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Israeli leaders eulogize ‘brave’ and ‘visionary’ Gorbachev

Leaders across West remember Soviet Union’s last head as pioneer who ended the Cold War; Putin offers ‘condolences’ but limited praise

  • Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, center, and his wife Raisa, right, visit Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 17, 1992. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt)
    Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, center, and his wife Raisa, right, visit Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 17, 1992. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt)
  • Yitzhak Shamir (R) hosts  Mikhail \ Gorbachev (L) at his home in Jerusalem on June 14 1992. (Flash90)
    Yitzhak Shamir (R) hosts Mikhail \ Gorbachev (L) at his home in Jerusalem on June 14 1992. (Flash90)
  • A peace dove sits on the head of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Monday, June 15, 1992 as he sets another bird free during a leisure trip on the Sea of Gallilee, Israel. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
    A peace dove sits on the head of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Monday, June 15, 1992 as he sets another bird free during a leisure trip on the Sea of Gallilee, Israel. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Israeli leaders warmly eulogized former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died Tuesday aged 91.

Gorbachev, who led the falling empire until its collapse in 1991, was generally viewed positively by many Western leaders for putting an end to decades of frosty and at times deadly relationships between the Soviet Union and Western states.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed Gorbachev as “a brave leader and a great statesman.”

“[Gorbachev] contributed greatly to the rehabilitation of relations between his country and Israel, and opened the gates of the Soviet Union for the great wave of Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1990s,” the premier added.

President Isaac Herzog issued similar praise for Gorbachev.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary figures. He was a brave and visionary leader, who shaped our world in ways previously thought unimaginable. I was proud to meet him during his 1992 visit to Israel,” Herzog said in a statement.

Along with lifting emigration and religious restrictions on Soviet Jews, Gorbachev reestablished diplomatic ties between Moscow and Jerusalem in October 1991, just two months before the USSR’s collapse. The Soviet Union severed ties with the Jewish state over the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel defeated Jordan along with Soviet clients Egypt and Syria.

Yitzhak Shamir (R) hosts Mikhail Gorbachev (L) at his home in Jerusalem on June 14 1992. (Flash90)

Rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt, until recently the chief rabbi of Moscow, said that “three million Soviet Jews owe him a debt of gratitude,” adding that Gorbachev allowed those Jews “to live according to our faith.” Out of the three million emigrants, 1.6 million settled in Israel.

US President Joe Biden described the former Soviet leader as “rare,” with “imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it.”

In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his country was “bound in gratitude with him for his decisive contribution to German unity.”

Former chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a former resident of communist East Germany, praised Gorbachev, saying “one single statesman can change the world for the better.”

Former US president George Bush meets with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who stepped down in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed during Bush’s presidency in Moscow, Russia on Monday, Sept. 15, 2003. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he “always admired the courage and integrity” Gorbachev showed to help end the Cold War.

“In a time of [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all,” Johnson said, referring to Russia’s current leader.

French President Emmanuel Macron described Gorbachev as a “man of peace” who “opened a path of liberty for Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history.”

Reactions in Russia were far more tepid, with many in the Kremlin, including Putin himself, critical of Gorbachev’s post-Soviet policies.

Putin once labeled the collapse of the former empire, which occurred under Gorbachev’s stewardship, as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

Choosing his words carefully on Wednesday, Putin said Gorbachev “led the country during difficult and dramatic changes, amid large-scale foreign policy, economic and social challenges. He deeply realized that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions for the acute problems.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, talks with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the start of a news conference at the Castle of Gottorf in Schleswig, northern Germany, Dec. 21, 2004. (AP/Heribert Proepper)

Members of the Kremlin-controlled parliament followed a similar path, hailing Gorbachev’s historic role but lamenting the Soviet collapse.

Leonid Slutsky, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house, the State Duma, hailed Gorbachev as “the most remarkable politician of his time,” but described him as a “contradictory” figure whose reforms “played into the hands of those who were trying to wipe the USSR off the world’s map.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was more scathing, accusing Gorbachev of harboring “romantic expectations” of post-Soviet detente with the West, adding that “the bloodthirsty nature of our opponents has come to light, and it’s good that we realized that in time.”

Nikolai Kolomeitsev, the deputy head of the Communist faction in the Duma, went even further, denouncing Gorbachev as a “traitor” who “destroyed the state.”

Gorbachev’s foundation said that he will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife. The date hasn’t been set yet and it wasn’t immediately clear whether he will be given a state funeral.

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