The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

A SIMMERING THREAT TO THE JEWS? AUGUST 1989

Despite remarkable progress in the liberalization of Soviet society, some
topics remained taboo, and this snapshot finds Gorbachev actively preventing
one of those topics from coming to the fore. Once again, it is clear that,
for Gorbachev, being pragmatic often outweighed being a steadfast champion
of glasnost.

The Soviet people are strongly divided in their evaluations of the first session of the Congress of People's Deputies, which began on May 25, 1989 and ran for thirteen days. Even the most caustic critics of Gorbachev's enterprise, however, are forced to concede that never before in Soviet history have deputies been so free to discuss, before millions of TV viewers, the most sensitive political, social, and economic issues.

Almost 500 delegates, representing left and right, liberals and conservatives, Russian chauvinists and Baltic nationalists, and practically every social and ethnic group in the Soviet population, were given an open forum in which to vent previously suppressed grievances, no matter how minor.

As a Sovietologist and former Soviet citizen, I diligently watched Soviet TV broadcasts in my office in Michigan and read the detailed reports of the Congress's work in Soviet newspapers. At the end of the Congress's session, it occurred to me that, of the hundreds of subjects debated at the Congress, one issue was conspicuously absent: the fate of the Soviet Jews.

When I visited Moscow a few days after the end of the Congress's session, I discussed the absence of the Jewish issue at the Congress with my friends, many of whom are Russian Jews. I quickly discovered two schools of thought: that of the optimists and that of the pessimists.

Those from the first school of thought argued that, with the advent of glasnost, the Jewish question ceased to be acute and important. Indeed, said the advocates of this view, Jews were among those to greet glasnost with enthusiasm, despite the fact that Gorbachev's regime waited two years before changing the state's policy toward the Jews (state anti-Semitism, rampant since the late 1930s, finally started to abate in 1987-1988).

For the first time in five decades, the word "Jew" appeared in the Soviet press in a positive context. Jewish cultural life was resurrected from total oblivion, and when I was in Kiev, which is renowned for its brazen anti- Semitism, I actually found a billboard with two announcements about Jewish concerts. The Kremlin simultaneously opened the gates for Jewish emigration and permitted the very friendly treatment of former Jewish emigrants. In this new climate, argued the optimists, it is only natural that

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