By COLlive reporter
Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union (1985-1991) who took down the Iron Curtain and ended the oppressive and bloody regime, died at the age of 91.
As the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was credited with introducing key political and economic reforms to the USSR and helping to end the Cold War, CNN said.
Almost from the start of his leadership, he strove for significant reforms, so the system would work more efficiently and more democratically. Hence the two key phrases of the Gorbachev era: “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring), CNN noted.
“Thanks to Mr. Gorbachev, millions of Jews were able to emerge from hiding, openly reveal their Jewish identity and practice their Judaism with pride,” read a past statement of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.
When Gorbachev first came to power, long before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Rebbe declared that this man would set Russian Jewry free, which is exactly what he did, according to Russian Israeli physicist and Jewish educator Herman Branover.
When Branover had occasion to ask Gorbachev himself if he knew when he came to power that he would let the Jews go, he answered, “No.”
Gorbachev explained that he had no such intentions initially; he made the decision only much later. So, Branover observed, the Rebbe knew what Gorbachev would do before Gorbachev himself knew.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain under Gorbachev, Jews no longer had to practice their faith in secret, writes historian Dovid Zaklikowski. Before long, Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim took up outposts throughout former Soviet lands in order to establish schools and reinvigorate synagogues and communities.
Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recalled lighting Chanukah candles with Gorbachev in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“For seventy years the practice of Judaism had been effectively banned in communist Russia,” Rabbi Sacks said. “It was one of the two great assaults on our people and faith in the twentieth century. The Germans sought to kill Jews; the Russians tried to kill Judaism. Under Stalin the assault became brutal.
“Then in 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, many Soviet Jews sought to leave Russia and go to Israel. Not only was permission refused, but often the Jews concerned lost their jobs and were imprisoned. Around the world Jews campaigned for the prisoners, Refuseniks they were called, to be released and allowed to leave.
“Eventually Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the whole soviet system was unworkable. Communism had brought, not freedom and equality, but repression, a police state, and a new hierarchy of power. In the end, it collapsed, and Jews regained the freedom to practice Judaism and to go to Israel.
“That day in 1991 after we had lit candles together, Mr. Gorbachev asked me, through his interpreter, what we had just done. I told him that 22 centuries ago in Israel after the public practice of Judaism had been banned, Jews fought for and won their freedom, and these lights were the symbol of that victory.
“And I continued: Seventy years ago Jews suffered the same loss of freedom in Russia, and you have now helped them to regain it. So you have become part of the Chanukah story. And as the interpreter translated those words into Russian, Mikhail Gorbachev blushed.”
Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, a Chabad Shliach, has met Gorbachev on several occasions and had cordial conversations with him. In one of them, Gorbachev said, “Russia is good for the Jews and Jews are good for Russia.”
The former Soviet president made the remarks after Rabbi Lazar invited him to visit the Jewish museum in Moscow which offers visitors a virtual tour through Jewish history, with a special emphasis on the oppressions of Communism and the efforts by many to clandestinely keep Jewish life strong.
Gorbachev said that he was following the rebirth of Jewish life. “I am proud that the current situation is something that came about through my doings,” he said.
Biography: Mikhail Gorbachev At 90, Looking Back At A Career That Changed History