With the passing of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at age 91, in the midst of the Russian war on Ukraine, the stark contrast between the Gorbachev and Putin eras is taking shape.
Gorbachev ended the Cold War, lifted the Iron Curtain and freed the Jews from bondage in the Soviet Union. He was a healer. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin’s avoidance of Gorbachev’s funeral was a disgrace.
Gorbachev was a man who saw the beauty, the power and the opportunity that freedom could bring. He had an able, willing and great partner and cheerleader in U.S. President Ronald Reagan. When Reagan spoke in Berlin on June 12, 1987 and said, “Tear down this wall!” it did not fall on deaf ears. Gorbachev listened and granted Reagan’s request. One of the greatest moments in world history took place on November 9, 1989 when the wall came down. Gorbachev made it happen. It was pure ecstasy.
The Cold War, for anyone who lived through it, was a nightmare; a throwback to the Middle Ages. During that era, Russia produced two things: steroid-dependent athletes and high-tech weapons. By 1975, the latter included 20,000 nuclear bombs. That number had almost doubled by the time Gorbachev took over. The Cuban missile crisis was fueled by the USSR and the Vietnam War was due in large part to Russian aggression.
Besides that, Russia during the Cold War was all about the KGB, intimidation, tyranny and repression. For the Jews, it was a nightmare. Communism had no room for religion, so Judaism was banned. The Jews of the Soviet Union were prevented from enjoying a Jewish education for 70 years.
The USSR made every attempt to try to destroy the State of Israel. They teamed up with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to take on Israel in 1967. They assisted Anwar Sadat in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and inflicted terrible wounds on the Israeli people, with 2,656 Israeli soldiers killed. I lost many friends in the Yom Kippur War thanks to Russian armaments and advisors.
Mikhail Gorbachev put an end to this madness.
His glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) established a new world order. Although it took special requests from President Reagan, Gorbachev released the dissident Andrei Sakharov and many Jewish refuseniks. Without the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Gorbachev might never have acted. This was a testimony to the crucial role activism plays in making the world a better place. One of the chief activists who convinced Gorbachev to release Jewish refusenik Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, was Joe Mermelstein of blessed memory.
Gorbachev established a freedom of conscience law guaranteeing the right of people to “satisfy their spiritual needs.” Because of Gorbachev, a million Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Because of Gorbachev, freedom reigned in Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
Vladimir Putin has reversed course. His absence at Gorbachev’s funeral speaks volumes. He has made a 180-degree turn. The hardliners in Russia simply could not come to grips with freedom. Indeed, Putin called the “collapse” of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
A friend of Gorbachev, Aleksei A. Venediktov, said that Gorbachev was “upset” about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and felt “his life’s work” had been undermined.
Vladimir Putin is living in the past and the past will come back to bite him. Unlike Gorbachev, who was a healer, Vladimir Putin is a warmonger. Hopefully, Russia will find its next Gorbachev sooner rather than later.
Dr. Joseph Frager is a lifelong activist and physician. He is chairman of Israel advocacy for the Rabbinical Alliance of America, chairman of the executive committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim and executive vice president of the Israel Heritage Foundation.