Students and Housewives vs. Evil
My KGB interrogators scoffed
but the movement to free Soviet Jewry helped end the Cold War.
On Dec. 6, 1987, the eve of Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev's first visit to the United States, 250,000 demonstrators
flooded the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I stood before that
crowd with joy, gratitude and pride, alongside leaders of American
Jewry and several comrades-in-arms fresh from Soviet prisons or
exile in Siberia. The next day, President Reagan explained to his
visitor that the American people wouldn't permit improved
U.S.-Soviet relations until Moscow ensured the free emigration of
those wishing to depart the Soviet Union.
On that December day, we couldn't know that within months the Iron
Curtain would begin to come down; that within two years a million
Soviet Jews would make their way to Israel; or that within four
years the U.S.S.R. would cease to exist. But there on the Mall we
could sense the teetering of the last bastions of Soviet Communism.
The idea of a mass protest, discussed for over a year, had faced
objections. Some worried that Washington wasn't New York, with its
large Jewish population, and that sheer logistics would prevent us
from gathering even tens of thousands in the capital in early
winter. (In speeches I had invoked the figure of 400,000, to match
the number of Soviet Jews waiting for exit visas.) We were warned
against inflating expectations: If only 20,000 people showed up—as
estimated by many experts—the rally would look like a huge failure.
In the event, the quarter-million-strong sea of humanity converging
on the Mall from all corners of the country put paid to all such
Reagan meets with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Our success was owed to more than efficient
coordination among Jewish organizations. Above all, it was owed to
the persistent, two-decades-long campaign waged by American and
world Jewry on behalf of and in solidarity with Soviet Jews. My KGB
interrogators had dismissed this movement as "a bunch of students
and housewives." But this bunch—coming by the thousands to the
Soviet Union as tourists from the United States, Canada and
Europe—formed a living bridge between the Free World and Soviet
activists. Before the advent of the Internet or CNN, with radio
reception jammed, telephone conversations monitored, tape recorders
confiscated and surveillance constant, we were never alone.
The same students and housewives who rescued us
from isolation succeeded in isolating the Soviet regime instead.
Working through the press, the U.S. Congress and international
organizations, they made free emigration and human rights into top
items on the U.S.-Soviet agenda.
Still, there were other objections to the December
1987 rally. Scholars of international relations said that Mr.
Gorbachev was lifting repressive Soviet measures and lowering Cold
War tensions. The Soviet premier was popular in the U.S., admired
not least for releasing Nobel Prize-winning physicist Andrei
Sakharov from exile and some "Prisoners of Zion" (myself included)
from prison. A huge demonstration against him would surely be
considered tasteless by Americans and insulting by Soviets. Were
American Jews to cast themselves in lonely opposition to a dawning
era of peace and progress?
This argument also proved baseless. Among those
who welcomed the demonstration were the American president (who two
months beforehand had assured me of his tacit approval) and Vice
President George H. W. Bush, a featured speaker at the event itself.
The following day, a Jewish congressman reported his delight at
being congratulated by his colleagues on the thrilling civic example
set by American Jews—"as if it were my birthday."
Nor did many Soviet citizens perceive the rally as
an insult. While Western elites regarded Mr. Gorbachev as a
reformer, many in his own country knew he was already trying to
retard or reverse the reforms he had initiated. Genuine Soviet
reformers, Sakharov prominent among them, feared that "free
emigration" would mean only the token release of a few hundred
famous individuals, while the Communist Party would retain its
political monopoly and imperial chokehold. At that critical moment,
the Washington rally gave hope to tens of millions of people
yearning for their freedom, and it raised still higher the
reputation of the United States.
In the history of the Jewish people, the results
of the campaign for Soviet Jewry were epochal, likened by many to
the biblical exodus. Millions were enabled to join their people in
the free and democratic state of Israel, even as the waters of
defeat closed at long last over the tyranny that was Soviet
Communism. As in ancient Egypt, the desire of Soviet Jews to claim
their national identity joined with a driving thirst to be liberated
from bondage. In this union of identity and freedom lies an enduring
lesson for Jews everywhere, and by extension for other persecuted
peoples as well.
For the Free World, the quarter-century since 1987
has seen little resolution to the debate over how to deal with
dictators who trample on the rights of their people. But that era
showed that an America stubbornly true to its principles makes for a
world more secure, more free and more friendly to America itself.
This is another lesson of enduring significance.
Mr. Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish
Agency for Israel, spent nine years as a political prisoner in the
Soviet gulag. He is the author of "The Case for Democracy"
(PublicAffairs, 2004) and "Defending Identity" (PublicAffairs,
A version of this
article appeared December 6, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition
of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Students and
Housewives vs. Evil Empire.