This Week in History: USSR falls, Soviets make aliya

Gorbachev's resignation marked end of Cold War, demise of Marxism-Leninism and mass aliya.

gorbachev 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
gorbachev 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On December 25, 1991, some 24 hours after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the USSR reached the end of a years-long process dismantling itself and officially dissolved. The moment marked the end of the Cold War, the birth of over a dozen new states, the demise of Marxism-Leninism as a governing ideology and led to the aliya of over one million Jews to Israel.
Two years earlier, the most dominant symbol of the Iron Curtain separating the West from the Soviet Bloc – the Berlin wall – fell dramatically. For the first time, Soviet citizens were able to simply walk out, which the government in Moscow had fought for decades to prevent. At the same time, revolutions in a number of Soviet states also played a major role in bringing about the end of authoritarian communist rule in eastern Europe.
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But Gorbachev ‘s focus on economic reform was among the more consequential changes that led to the breakup of the Soviet Republic.
From the outset of his reign in 1985 Gorbachev drove his government to revive the economic strength and stability of the USSR. But in order to carry out economic reforms, the new president realized political and social reforms would also be necessary. He appointed a new, young guard of leaders and the political, social and economic system that had dominated the USSR for decades began undergoing dramatic, liberalizing changes. In those years, free elections were held for a growing number of positions that had been Politburo political appointments for decades.
A wave of revolutions swept Soviet states and the new legislatures quickly took steps that undermined the centralized authority of the Soviet power structure. The more independence the Soviet republics gained from Moscow, the more pressure Gorbachev came under to allow them increased autonomy and democracy. By late 1991, all 15 of the republics comprising the Soviet Union had gained independence.
In the three days leading up to December 25, 1991, the former Soviet superpower appeared to simply come undone.
On December 22, three of the major governments of Soviet republics met secretly and decided to dissolve the union. Two days later, citing that decision, Gorbachev announced his resignation as president of the Soviet Union. On December 25, the red Soviet flag was lowered for the last time in Moscow and around the world.
A large number of Soviet Jews had long been prevented from emigrating by the USSR. Although significant numbers had been allowed out in the years leading up to the Soviet Union’s demise, its total dissolution provided the long-awaited opportunity to emigrate.
Post-Soviet era forever alters the face of Israel
Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority of Jews who managed to escape or were permitted to leave chose to immigrate to the United States. After 1991, however, the United States stopped considering Soviet émigrés as refugees. As a result, large numbers of Soviet Jewry began immigrating to Israel.
The arrival of over 700,000 Jews from the former Soviet republics is considered one of the most significant events in the last two decades of Israeli history. The mass immigration dramatically altered the demographics of the Jewish state. Twenty years later, Jews from the former Soviet Union make up some 15 percent of Israel’s population. On top of the demographic shift, the Soviet aliya has affected Israel’s culture, politics, and economy.  New political parties representing the Soviet immigrants were formed and remain a powerful force in the Knesset today. Economically, a large number of highly educated immigrants augmented the workforce and have helped advance Israel’s medical, scientific and hi-tech industries.
But perhaps most controversial and lasting effect the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent mass immigration to Israel had on the Jewish state is the question of who is a Jew. Twenty years before the fall of the USSR, the Knesset extended eligibility for immigration under the Right of Return to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent, in great part in order to facilitate Soviet immigration.
As a result, the entirety of the Soviet aliya was recognized as Jewish by the government but hundreds of thousands who qualified under the “grandfather clause” were not recognized by the rabbinate. Of the larger questions dominating recent and most likely future Israeli elections, the issue is particularly sensitive and controversial, and central to the rise of political parties running on a platform of change on the issue.