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Jewish Groups Mourn Gorbachev as Man Who Freed Soviet Jewry

Judah Ari Gross, Times of Israel, August 31st, 2022


Recap:

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who lifted the Iron Curtain and allowed two million Soviet Jews to practice their religion freely or emigrate, died at the age of 91.


The Context:

Following decades of autocracy, Gorbachev’s policies of reconstruction and openness introduced unprecedented freedoms to the Soviet Union. In handing more power to the republics, he hastened their eventual independence, shrinking Russia drastically as 15 new nations emerged. Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War [1] but resigned after a failed coup in 1991 that sought his ouster [2].

Gorbachev oversaw an end to restrictions on religious worship and allowed the country’s Jews to emigrate whereas the previous Soviet regime punished them for seeking exit at all. The number of Jews allowed to emigrate in 1986 was 914 [3]. Only 250,000 Jews remain in Russia today.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid praised Gorbachev for “open[ing] the gates of the Soviet Union for the great wave of Jewish immigration to Israel,” and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called Gorbachev “a true friend of the Jewish people.”

Although much-admired abroad, Gorbachev was reviled by many of his countrymen for the Soviet Union’s fall from superpower status and by other communist regimes for adopting Western values [4].

Following three decades of increasingly friendly ties between Russia and Israel, tensions over President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine are starting to take hold. Israel seeks to strike a balance between Russia and Ukraine considering the large Jewish diaspora in both countries and Russia’s involvement in Syria, where the IDF carries out airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. There are 1.3 million Russian-speaking Israelis [5].

Conversation Points:

Why didn’t more Jews remain in Russia?

What would Gorbachev have to say about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Did the loss of superpower status enable Putin’s rise?

What is the potential fallout for Russian Jewry if Israeli-Russian ties worsen?


Notes:

1. Mikhail Gorbachev, who made a generation of Russian Jews in Israel, dies aged 91, Jewish News, August 31st, 2022

2. Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader whose reforms included letting Jews leave for Israel, dies at 91, Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 30th, 2022

3. Ibid.

4. Gorbachev mourned as rare world leader but some still bitter, KIRSTEN GRIESHABER and PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press, August 31st, 2022

5. Mikhail Gorbachev, who made a generation of Russian Jews in Israel, dies aged 91, Jewish News, August 31st, 2022



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