Voice of the Jewish News: The man who brought Russia in from the cold

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Voice of the Jewish News: The man who brought Russia in from the cold

Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered not just as the leader who ended the Cold War — but one who altered Israeli society

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev signs his autograph for pupils at a high school in Tel Aviv in September 2003. (Photo: Reuters)
Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev signs his autograph for pupils at a high school in Tel Aviv in September 2003. (Photo: Reuters)

The bulk of the early tributes to Mikhail Gorbachev focused rightly on his role in ending the Cold War.

For those readers old enough to remember the protracted conflict between the world’s two superpowers – it will not be in living memory for many below the age of 40 – this was the man who helped the world become a little less unpredictable.

Some went so far as to call it the “end of history”. The man himself deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

For Jews, he had a second significance. For decades, the notionally secular Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had oppressed its Jewish population because of who they were.

Gorbachev himself admitted it: he said Soviet authorities had decried antisemitism publicly while simultaneously using it to isolate the country from the outside world – it was an act of the “Stalinist bureaucracy”.

Soviet Jews in their hundreds of thousands were prevented from travelling abroad or building a new life in Israel, and instead forced to endure their lives in an oppressive regime.

Gorbachev changed that, first by releasing emblematic political prisoners like Anatoly Borisovich Sharansky – who later took the name Natan – and then by allowing Jews who had long felt outcast by their home country to leave.

A generation later, the numbers make clear how that act of lowering the drawbridge has transformed Israel.

Around 1.3 million Russian-speaking Jews living in Israel today. They are a major part of the fabric of Israeli society, representing 15% of the population.

That is why Sharansky was right in his interview with Jewish News this week to call Gorbachev a “unique phenomenon”. Few leaders have risen to the pinnacle of power only to try change the system that elevated them.

The Soviet Union did collapse on his watch – but without him, it may well have been messier and bloodier.

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