Mikhail Gorbachev, who made a generation of Russian Jews in Israel, dies aged 91

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Mikhail Gorbachev, who made a generation of Russian Jews in Israel, dies aged 91

The last Soviet leader lifted restrictions on Jewish emigration from the USSR and admitted antisemitism had infected his country

Michael Daventry is Jewish News’s foreign and broadcast editor

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, pictured during an event in the United States in October 2005 (Photo: Reuters/Jim Young/File Photo)
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, pictured during an event in the United States in October 2005 (Photo: Reuters/Jim Young/File Photo)

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who oversaw the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel, has died aged 91.

Russian media said he died at Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow after what it said was a long illness, but did not immediately give details.

Gorbachev became leader in 1985 and is best known in the West for opening up the USSR and rebuilding ties with countries including United States and Britain.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War.

But he also lifted restrictions preventing Soviet citizens from travelling abroad, prompting Jews in their hundreds of thousands to make aliyah after waiting for many years.

The policy of glasnost — or openness — allowed people to criticise the authorities in ways that had not been seen for decades.

He would later express his regret at the exodus, admitting that Soviet authorities had long persecuted its Jewish population and that society had been infected with antisemitism.

“The poisonous seeds of antisemitism arose even on Soviet soil,” Gorbachev said in 1991, when he was still Soviet leader.

“The Stalinist bureaucracy, publicly decrying antisemitism, in practice used it to isolate the country from the outside world, counting on chauvinism to strengthen its hold.

“The right to emigrate has been granted, but I say frankly that we, society, deeply regret the departure of our countrymen and that the country is losing so many talented, skilled and enterprising citizens.”

Today, there are around 1.3 million Russian-speaking Israelis – including the campaigner Natan Sharansky, who went on to become chairman of the Jewish Agency in the years after Gorbachev authorised his release from a Soviet prison in 1986.

Gorbachev himself was well-respected in Israel and received a hero’s welcome during a visit in 1992.

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