In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev made the front page of our paper.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev made the front page of our paper.

Gorbachev was closely watched in Bay Area, a center of Soviet Jewry activism

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“A mood best described as cautious optimism prevailed here this week as Jewish officials speculated on the fate of Soviet Jews under the USSR’s new leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.”

Thus began an article on the front page of this paper — then called the Northern California Jewish Bulletin — on March 15, 1985. Gorbachev, who died Aug. 30 at age 91, had just stepped into power.

At that time, the Bay Area was a center of the Soviet Jewry movement, which sought the release of refuseniks —Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union.

At first, optimism that things would change under Gorbachev seemed unjustified. The number of Jews allowed to emigrate was only 914 in 1986, the first year of Gorbachev’s rule, which was fewer than the previous year.

Two years later, Wolf Blitzer (yes, that Wolf Blitzer) reported for our paper that Gorbachev “suggested that the Soviet Union might become more flexible in permitting increased Jewish emigration, especially in the area of reducing the use of ‘state secrets’ as a reason for denying exit visas.”

But Gorbachev always walked a fine line in Soviet-U.S. relations. Pressed further by American officials, he had a tart rejoinder: “You won’t let everybody into your country who leaves some other country, or wishes to …You seem to accept everyone who wishes to leave the Soviet Union. You do not accept everyone who wishes to leave Mexico for your country.”

But in the end, Gorbachev did let more Jews leave; the number rose every year, reaching 185,000 in 1990.

That same year we published an editorial titled “Beware of Gorby fever.”

Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987. The Soviet Jewry movement was closely covered in our paper — with an article on it coming later this week. (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987, shortly after his release from Soviet prison. (Photo/Tom Wachs)

“Gorby fever is taking over the Bay Area. But before the Jewish community also is infected, it first should consider that there is still more we should expect and demand from the Soviet president.”

That included asking him to stand up against rising antisemitism in the Soviet Union, allow full diplomatic relations with Israel and ease emigration restrictions for Soviet Jews.

“Please, Mr. Gorbachev, prove to us that our expectations of you are justified,” the editorial concluded.

And when Gorbachev visited later that year, the community did ask.

“When Mikhail Gorbachev arrives in the Bay Area Sunday night, the Jewish community will be prepared to inform the Soviet leader that he’s not doing enough … Among the ways they will convey their concerns are meeting with the Soviet consul general, joining a general demonstration against Soviet policies, and running advertisements addressed to the Soviet leader.”

But by 1998, the tone had changed. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and Gorbachev had resigned. Nearly 2 million Jews had left the country, primarily for Israel and the U.S. Gorbachev wasn’t being criticized by U.S. Jews — he was being feted.

“The two men who headed the Soviet Union and Israel when the mass immigration of Russian Jews began came together this week to celebrate with U.S. Jewish activists the 10th anniversary of that revolution,” said a JTA bulletin our paper carried about Gorbachev and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir addressing a 1998 State of Israel Bonds dinner in New York.

“Gorbachev condemned anti-Semitism as ‘a shameful page’ in Soviet history,” the article continued. “Although such prejudice has yet to be fully overcome, the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner said, ‘Thank God we are now a lot wiser and I hope also kinder.’”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.