News Analysis: Failure of Coup in Soviet Union a Net Gain for Jewish Minority
Menu JTA Search

News Analysis: Failure of Coup in Soviet Union a Net Gain for Jewish Minority

Download PDF for this date

The failure of the coup staged this week by hard-liners in Moscow is likely to be a net gain for the country’s sizable Jewish minority, Soviet experts and advocates for Soviet Jewry agree.

It is likely to embolden the restored government of President Mikhail Gorbachev to crack down on the same ultra-conservative elements within the Communist Party that have opposed emigration reform and other liberalized policies that have generally benefited Jews.

Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said the episode will “probably increase the potential for emigration” from the Soviet Union.

There is a much greater likelihood that “the authorities will fully live up to their constitutional and international obligations” relating to emigration, Wenick said.

Activists point out that Soviet Jews will feel secure in the short term, but will wonder when such a coup attempt might occur again.

Soviet Jews will “start asking if there will be a next time,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, and who was a co-founder of the Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry.

Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said the nerve-racking events of this week would confirm that “the fears of Soviet Jews are justified, and I think that this will serve to spur on the aliyah.”

But Adam Garfinkle, senior analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said that if Soviet Jews emigrate in larger numbers, it will likely have more to do with concern about basic survival this coming winter than any fallout from the coup.

He said Soviet Jews are having more difficulty than other Soviet citizens in “hoarding” necessities in expectation of supply shortages this winter.

Such hoarding is often done by bribing those who transport goods throughout the country. But “it’s harder for Jews to make bribes in the Soviet Union because (suppliers) just don’t trust them,” Garfinkle said.


On the other hand, he said, some Soviet Jews “will imagine that there is a prospect for fundamental reform” that would make the Soviet Union “a more habitable place.”

A State Department expert on Soviet Jewry called the failed coup an “absolute watershed in Soviet politics, basically because the bad guys were exposed and defeated.”

As a result, the Soviet government will move in a more “peaceful, democratic direction,” which will be “better for everybody,” the official said.

But in the aftermath of the coup, the country’s republics may be granted greater autonomy, and that may unleash a new outpouring of ethnic nationalism.

Wenick of the National Conference said he expects Soviet Jews to “get caught up in the middle of that,” and is especially concerned about anti-Semitic sentiment in the Ukraine and Moldavia.

Garfinkle agreed that those two republics in particular have the potential for electing as their leaders conservatives who could be anti-Semitic.

Soviet Jewry analysts were divided in their assessment of the failed coup’s impact on anti-Semitic groups, such as Pamyat, that emerged as Gorbachev lifted restrictions on free expression.

Cohen of the Union of Councils said that Jews won’t feel more secure until the Soviet courts impose tough penalties for “hate crimes” committed against Jews.

She said that aside from a two-year prison sentence given to one Pamyat member for disrupting a January 1990 meeting of liberal writers in Moscow, there have been no attempts to prosecute members of the anti-Semitic group.


Dan Mariaschin, director of international and public affairs at B’nai B’rith International, said that Pamyat and other anti-Semitic groups had not aired any “overt expressions of anti-Semitism during the coup.”

“It could have been that the Pamyat forces and others were waiting” for the outcome of the coup, he surmised.

Mariaschin said his hope is that, like the conservatives who failed to topple Gorbachev, Pamyat will be “discredited as well, because they are part of the non-democratic forces.”

The State Department official said Soviet Jews, like other minorities, could easily remain targets of hatred if the country’s enormous economic, political and social problems are not solved. “Non-official targeting of violence is possible,” he said.

But Jack Matlock, who just stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told ABC News on Wednesday that if the restored Soviet government continues “to move toward constitutional rule, you will find that the ability of these right-wing forces to stir up people and to appear to be a threat will be reduced.

“They won’t, of course, disappear; they will still be a problem, but I think they will be a marginal problem,” he said.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund