Mikhail Gorbachev, whose resignation Wednesday sounded the death knell of the 74-year-old Soviet Union, will be remembered as the man who dramatically improved the lot of Soviet Jews, both those he allowed to leave and those who remained behind.
For it was Gorbachev who thrust open wide the gates of Soviet Jewish emigration and allowed freedom of religious practice for the first time in the atheist nation’s history.
When Gorbachev entered office in March 1985, some 11,000 Jews were counted as refuseniks, and more than a score of prisoners of conscience languished in jails and labor camps for the crimes of trying to emigrate or teach Hebrew.
The first omens of the Gorbachev era were not good for Jews. The already paltry emigration figure of 1,140 for 1985 slid even more frighteningly low, to 914, in 1986. Soviet Jewry activists in the West at first feared Gorbachev would be even worse than his reform-resistant predecessors.
Then the numbers of Jews allowed to leave began to grow, reaching 8,155 in 1987, swelling to 18,965 in 1988, then surging to 71,217 in 1989 and 186,815 in 1990.
Few Soviet Jewry activists will ever forget the day of Feb. 11, 1986, when the prison gates swung open and nine-year refusenik Anatoly Shcharansky took his first steps toward freedom.
He was soon followed by other long-term refuseniks, such as Vladimir and Maria Slepak, Ida Nudel and Yosef Begun.
Emigration reforms were eventually codified in a long-delayed law passed by the Supreme Soviet last spring. This led to the lifting of U.S. trade sanctions against the Soviet Union, mandated by the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
So profound were the changes Gorbachev enacted in the realms of emigration and religious freedom, that not even the most hard-line critics of the Kremlin’s treatment of Jews could dismiss the Soviet leader’s deeds.
Gorbachev also reversed the Soviet Union’s longstanding animosity toward Israel, culminating in the resumption of full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in October.
‘MAN WHO LET MY PEOPLE GO’
Gorbachev “will go down in history as the man who let my people go,” said one strong admirer, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the ecumenical Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
“Not only did Gorbachev remove all restrictions imposed by previous Soviet regimes against Jewish emigration and Jewish religious expression, he was the first leader of the USSR to recognize and publicly state that religious believers were valued and valuable citizens of the Soviet Union,” Schneier said in a statement Thursday.
Even the most ardent critics in the Soviet Jewry camp were lauding Gorbachev’s legacy.
Lynn Singer, executive director of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry, described Gorbachev as “a pragmatic politician, who understood” that allowing Jews to emigrate “opened new vistas” for his country.
His pragmatism led him to respond positively to criticism, she said. “Much of what happened from 1985 until even yesterday was the result of Gorbachev’s response to the West,” she said. “He did in five and a half years to six years what it took decades for us to try to do.”
The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, perhaps the toughest critic of the Soviet Union, remarked that even “though Gorbachev was late in breaking out of the human rights gate,” the “positive changes he ultimately initiated would have been unthinkable to us in the Soviet human rights advocacy movement a decade ago.”
Now Gorbachev must “use whatever respect he commands as a statesman in retirement to advocate respect for human rights” in the former Soviet Union, the Student Struggle said in a statement.
Leonid Stonov, a refusenik for 11 years who now works for Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, welcomed Gorbachev’s resignation as marking “the end of the Soviet empire,” which was, he said, impossible and undesirable to save.
He pointed out that among the Soviet Union’s treacheries were state-sponsored acts of violence against Jews, most recently in the Central Asian towns of Andizhan and Sumgait.
“Gorbachev, the politician, of course did a lot. He really facilitated the end of the system,” Stonov said approvingly.
Myrna Shinbaum, former director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, remembered Gorbachev as “a man who came into power at a time when Jews were still in prison. And for a few years, nothing happened.”
Shinbaum remembered that “in terms of the Jewish community, the movement began after the first summit meeting with President Reagan” in Geneva in November 1985.
Gorbachev then understood that Soviet Jewish emigration “was a priority issue for the American president and the American people. He understood it wasn’t just a Jewish issue,” she said.
The current chairman of the National Conference, Shoshana Cardin, recalled that Gorbachev had personally met with her in the Kremlin in October, to discuss remaining refusenik cases and other matters of importance to Soviet Jews.
She expressed “my profound gratitude” for that meeting and “for his political courage in subsequently having his personal emissary read a strong statement condemning all manifestations of anti-Semitism at the ceremonies in Kiev” commemorating the wartime massacre at Babi Yar.
“Gorbachev will be remembered as the man who attempted to lead the transformation of the Soviet empire from one characterized by dictatorship and tyranny to one governed by the will of the people and the rule of law,” said Cardin.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.