On the morning of August 19, 1991, Americans woke to the televised sight of an empire in meltdown. Tanks were converging on the Kremlin, seeking to reclaim Russia for communism. One man, Boris Yeltsin, climbed atop a tank and stopped the coup, and entered history.
Yeltsin, who died this week at 76, was a complicated man. He had the rare combination of inner decency and courage to stand firm when firmness was needed. Thanks to him, communism was defeated in the place where it started. But for all his courage, he lacked the vision to lead Russia into democracy. His presidency became a nightmare of corruption and economic collapse. When he was done, he handed the reins over to a secret policeman, Vladimir Putin, who has worked ever since to restore the autocracy Yeltsin fought.
Whatever else it meant, the end of Soviet communism has been a blessing for Russia’s Jews. Once the world’s largest community, they lived through seven decades of repression. The end of communism has allowed masses of Russian Jews to depart for freedom in Israel and elsewhere. Those who remained have been free to rebuild their destroyed communal institutions.
Oddly, Russia still labors under the constraints of an American law passed in 1974 to press for Soviet Jewish emigration, the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The measure withheld normal trade rights from countries lacking a market economy — that is, communist states — if they barred their citizens’ freedom of movement. Neither one is true of Russia today. Congress clings to the amendment, understandably nervous about Russian democracy and unwilling to give up the law’s leverage. Ironically, the law no longer applies. It’s time for some honesty.
Odder still, the latest eruption of the amendment debate takes place within the Lubavitch Hasidic community, a mystical movement inextricably tied to the fate of post-communist Russia. The day that Yeltsin mounted the tank, August 19, 1991, was the day that the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade ran down a child in Brooklyn, touching off four days of deadly rioting. Lubavitch emerged from the trauma galvanized as never before, and entered a period of explosive growth. Nowhere has its success been more dramatic than in Russia, where it is closely allied with Yeltsin’s heir, Putin. Manifold are the mysteries — and ironies — of history.