Gorbachev’s place in the heart of our people

The former Soviet Union leader transformed the place of Jews in Russia — and let them leave


The ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbatchev (L) shakes hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's widow Leah, under the gaze of former Israeli Nobel peace prize Shimon Peres (R), 10 January at the memorial in Tel Aviv where Rabin was murdered in 1995. Gorbachev arrived here today to participate in a three-day conference organized by the Peres Center for Peace. A bevy of current and former world leaders will also take part in the event in a bid to breathe economic life into the moribund Middle East peace process. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) / AFP / SVEN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

August 31, 2022 17:48

In 1985, the year of Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1140 Jews were allowed to leave. Four years later — the year when the Berlin Wall fell — the number reached 71,000. Almost a million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel in the following years. This was a measure of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost — an ‘openness’ which had never previously existed in the USSR.

A few weeks after Gorbachev’s elevation, Israeli and Soviet diplomats met secretly in Paris to discuss Jewish emigration and the future of relations between the two countries. In February 1986 Natan Sharansky was released from his strict regime labour camp in Perm in exchange for Soviet spies. Having served nine years, he suddenly found himself being escorted across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge — and by evening he was reunited with his wife, Avital, in Israel.
This was the beginning of Gorbachev’s policy of allowing prisoners of Zion and long term refuseniks such as the Slepaks and Ida Nudel to leave.

In December 1987, Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and defender of the human rights of Soviet Jews was allowed to return from internal exile in Gorky. Shortly afterwards, Morris Abram and Edgar Bronfman, US Jewish leaders, were invited to visit Moscow for discussions with Soviet officials. This led to the inception of Hebrew and Yiddish courses, the publication of Jewish books and religious texts, the provision of kosher food and a broad revival of Jewish cultural life in the USSR.

Perhaps what was truly remarkable was the sudden cessation of anti-Zionist rhetoric and antisemitic caricatures in the Soviet media. Just a few weeks before Gorbachev’s accession to power, the news agency Tass spoke of “Zionist bankers” financing the Nazis and arguing that the Jews only had themselves to blame for the Shoah.

In August 1988, a five person Israeli consular delegation visited Moscow — the first time there had been an Israeli presence in the Soviet capital since the cutting off of diplomatic relations during the Six Day War in 1967.

Old Jewish Bolsheviks were now rehabilitated decades after their murder in Stalin’s dungeons. Grigory Zinoviev (Hirsch Apfelbaum) is reputed to have said the shema on his way to his execution in 1936. Nikolai Bukharin’s wife Anna — the daughter of a Jewish Bolshevik — lived to see her husband’s rehabilitation in 1988, fifty years after his killing. Bukharin had attempted to protect and save Osip Mandelshtam, the writer and poet, from Stalin’s wrath — and failed.

The late 1980s was also a time when the first whiff of a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians was in the air and the possibility of an international conference hosted by the superpowers. Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir was vehemently opposed to any Soviet participation, whereas Labour’s Shimon Peres was more positive about involving Gorbachev.

Shamir attended the Madrid Conference between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states in 1991, co-hosted by a much diminished Gorbachev and President Bush. A couple of months earlier, Gorbachev was almost ousted by a hard line coup of those who could not stomach his reforms. Yasser Arafat supported the plotters — human rights, in Arafat’s eyes, only applied to the Palestinian question.

The Kremlin’s treatment of Jews since the Russian Revolution was symbolic of a wider Soviet disregard for the rule of law. While his positive approach to Soviet Jews formed the bedrock of Gorbachev’s advocacy of glasnost, it also opened the path to winning over the West — as the stridently anti-Communist Margaret Thatcher famously said, “Mr Gorbachev is someone I can do business with”. It led to a process of nuclear disarmament with Ronald Reagan’s America.

Gorbachev believed in the idea of socialism with a human face, but at the end of the day, the Soviet Union was unreformable and split into fifteen separate republics. Gorbachev significantly refused to use force to crush the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 and did not wish to shed blood as the USSR gradually disintegrated.

He opposed the Putinist School of Falsification and the Kremlin’s imperialist designs on neighbouring countries. He looked forward, not backward.

As President Biden commented: “He had the imagination to see that a different future was possible”.

Gorbachev now belongs to history — and specifically to Jewish history. Detested by Russian nationalists, he holds a special place in the collective heart of the Jewish people. May his memory be for a blessing.

Colin Shindler worked for the UK Campaign for Soviet Jewry between 1966 and 1975.

August 31, 2022 17:48

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive