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'3 million Soviet Jews owe him their freedom'

Jewish groups mourn Gorbachev as man who freed Soviet Jewry

Former Soviet president remembered as a humanitarian for allowing Jews to practice their religion freely and emigrate, which they did en masse — much to his disappointment

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of 150 business executives in San Francisco, Monday, June 5, 1990. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File)
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of 150 business executives in San Francisco, Monday, June 5, 1990. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File)

Jewish organizations mourned the death of Mikhail Gorbachev on Tuesday, remembering him as the leader who lifted the Iron Curtain and allowed some two million Soviet Jews to practice their religion freely or emigrate, which the vast majority did.

Gorbachev, who was in power between 1985 and 1991, led the policy of “glasnost” or openness, allowing Soviet Jews to openly practice their faith, to speak Yiddish and Hebrew, print and distribute Jewish publications and study Jewish texts.

Eventually, he fully opened the gates of the Soviet Union and allowed the country’s Jews to emigrate, most of them doing so to Israel but many to the United States, Canada and Europe as well.

From 1989 to 1999, over three-quarters of a million Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel alone, according to data collected by Hebrew University’s Mark Tolts. The professor said that the Jewish population of the former Soviet Union dropped from over two million in 1970 to less than a quarter of a million by 2019. (In the aftermath of this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, it dropped by an additional 31,0000.)

As the first, last and only president of the Soviet Union — which until then had been ruled by a chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet — Gorbachev in 1991 publicly acknowledged what had long been known: the Soviet Union had an antisemitism problem.

“The venomous sprouts of antisemitism arose even on Soviet soil,” Gorbachev wrote in a speech that was delivered by his aide in 1991 at Babyn Yar in Ukraine, which in 1941 was the site of the largest single massacre of Jews in the Holocaust at that point.

Participants in the Soviet Jewry rally hold signs high as they march through a Washington street Sunday, December 6, 1987. The group is calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to permit unrestricted emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)

“The Stalin bureaucracy, which publicly disassociated itself from antisemitism, in fact, used it as a means to isolate the country from the outside and strengthen their dictatorial position with the help of chauvinism,” Gorbachev said in what was at the time the most frank and vociferous condemnation of antisemitism by a Soviet official.

For his role in permitting the revival of Judaism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and in allowing most of the country’s Jews to eventually emigrate, Gorbachev was eulogized as a statesman and a humanitarian by top Jewish organizations and leaders.

“Rest in peace, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose efforts to open Soviet society helped end the Cold War and the government’s persecution of millions of Soviet Jews, who could neither live openly nor freely emigrate,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization, in a tweet.

Gorbachev, however, lamented the fact that so many Soviet Jews decided to leave the country, believing that it would cause a brain drain.

On the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev's first visit to the US in 1987, 250,000 activists marched on Washington DC to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. (Courtesy of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry)
On the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to the US in 1987, 250,000 activists marched on Washington DC to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. (Courtesy of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry)

“We have established the right to emigrate. But, to tell you frankly, we… greatly regret the fact that our [Jewish] compatriots are leaving, that the country is losing so many talented, skillful, enterprising people,” Gorbachev said at the 1991 event at Babyn Yar.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis and former chief rabbi of Moscow, wrote in a tweet that “3 million Soviet Jews owe [Gorbachev] their freedom.”

The American Jewish Committee, one of the organizations that most fervently advocated on behalf of Soviet Jewry, hailed Gorbachev for granting greater freedom to the Soviet people, releasing political prisoners, and the ️exodus of Soviet Jews.

“The World Jewish Congress mourns the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, a great statesman, an advocate for freedom and human rights, and a true friend of the Jewish people who through his actions enabled countless Soviet Jews to return to their heritage. I extend my deepest condolences to his family,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said in a statement.

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