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December 6, 2012 - the 25th anniversary of Summit Sunday
Natan Sharansky's comments in the Wall Street Journal

Students and Housewives vs. Evil Empire

My KGB interrogators scoffed at it,
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 doubts.

President Ronald Reagan meets with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Associated Press

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, 2008).

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.

Learn more about Natan Sharansky, human rights activist and former Soviet refusnik.

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