Sharansky: Gorbachev wouldn’t have released Soviet Jews if not for global pressure

Former prisoner of Zion praises late Soviet leader for freeing Jewish prisoners but says his policy was driven by the cost to the Soviet Union, not sympathy

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, left, and US president Ronald Reagan during a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Oct. 11, 1986. (AP Photo/Scott Stewart, File)
Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, left, and US president Ronald Reagan during a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Oct. 11, 1986. (AP Photo/Scott Stewart, File)

Former refusenik and prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky said on Wednesday that the late leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev would never have released Soviet Jewry had it not been for the global pressure campaign to do so.

Sharansky’s comments came following the death of Gorbachev at 91 on Tuesday.

The former Israeli cabinet minister and chairman of the Jewish Agency said that for Gorbachev, the heavy cost the Soviet Union paid due to its political repression was what convinced him to relax policies toward Jewish practice and emigration, not any particular sympathy he had for Soviet Jews.

Sharansky, who spent almost nine years in a forced labor camp, was the first Soviet political prisoner to be released by Gorbachev after the latter assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985.

“Gorbachev strongly believed in communism and believed that the ideas of Marx and Lenin were truly what was best, but also realized that the system wasn’t working for the Soviet Union,” Sharansky told The Times of Israel.

“He understood that there was a need to give some freedom to people,” such as greater civil rights and economic opportunity.

Former refusenik, prison of Zion, Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“What he didn’t understand was that if you give a little freedom, the people will demand a lot of freedom,” he said.

Sharansky said that even before becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Gorbachev had been struck by the tremendous price the Soviet Union was paying in trade restrictions and other sanctions imposed on the USSR by the West for its policies of political repression, including against Soviet Jewry.

“On his first trip to the West, before he was leader, he was asked constantly about the situation of the Jews, about Sharansky, and [prominent Soviet dissident Andrei] Sakharov, and he replied he didn’t know who these people were, and didn’t understand why the Soviet Union was paying such a heavy price for them,” said Sharansky.

The former refusenik also asserted that after Gorbachev had started to release political prisoners, including Jews, he and his communist regime grew concerned about the possibility of mass emigration and resultant political instability and attempted to once again restrict emigration.

Only after Gorbachev’s visit to Washington in 1987 and the Freedom Sunday demonstration organized by US Jewish organizations, attended by some 250,000 protesters, did the Soviet leader begin to ease emigration restrictions, said Sharansky.

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)

He added that Gorbachev never had much interaction with Jews or Jewish organizations, and that the Jewish people in general held little importance for him.

“He wasn’t antisemitic, he didn’t have the prejudice of the Stalin or Brezhnev regimes, but I don’t remember any particular expression of sympathy by him toward Jews,” said Sharansky.

“Was this new policy good for Soviet Jewry? Yes it was. But without the pressure and the struggle by the Jewish world for Soviet Jews, supported by [late US president Ronald] Reagan and other world leaders, Gorbachev would probably never have done it.”

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