Real history is complicated. Its long-term moral arc might bend toward justice, but it zigzags on the way there, and it certainly takes its own sweet time.
Sometimes, though, someone does something that’s straightforward.
According to Alexander Smukler of Montclair, the Russian-Jewish émigré who is our analyst for Russia’s war on Ukraine, that’s true of Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Union’s youngest leader in 1985, its only president (his title kept changing, becoming progressively less clunky), and then fell from power and died in near obscurity at 91 last week.
Although many people, including Mr. Smukler’s friend and mentor Natan Sharansky, think that Gorbachev’s decision to let Russian Jews go was the result of a combination of the global pressure and the increasing strength of the internal movement to release Soviet Jewry, Mr. Smukler feels nothing but pure gratitude toward the Soviet president.
“Whoever saves one life saves an entire world,” he quoted the Talmud. Gorbachev saved many lives, and therefore many worlds; when you count the descendants of each saved Jew, who have full universes.
“I and my family and probably thousands of others are members of Gorbachev’s list,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s thanks to Gorbachev that we are living as Jews, living free and happy here, being Jewish, and celebrating Shabbes every week.
“Yes, of course the West influenced him, but Gorbachev was different from the others,” he said, comparing him to the line of outwardly stolid, gray-suited, gray-faced Soviet leaders who presided over the failing superpower.
“Gorbachev was a different person inside,” Mr. Smukler said. “He had a heart. He had neshuma.” He had a soul.
Here’s the story, as Mr. Smukler tells it.
As we’ve recounted in another story (“Living Through History,” November 12, 2021) Aleksandr Smukler — Sasha to his friends — was born in Moscow in 1960, to Jewish parents whose Judaism was a deeply buried part of their identity, themselves children of Jewish parents deeply scarred by the Holocaust and World War II. After meeting refuseniks — a group largely half a generation or so older than he was — and feeling drawn to them, and then joining them; after many adventures and machinations, he, his wife, Alla Shtraks, and the two oldest of their three sons left the Soviet Union on September 20, 1991. (“My third son was born in Mountainside Hospital in Montclair,” he said, with pleasure.)
Mr. Smukler’s first of what turned out to be several meetings with Gorbachev was in 1991, he said. The Russian leader’s peak was well past; his power and strength were waning, and he soon was to be toppled temporarily by an ultimately failed coup.
“When we left, I had no clue that Gorbachev would resign on December 25, 1991,” Mr. Smukler said. “And if someone had told me that the Soviet Union would completely collapse and break into 15 different states…. I had no idea. I had no reason to think that would happen.
“We left because after being refuseniks for seven years, waiting for our exist visas, Gorbachev was the one who gave us permission to emigrate, like hundreds of thousands of other Soviet Jews who live happily in the West and in Israel now.
“He was the first pharaoh who let our people go. That is why for me he is a righteous person.
“My grandson was born in the United States, and his name is Theodore. He was named after Theodor Herzl. I could never have imagined, living in the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain, that my grandson would be born in the United States and that my son would name him after Theodor Herzl without fear, without pressure, without feeling any antisemitism.”
Mr. Smukler disagrees — carefully and respectfully — with some of Mr. Sharansky’s conclusions about Gorbachev — conclusions that the onetime Prisoner of Zion, the first political prisoner that Gorbachev released, who later became an Israeli politician and for years was the head of the Jewish Agency, and who remains a widely respected figure in Israel, published in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
Mr. Sharansky said that Gorbachev’s actions were the result of outside pressure. “But Gorbachev changed the Soviet Union’s policy toward Israel,” Mr. Smukler said. “It took him more than five years, and an incredible fight inside the Politburo and with other Soviet leaders. But Gorbachev is the one who established diplomatic relations with Israel. He did that just before his resignation on December 25, 1991; the first Soviet ambassador arrived in Israel on December 19, after 29 years without diplomatic relations. So Gorbachev was the one who established that, not Yeltsin.
“I wasn’t the only one to think that the Soviet empire wouldn’t collapse. I think that even Gorbachev didn’t realize that it would explode so quickly. The situation was shaky for him that December — that’s when Yeltsin was trying to minimize Gorbachev’s role as president of the Soviet Union, working hard to prepare the meeting of the leaders of some of the republics in Belarus, where they signed a treaty about every republic being independent” — that was the Belovezhskaya Pucsha Agreement — “but I don’t think that he realized how dangerous it was, even 10 days before he was forced to resign.
“Gorbachev’s outstanding importance is that he let the Soviet Union collapse without bloodshed. He could have been like Khrushchev or Brezhnev. He could have sent Russian tanks to the Baltic states or started a civil war against Yeltsin and the others who signed that treaty.
“But Gorbachev was the first leader to accept that he would resign his enormous power without spilling human blood, and without starting a civil war to protect the dying Soviet empire.
“That’s why he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, which he got in 1990, after the peaceful reunification of Germany.”
Mr. Smukler talked about a conversation that he had in early 1991 in the British embassy in Moscow with the woman he refers to by her nickname, the Iron Lady — that’s Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. “She was coming to Moscow because she was visiting Gorbachev,” he said. “She felt a great sympathy for him, and particularly for his wife, Raisa. I agree with Natan that Gorbachev would never have let our people go without people like Ronald Reagan and the Iron Lady, and without the trust that existed between them.
“Gorbachev really listened to them because he opened up to the outside world,” Mr. Smukler continued. “He grew up inside the Soviet system, and he was like other Soviet and Communist Party leaders because he had been isolated from the outside, from the civilized Western world. He opened that world for himself; he was hungry to learn how the outside world worked, how real democracies existed, how they operated, how the system worked.
“That’s why his communications with Reagan and with Bush Senior were so important. Not many people know that Gorbachev met with those two American president 11 times in five years. He met with Mitterrand” — François Mitterrand was the president of France from 1981 to 1995 — “and was personal friends with Kohl.” Helmut Kohl was Germany’s chancellor from 1982 to 1998. “And after the Iron Lady retired as prime minster, she came to Moscow almost every month. It was pure friendship and common sympathy. They’d been friends, together with Raisa.
“The Iron Lady told me that she that Gorbachev had changed, and his ability to feel softness as the leader of the last empire in the world amazed her. She talked about his ability to listen, to learn, to change, to leave communist dogma and hardline ideas behind, and that it was because of the incredible influence of the Western leaders he’d built real personal relationships with.
“That’s my major disagreement with Natan. I think that by the end of his term, Gorbachev was a completely different person than he was when he started.
“I agree that without enormous pressure, he probably never would have let Jews go. But he fully understood that the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union was the leading group in the dissident movement. In my conversation with him after he resigned, he told me that the Jewish dissident movement, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, changed him deeply.
“He said it was the Jews who made the first crack in the Iron Curtain.”
Gorbachev was not a philosemite, Mr. Smukler said; in fact, he knew very little about Jews until he attained power. “He was from the south of Russia, the place where historically the Russian Cossacks used to live.” (As in the villains who dance so well in “Fiddler on Roof,” but in real life they were far worse, if less balletically gifted; they led pogroms.) “It was a very antisemitic area, historically. And Gorbachev was a very high level communist who was promoted to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy by Yuri Andropov, the powerful head of the KGB.” Andropov — who, as it turns out, had descended from Jews, a truth that he hid — died soon thereafter, and Gorbachev continued his rise. “Several times, though, Gorbachev mentioned that he always knew that Andropov was a Jew,” Mr. Smukler said.
So, there was an ambitious, smart, young, good-looking politician (and onlookers never should underestimate the power of physical attractiveness) who was neutral, on the whole, about Jews. “He was always a pragmatist,” Mr. Smukler said.
And then, as he gained power, as he gained more insight, his worldview started to change.
“In December of 1989, a group of Jewish leaders in the Soviet Union decided to form the first official congress of Jews in the Soviet Union, and we created the umbrella organization called the Vaad.” (It was a secular organization, he explained, although generally in North America that word is used to refer to religious leadership groups.)
“I was one of the founders of the Vaad,” he added. “We sent a request to the Politburo to give us permission to gather, with almost 600 deputies from all over the Soviet Union. The Politburo met and discussed it. Gorbachev was on the side that voted for it, and another group fought hard to prevent it. At the last minute, Gorbachev made the final decision and said that as general secretary, he ruled that the congress would take place.
“He let us conduct that congress, and after that, after years of being forced to exist underground, Jewish communal life became official and legal in the Soviet Union, and after that in Russia.”
So when it came to letting Jews leave, Gorbachev “fully understood the danger of letting thousands and thousands of Jews go, and that giving the refuseniks permission to leave would lead to bigger problems in the Baltics and with other republics with strong national movements. They’d demand similar treatment, and similar freedom to leave. So he always saw Jewish emigration as a small part of a much bigger problem. He understood that it was a small part of a bigger decision to demolish the Iron Curtain, and that letting Jews go would make it necessary to remove the Iron Curtain altogether.”
Still, he let them go.
“That is why I think that Gorbachev played an enormous role in the history of the Jewish people,” Mr. Smukler said. Although he could not save the Soviet economy — and as a result he couldn’t hold onto his job — because he changed the Soviet Union’s relationship to the West “he completely changed the world,” at least for decades. For what he did for the Jews, “his name will be written for thousands of years in the history of my people,” Mr. Smukler said.
Mr. Smukler also wanted to talk about Mikhail Gorbachev’s relationship with his wife, Raisa. “She was the love of his life, and she was also a real partner,” he said. “I saw them together in 1994 and 1995, and I thought about how people can keep such incredibly strong feelings toward each other. He was the ruler of the biggest and strongest empire in the world and fell down, without millions of dollars — without any wealth at all — and they went down together, but this incredible feeling for each other survived.”
Together, the Gorbachevs were responsible for Americans’ ability to adopt Russian children; that went on until Putin stopped it. The daughter of a member of an American administration in the Soviet Union wanted to adopt a baby; Raisa Gorbacheva “helped convince her husband to give the order that opened the door to these kids,” Mr. Smukler said. “She initiated legislation that allowed American families to adopt Russian orphans; I want to give Raisa credit because 55,000 Russian orphans were adopted.”
Had they not been adopted, “they would have had no future at all,” he continued; they would have languished in Russian orphanages. “Some of them had special needs, including severe diseases, heart disease, cleft palates”; some were conditions that could be and were fixed in the United States.
“Gorbachev and Yeltsin hated each other, but Yeltsin’s wife also was supportive of the adoption of Russian kids by American families, and they continued to support the process.
“Putin closed the door for thousands of orphans,” he added.
Raisa Gorbacheva died in 1999, at 67. Her husband survived her by 21 years. “He passed away at the age of 92, after a long-term hospitalization and sickness,” Mr. Smukler said. “His kidneys were not functioning, and he was suffering for several years.
“He was living alone in Moscow,” Mr. Smukler said; the only people around him were old retainers who had been with him for years. “After Raisa’s death, he was constantly depressed; his daughter Irina, his only child, lived in Germany with her two daughters. He was abandoned. He didn’t have a family. He lived in a dacha that Putin gave him. In the last 10 years he hadn’t been active in his foundation, which had been slowly deteriorating.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was buried next to Raisa in the Novodevichy cemetery, near many other prominent and powerful Russians. Many prominent and powerful — and still-living — Russians were at his funeral, but Vladimir Putin was not.
As Mr. Smukler put it, with Gorbachev’s death, “the last giant of the 20th century passed away.”