Mikhail Gorbachev’s first years after coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 reflected a continuation of the Soviet approach to the “Jewish question” and anti-Zionism, long-established trends that had been intensified when Russia broke off diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Soviet regime persisted in denying that it persecuted Jews, and Gorbachev attributed claims of Soviet anti-Semitism to “an inflated anti-Soviet campaign.” Nonetheless, there were gradual changes in the expression and content of Soviet commentary, as Soviet attention to the Jewish question slowly diminished and common anti-Semitic publications gradually disappeared.
Gorbachev was among the first Soviet leaders to foresee – or at least to acknowledge – the looming economic and political failure of the Soviet system and, in an effort to forestall the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, sought to develop closer relations with the United States. Toward that end, he enacted perestroika, a “restructuring” designed to save the Soviet revolution, and glasnost (“transparency”), under which he relaxed Soviet censorship and the government’s characteristically totalitarian falsification of history.
However, President Ford had signed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, pursuant to which the United States would not enter into the enhanced trade agreements with Russia that Gorbachev so desperately wanted and needed until the Soviet Union lifted restrictions on Jewish emigration.
To convince the United States of his new thinking about the Mideast, Gorbachev re-established diplomatic relations with Israel and opened the long-sealed doors to Jewish immigration, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in modern history. In 1989, 71,000 Soviet Jews were permitted to emigrate. Only 12,000 went to Israel but two years later more 325,000 Soviet Jews had made aliyah. President Chaim Herzog hailed Gorbachev as “the person who opened the gates for Soviet Jewry and enabled them to make aliyah.”
In a remarkable reversal of the old Soviet position, Gorbachev exchanged the first delegations with Israel in 1987 and 1988 and unequivocally urged PLO leader Yasir Arafat to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Although he maintained that he continued to advocate for the self-determination for the Palestinian people and preferred a settlement in the Middle East that included Israeli withdrawal from the “occupied territories,” he told Arafat that Israel’s interests, including its security interests, has to be taken into account.
When Gorbachev visited Israel in June 1992, accepting an invitation extended by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister David Levy, who warmly welcomed Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, and said that “there is a warm corner in Israel for you, who have done so much for the freedom of our people.”
Gorbachev, genuinely touched by the honor and the dignified reception accorded him even though he was no longer a head of state, responded that he would “not hide my deep feelings and honor toward this people.” He was embraced as a conquering hero; public adulation ran high; and editorial hyperbole was rampant. For example, Maariv editorialized that Gorbachev was “the most important person who ever visited the land of Israel” before humorously qualifying that over-exuberant conclusion by noting that while Moses had also freed Jews, he – unlike Gorbachev – had never received an entry visa.
During his visit to Israel, Gorbachev bemoaned the great Soviet Jewish migration, characterizing the outflow of so many Jews as “a loss for our land and society.” He had voiced similar sentiments in October 1991 on the 50th anniversary of the Nazi massacre of more than 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar in Ukraine, when he faulted the “Stalinist bureaucracy” for practicing anti-Semitism; admitted publicly that Soviet society had been poisoned with Jew-hatred; and stated that despite his best efforts to introduce reforms, intolerance remained and Russia had suffered from the emigration of millions of skilled and talented Jews.
Many Russian olim who lived under the Soviet regime under his rule, who arguably knew him best, were understandably not as willing to forget the past and protested against Gorbachev’s presence in Israel. Natan Sharansky, perhaps the best-known Soviet dissident, undoubtedly shared their views but he nonetheless attended a formal dinner at the residence of President Herzog and shook the hand of the former Soviet leader who had released him from prison six years earlier.
Gorbachev, who met with many Israeli leaders, made a point of visiting Yad Vashem and was mobbed by a friendly Jewish crowd during a visit to the Kotel. During a meeting with Prime Minister Shamir he made the stark and surprising admission that Zionism had triumphed over communism. Shamir thanked Gorbachev for his personal intervention in three events which, he said, would prove critical in the history of the Jewish people: the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries; the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union for Jewish immigration to Israel; and Soviet leadership at the Madrid Conference. In his acceptance speech after being awarded a $35,000 Peace Prize from the Technion, Gorbachev declared that “the democratic Russian public rejects and denounces anti-Semitism, and will do everything in its power to uproot the phenomenon from our society.”
Exhibited with this column is a lovely association piece, a program for an October 25, 1998 State of Israel Bonds dinner celebrating the tenth anniversary of the mass emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, signed by honoree Gorbachev, who was presented with the prestigious Gates of Freedom award, which read:
“To Mr. Gorbachev, who opened the gates of the Soviet Union to the Great Aliyah and who thereby has earned the undying gratitude of the Jewish Nation.”
During his address Gorbachev again spoke of the great loss the Soviet Union had sustained through the emigration of Russian Jews. He recalled that he regretted the response by Russian Jews to the call of their homeland because “they had done so much for our country,” citing Jewish contributions in science, culture, medicine, and law, but “nevertheless, I could not tell them not to go” because that was the “position of freedom.”
The guests of honor included former prime minister Shamir who in his address at the dinner said that “Israeli officials had long appealed to Soviet officials in almost biblical terms to `Let My People Go.’ He heard. And more, he listened. He recognized the implications and acted.”
Shamir credited Gorbachev with bringing “new light to the Jewish people” and enriching “the life of the state of Israel.” Other speakers throughout the evening credited Gorbachev with almost single-handedly being responsible for freeing Russian Jews, though there were undoubtedly other factors that played an important part, including the Soviet Jewry movement and Soviet negotiations with the United States.
While Gorbachev called the Israel Bonds event “an amazing experience,” many of those in attendance were no less dumbfounded by the astonishing historical turn of events. Joining Gorbachev and Shamir on the dais were community activists – many of whom had actively crusaded against Soviet policies – who were honored for their work on behalf of Soviet Jews,. Audience members included Jews from the former Soviet Union who had been imprisoned during that period for their open identification with Jews or for their support of Israel.