, and how miraculous was Mandela’s achievement in making even his most implacable enemies feel at home in post-apartheid South Africa.
But here, in this place, it is not Mandela the statesman who touches my soul and fires my imagination. “My” Mandela is the prisoner, the Mandela of Robben Island, who endured 27 years behind bars (18 of them on a rock in the South Atlantic) and yet emerged with his spirit intact, brimming with a vision of a tolerant South Africa, a country liberated even for apartheid’s architects and beneficiaries.
No purges marked the end of white rule. There were no witch hunts, nor was there summary justice. All that Mandela demanded was that the truth about the past be revealed. Through the unique innovation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mandela found the only viable bridge between his country’s racist legacy and its multi-racial present and future — a combination of political genius and humane wisdom that only the greatest of leaders possess.
Mandela was able to guide South Africa to freedom, because he was able to see its future more clearly than those who lived through the apartheid years outside of prison. Indeed, he possessed that rare clarity of moral vision that prison — perhaps like no other environment — can nurture.
Imprisonment brought Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn this clarity as well. “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “This line shifts. … And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
The ability to begin to see more clearly than most the inner workings of the human soul is one of the few gifts that imprisonment can bestow. Forced to reckon with your own vulnerability, isolation, and losses (and seemingly lost cause), you learn to look more carefully into the human heart — yours and that of your jailers.
Mandela epitomized this rare gift. How else could he have personally invited one of his Robben Island jailers to attend his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president?
Of course, behind Mandela’s generous spirit was a character of steel. He bore his imprisonment for the sake of his cause. And he bore the anguish of the suffering imposed on his family. And yet he neither broke nor surrendered to the rage that would have consumed most people.
As usual, Mandela’s own words about his day of personal liberation show how well he understood this: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” And just as Mandela knew in his prison cell that apartheid would one day fall, I know in my solitude that Ukraine’s ultimate triumph as a European democracy is certain.
Yulia Timoshenko was prime minister of Ukraine and is now leader of the opposition. © 2013 Project Syndicate