An Unlikely Savior and a Flight Out of the Soviet Union | Opinion

The major reformers of the Soviet system, Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, have very different reputations outside the former USSR. Khrushchev is often regarded as an uncouth buffoon, while Gorbachev, who died on Aug. 30, is seen as a courageous reformer who destroyed European Communism and presided over the breakup of the Soviet Union. He was credited with partnering with the United States to end the Cold War and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Westerners tend to overlook the fact that Gorbachev's aim in the late 1980s was not to dissolve the Soviet Union or abolish Communism but to rescue them by reforming both. The breakup of the USSR and the fading of Communism were unintended consequences of his efforts. Nevertheless, it is the consequences and not the intentions that have been (rightly) embraced.

Khrushchev is largely forgotten or regarded with faint bemusement in most states that had been part of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, in Russia, Central Asia and Belarus, Gorbachev is reviled as the man who destroyed a superpower, promoted chaos, and, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was responsible for the "greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century."

Jewish media and prominent leaders have hailed Gorbachev as the liberator of Soviet Jewry, though some have pointed out that he was not especially concerned with the Jews. He had bigger fish to fry: the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, nationalist dissidence in Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Baltics, and even Russia itself. But his policy of glasnost' (openness) allowed Jews to voice their aspirations publicly. Many Jews wanted to emigrate, others wanted to stay and construct viable Jewish life in the USSR, and a large number were unconcerned with anything but antisemitism which limited their life chances and made them feel marginalized.

There had not been a single Jewish organization or institution for over two million Soviet Jews since 1948 when the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was dissolved, but perestroika (reconstruction) made possible the sudden and spontaneous rise of some 500 "Jewish cultural associations" from the Baltic to the Far East in 1988-89. This astonishing Jewish activity culminated in the founding congress of a national Jewish organization (the Va'ad) in December 1989. It aimed to spur Jewish public life throughout the USSR and reconnect Soviet Jews to world Jewry. The change in the Jewish situation was not specifically due to any policy directed only toward Jews, but was part of the general liberalization of thought, expression and action Gorbachev had instituted.

Goodbye to Gorbachev
A picture shows the grave of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow on Sept. 7, 2022. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

It is commonly believed that Soviet Jews "woke up" to their Jewishness as a result of the Soviets' condemnation of Israel in the 1967 Middle East war during which their client states, Egypt and Syria, suffered unexpected, humiliating defeat. Soviet Jews were shocked when the USSR attacked Israel politically and, indirectly, militarily. Vociferous Soviet condemnation of Israel and Zionism made a significant portion of the Soviet Jewish population realize that the country they had fought for in World War II was supporting the possible annihilation of their fellow Jews in Israel. Their feelings of alienation spurred a movement that culminated in over a million Jews leaving the Soviet Union.

But the movement for emigration to Israel had actually begun in the late 1950s with bold and risky initiatives of a small number of Jews who studied Hebrew and were intrigued by the emergence of a Jewish state. In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin in his "secret speech" at the 20th Party Congress and called the 1953 antisemitic "Affair of the Doctor-Plotters" a fabrication. It was well known that six of the doctors who were accused of betraying the USSR were Jewish and that they were charged with working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Jews hoped that there would be a change in policy toward them, though Khrushchev had said nothing about antisemitism. But little changed. There were still stringent quotas on Jews' admission to higher education and employment in many fields. Some token restoration of Jewish culture was made—the Yiddish journal Sovietish haimland began publishing in 1961, and a few Yiddish books were published beginning in 1959, but Jewish national expression and activity remained forbidden. Some who were exploring Jewish issues were arrested, charged with "Zionist activity," considered "petit bourgeois nationalism," and sentenced to prison.

Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 but his successors stifled cultural dissidence and forcefully halted Czechoslovak economic and political reforms in 1968 that threatened to spill over into the USSR. As the government and people probed the limits of change, activists of several nationalities—Crimean Tatars, Jews, Lithuanians, Ukrainians—asserted themselves. They mounted small public demonstrations, petitioned for cultural rights, and tried to inform international agencies, governments and foreign publics of their plight and aspirations. The authorities saw this as "anti-Soviet slander" since such activities challenged the image of a harmonious, conflict-free society that had "solved the national problem."

At that time, outside of Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and parts of Central Asia, an ever-diminishing number of Jews had some minimal knowledge of Jewish tradition, history and languages. Almost all Jews were completely Russianized culturally, but they were not regarded as Russians. Jews were officially designated a "nationality" and, like all other citizens, had their ethnicity inscribed in their identification papers. This complemented society's perception of them as Jews, not Russians, Ukrainians, or other nationalities among whom they lived. Thus, Jews felt identity dissonance: they were Russians by culture, Jews by identity.

Yet, since most Soviet Jews did not practice Judaism and knew no Jewish languages or history, many Jews outside the USSR saw them as "Russians." There was considerable misunderstanding between American and Soviet Jews when thousands of the "Russians" immigrated to the United States, where American Jews still identified primarily as a religious group, whereas Soviet Jews did not.

Labeled as "Jews" but knowing little about what that meant, a growing number in the USSR became curious about the meaning and content of being Jewish. In 1969 they created an unofficial "All-Union Coordinating Committee" but did not make it a formal organization. This choice was well adapted to Soviet circumstances. Any formal organization would be judged subversive, since it was not originated by the state, and it would be easier to identify, locate and subvert. A movement, geographically widespread and with no acknowledged center or leadership, would be more difficult for Soviet authorities to control.

The emergent activists launched open public protests, appeals to Soviet authorities and international society, and unofficial "underground" publications ("samizdat") that included studies of Jewish history, literature and thought. Jewish activists contacted Western correspondents, who were eager to report on the emerging phenomenon of dissidence in the closed society. The activists forged close ties with North American and European Jews and non-Jewish supporters who provided economic and political support.

Soviet Jewry activists abroad would arrive in the USSR as tourists, bearing items in very short supply (jeans, cosmetics, cameras, tape recorders, Western books and magazines). They would give them as gifts to Jewish activists who would then sell them and distribute the monies to needy persons and activists, those who had been fired from their jobs for applying to emigrate.

The Jewish movement became much more visible to people outside of the USSR than to Soviet people. The volume of anti-Zionist publications and programs grew exponentially, and at the same time demands for emigration to Israel drew worldwide attention. The authorities countered with mass meetings in workplaces and institutions condemning Zionism and Israel, greatly embarrassing Jews who had to attend.

In March 1971, the government decided to allow controlled, modest emigration, apparently reasoning that if the "Zionist agitators" and "religious fanatics" would leave, the demand for emigration would diminish, and what had become a domestic and foreign policy annoyance would go away. They did not reckon with chain migration and with the persistence of Jewish alienation.

Three Waves of Emigration

There were three waves of Jewish emigration, the first two when Leonid Brezhnev and his aged successors led the Party. The first wave was from 1971 to 1975, when about 175,000 Jews went overwhelmingly to Israel. They came disproportionately from the Baltic states, where secular Jewish culture had survived, and Georgia, where Judaism was still widely practiced. The second wave (1975-1988) came mostly from the Slavic republics—Belorussia, Russia, and Ukraine.

These third and fourth generation Soviet citizens headed increasingly to the United States. Officials routinely refused to grant emigration visas, often on the grounds that the applicant had enjoyed access to "state secrets." Such "refuseniks" were fired from their jobs or demoted, expelled from institutions of higher education, and even sentenced to labor camps and exile.

An "education tax" was imposed on would-be emigrants, requiring them to repay the state for their higher education. Permission to leave was required from parents and former spouses. Even in 1986, a year after the 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev became the Party leader, only 914 Jews emigrated, whereas 51,320 had done so in 1979, the year before the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had ended East-West détente.

But after Gorbachev launched his reformist policies in 1987 and thereafter, the floodgates opened, ironically not only because emigration had become permissible, but because many Jews felt threatened by the loosening of the reins which they feared would lead to chaos, civil war, and ethnic conflict, much like that in 1919-1921. That is why the third wave, by far the largest, was a "panic migration." Ethnic tensions had burst into the open, and antisemitism rose to the surface.

Jews fled to whichever country would accept them—overwhelmingly that was Israel. In total, about 575,000 Jews emigrated (1989-1992) bringing the number of Soviet Jews who left their native country to about 1.6 million, the largest migration by far of Jews anywhere in the 20th century. Paradoxically, this great outflow of Jews vitiated the unprecedented, vigorous attempts to rebuild Jewish cultural and religious life in the USSR, since the most Jewishly conscious and committed Jews departed.

How ironic that the state founded by anti-Zionist Vladimir Lenin, and which had broken relations with Israel in 1967, sent more Jews to Israel than any other in history. This may be the most important political and social victory Jews enjoyed in the 20th century, one in which they had also suffered their most catastrophic loss in modern history.

Zvi Gitelman studies ethnicity and politics, especially in former Communist countries, as well as Israeli politics, East European politics, and Jewish political thought and behavior. His most recent edited book is The New Jewish Diaspora: Russian-speaking Immigrants in the United States, Israel and Germany.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.