With the passage of Mikhail Gorbachev at age 91 during the heat of the Russian War against the Ukraine, the stark contrasts between two eras takes shape.
Gorbachev ended the Cold War, lifted the Iron Curtain, and freed the Jews from bondage in the Soviet Union. He was a healer. Putin’s avoidance of his 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 President Ronald Reagan, whom, when he said in Berlin on June 12, 1987, “Tear down this wall,” it did not fall on deaf ears. Gorbachev listened and acquiesced to his 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 and a throwback to the Middle Ages. Russia produced two things: steroid-dependent athletes and high-tech weapons, including 20,000 nuclear bombs by 1975. That number almost doubled by the time Gorbachev took over. The rest of the Cold War was all about the KGB, intimidation, tyranny, and repression. Practicing Judaism was banned. Communism had no room for religion. The Jews of the Soviet Union were blocked from Jewish education for 70 years.
The Russians during the Cold War 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 hurt Israel very badly. 2656 Israeli soldiers were killed in that war. I lost many friends in the Yom Kippur War thanks to Russian armaments and advisors.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was fueled by the Russians. The Vietnam War was due in large part to Russian aggression.
Mikhail Gorbachev put an end to the madness.
His “Glasnost” (openness) and “Perestroika” (restructuring) established a new world order. Although it took special requests from President Reagan, Gorbachev released the confined dissident Andrew D. Sakharov and many Jewish refuseniks. Without the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Gorbachev may never have acted. This was a clear-cut testimony to how activism is crucial to making the world a better place. One of the chief activists in convincing Gorbachev to release Jewish refusenik Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, who had 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 out of the Soviet Union. Because of Gorbachev, freedom reigned in the 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 just could not come to grips with freedom. Putin called the “collapse” of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
A friend of Gorbachev’s, Aleksei A. Venediktov, said that Mr. Gorbachev was “upset” about the Ukraine War and considered it as though “his life’s work” was undermined.
Vladimir Putin is living in the past, and the past will come back to bite him. Unlike Gorbachev, who was a healer, Putin is a war monger. Hopefully, Russia will find the next Gorbachev sooner than later.
Dr. Joe Frager is Chairman of the Israel Advocacy Commission for the Rabbinical Alliance of America; Chairman of the Executive Committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim; Dean at Kollel Ayshel Avraham; Executive Vice President of the Israel Heritage Foundation; and a physician in practice for 41 years.