The End of the Cold War
In the course of the First World War, the huge
Russian Empire succumbed to Communist rule; a generation later,
half of Europe was consumed, and enslaved behind a curtain of iron.
For the next half-century, people lived in a world
hegemonized by two Superpowers and held hostage to their conflict.
World War was staved off only by the capacity of each side to inflict
mass destruction upon the other with the nuclear weapons aimed 24
hours a day aimed at their respective population centers.
When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet
Union in 1985, the common wisdom, shared by the world’s leading
statesman and political analysts, was that the Cold War -- as this
state of “peace” by mutual terror had come to be termed
-- would continue into the foreseeable future and beyond. The new
Secratery General was a longtime party functionary, promoted by
the power structure he was to dismantle. It would have taken a prophet
to visualize the changes that would take place under his reign.
In November of 1987, when Gorbachev declared “Stalin
and his immediate entourage” as responsible for “wholesale
repressive measures and acts of lawlessness,” it began to
dawn on the world that there was a possibility of a new Soviet Union.
Wholesale reforms swept not only through Russia, but also through
Poland, East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
These events had a dramatic impact on the Jewish
people. Jews who for seventy years had been denied even a glimpse
of a Torah scroll, could now be introduced to their heritage without
fear of losing their jobs and a midnight knock on the door from
the KGB. The Chabad Chassidim in Moscow’s Marina Roscha synagogue
tore down the heavy blue shutters that since Stalin’s time
had hidden their clandestine mikvah and cheder. And the first waves
of Jewish emigration, dammed back for decades, surged eagerly southward
to kiss the soil of the Holy Land. The old regime was still in place,
and the citizens of Russia and Eastern Europe, who had experienced
intermittent “new eras” in the past that were suddenly
and cruelly nipped in the bud, were wary; but life, particularly
religious life, was becoming more livable.
In September of 1989, the Rebbe declared the upcoming
Jewish year 5750, “The Year of Miracles,” predicting
miraculous things to come. Just a few weeks later, the face of Europe
underwent a drastic and sudden change. One after the other the Communist
regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed, felled not by guns and bombs
but by peaceful demonstrations in city squares in which the people
simply declared their demand for freedom.
One man foresaw it all. In 1985, the Rebbe conveyed
to his Chassidim in Russia—those running his underground network
of religious institutions—that the worst was now over. In
early 1987 he instructed his Chassidim in the Holy Land to build
a housing settlement and set in place employment opportunities for
the floods of Russian Jews who would soon arrive.
Professor Herman Branover, a noted Soviet émigré
and scientist, relates of a conversation he had with President Gorbachev,
during the latter’s visit to Israel several years later. When
he told Gorbachev of the Rebbe’s instructions to prepare housing
for the influx of Soviet Jewry, the president seemed surprised.
“I myself,” he said “had not yet come to the decision
to initiate these changes.
The underlying miracle, and one which the Rebbe
mentioned time and again, was the peaceful nature of these radical
changes. We need not look past the second world war, he said on
one occasion, to see the devastation that can accompany political
change. In contrast, today the changes are coming in a more complete
fashion, yet in a peaceful manner.”
The Rebbe saw these events as heralding the messianic
era, when “swords will be beaten to plowshares,” and
“there will be no war, envy, or competition . . . for the
occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d.”