So, how did Jews fare under Mikhail Gorbachev anyway?
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who died Aug. 30 at age 91, was remembered for allowing Jews more freedom of religion at home and allowing increasing numbers to emigrate. But did the results match his good intentions? As Communist Party general secretary in the late 1980s, Gorbachev had advocated glasnost (openness) as a policy reform, and perestroika (reconstruction), a political movement for reform of Soviet politics and economics.
His efforts would soon be followed by the collapse of the USSR, and Jews in the free world saw cause for optimism after decades of stagnation and antisemitic oppression. A character in Tony Kushner’s 1992 play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Perestroika” likened faltering advances in American LGBTQ+ rights to what looked like sudden transformations in the USSR: “Remember back four years ago? The whole time we (were) feeling everything everywhere was stuck, while in Russia! Look! Perestroika! The Thaw! It’s the end of the Cold War! The whole world is changing! Overnight!”
Yet for a number of Soviet Jews, reform and rescue were not quite as miraculously instantaneous as all that. A case in point was Alexander Pinkhosovich Podrabinek, a Soviet dissident and human rights activist of Jewish origin, who was exiled, then imprisoned in a corrective-labor colony for publishing a book on punitive medicine in the USSR.
Podrabinek had taken an interest in the fate of the Russian Jewish dissident poet Vladimir Gershuni, a victim of this type of punitive psychiatry. In the late 1970s, Dr. Gerard Low-Beer, a British Jewish psychiatrist, visited Moscow and unofficially examined nine Soviet political dissidents imprisoned in mental hospitals. Dr. Low-Beer concluded that they were not mentally ill and their incarceration was unjustified on medical grounds.
In 1986, Podrabinek and allies started a campaign to release the Soviet Union’s political prisoners. They sent letters requesting a general amnesty to Mikhail Gorbachev, newly appointed leader of the Soviet Communist Party. Gorbachev, although later rightly lauded as a humanitarian compared to his predecessors, did not bother to reply.
Of course, times were different then, and Podrabinek’s group found it difficult even to persuade artists, writers or scientists to rally to their cause. Indeed, the main supportive response was from Yury Norstein, a Soviet Jewish animé artist. Only at the end of 1987 were unjustly imprisoned dissidents, including the poet Gershuni, released from Soviet psychiatric hospitals.
That year, Podrabinek founded Express Chronicle, a weekly newspaper that appeared in Russian and English. It was an example of samizdat, another Russian word often seen in Western news media of the time, meaning informal underground publications, often handwritten and distributed surreptitiously among dissidents. Another samizdat periodical, “Left Turn,” was edited by the Russian Jewish sociologist Boris Yulyevich Kagarlitsky.
Expelled in 1980 from the State Institute of Theatrical Art for dissident activities, Kagarlitsky subsequently worked for samizdat journals. He would be jailed for “anti-Soviet” activities in 1982. Gorbachev’s perestroika did finally make a difference in Kagarlitsky’s life, as eight years after his expulsion from the State Institute, he was permitted to re-enroll and graduate. Yet barely a decade later, Kagarlitsky was once again arrested, this time for opposing the policies of Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin.
These two brief case studies point to a general trend of conditional freedoms for Russian Jews not always working out how, or when, they might have done the most good. In August 1988, the leftist educator Schneier Levenberg lectured at the Yiddish Studies Program of Oxford University. Levenberg optimistically posited that with Gorbachev’s glasnost, a new era of Russian Jewish cultural expression might dawn, instead of the sustained darkness of repressive Soviet regimes.
Levenberg declared: “If Soviet Jews were able to learn Yiddish freely, if adequate teaching materials were to be made available, Yiddish would flourish in the USSR, especially in certain republics. This would depend both on internal developments and on encouragement from supporters of the language abroad.”
As it turned out, glasnost did provide Soviet Jews freedom of worship and permission to speak, read and write Yiddish and Hebrew. Yet by also relaxing emigration bans, Gorbachev presided over an exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel. Some 750,000 eventually departed during the decade starting in 1989. Other Russian Jews fled to the United States, Canada and Europe, as they have continued to do whenever possible under the present-day tyrannical regime.
It has been estimated that in 1970, over 2 million Jews lived in the USSR, but fewer than one-tenth of that number remain today. This decline makes any widespread renaissance of Yiddish language or Jewish-themed culture in Russia statistically improbable.
By 1991, these impediments were clear, when Gorbachev spoke at Babyn Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv where German forces murdered tens of thousands of Jews in mass shootings. There, Gorbachev noted that although the right to emigrate had been established for Russia’s Jews, “we… greatly regret the fact that our (Jewish) compatriots are leaving, that the country is losing so many talented, skillful, enterprising people.”
In a different nation, the inclusion of the term “enterprising,” possibly alluding to the astuteness of Jewish oligarchs in accumulating rubles, might have raised some eyebrows. But as Russian leader, Gorbachev was given credit for merely admitting that antisemitism existed at all: “The venomous sprouts of antisemitism arose even on Soviet soil. 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.”
To which generations of Jewish dissidents likely shrugged their shoulders and exclaimed, “Nu?” The fact that Gorbachev’s mild, belated comments were seen as innovative probably says more about the sustained enmity felt against Jews in Russia and the USSR than it does about the late Russian president. Following glasnost, increased visibility of Jewish culture in Russia was greeted by a spike in societal anti-Semitism. And refusenik, another Russian word, was often misused in Western media to refer to Soviet Jews who rejected governmental strictures. In fact, its primary meaning generally applied to those who were refused permission to emigrate.
So despite floods of Soviet Jewish émigrés escaping persecution, those prevented from going remained numerous, especially scientific workers who might be even remotely classified as possessing “state secrets.” This applied to anyone who had worked, including decades before, at defense-related factories. Gorbachev promised to reform laws, such as those denying emigration visas by requiring potential émigrés to obtain permission from all immediate family members. But Russian bureaucracy moved slowly, and many Jews languished.
Mikhail Gorbachev surely merits praise as a leader who showed restraint and good intentions during times of crisis. Yet the diminished population of Russian Jews along with Soviet-style governance made his glasnost and perestroika less effective than they might otherwise have been. The economist Ruslan Grinberg told a Russian media outlet that Gorbachev had given the people freedom, but they “don’t know what to do with it.” Now that these freedoms have been rescinded by the latest autocracy, surviving remnants of Russian Jewry can scarcely feel confident about their future or that a new philosemitic ruler may appear anytime soon.