Rabbi Soetendorp on Gorbachev: “No tanks to Warsaw”

By: Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp

In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev, the new secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party, visited the French capital, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp was there, part of a European-wide protest against the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union. Eight years later, when they met face to face in The Hague, Soetendorp and Gorbachev greeted each other as allies in the fight to save the environment. What Gorbachev told him that evening left an indelible impression on Soetendorp. Here, he generously shares that memory.

It was already late that evening in the Catshuis, the official residence of the Dutch Prime Minister, where Mikhael Gorbachev was a guest during his first visit to the Netherlands in May of 1993. We reviewed the events of earlier that day and how, in a packed church, I had the honor of welcoming him as chairman of Green Cross, the new global environmental organization that would have its headquarters in The Hague. On that late evening in the Catshuis, I found myself talking with him about the miracle of change.

The miracle of change … . In 1985, we, representatives of the Committee for Solidarity with Jews in the Soviet Union, had driven from our own demonstration in Dam Square in Amsterdam to join the larger European-wide protest in Paris. The demonstrations coincided with the visit of the new Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1985, we stood on opposite sides of a stark divide between freedom and the lack of it. Only eight years later, there we were in The Hague, meeting as allies in the common struggle for a healthy planet. We embraced each other. 

Later that evening, the aforementioned committee had organized a reception for him. It was a tribute to his fundamental contribution to the freedom of Soviet Jews, when, as president of the Soviet Union, he allowed them to settle in Israel in large numbers. At the reception, Raisa, his wife, turned to her husband. “Mikhail Sergeyevich, remember when I asked you who is that Sharansky that protesters were making such a fuss about with big placards everywhere we went during our visit to Western Europe years ago?” “Yes,” replied Gorbachev with a broad smile. “Now, during my visit to Israel, I could speak Russian to people on every street corner…”

Green Cross was his brainchild. In January of 1990, at the Kremlin, he called on the participants in the Climate Conference of the Global Forum of Religious and Parliamentary Leaders to follow the example of the Red Cross, which is committed to helping people, to establish the Green Cross and commit to helping ensure a sustainable future. He was glad that, now that he was no longer president, he could devote his energies to peace and security beyond borders.

Gorbachev leaned closer to me. Pavel, his tireless interpreter, and unmissable link was ready to translate the words about to be entrusted to me. They were the essence of Gorbachev’s personal transformation as well as a turning point in his presidency:

“It was well past midnight, and I was still hesitant about the decision before me. On the table were the unanimous statements of the generals: ‘Attack Warsaw and crush the Lech Walesa uprising with all available power, or it It will be the same in Budapest and Prague. At most, the world will turn against us for three months.’ 

It felt like the night had covered me in loneliness. And yet – I can confide in you as a rabbi – I did not feel alone. Any understanding of God was foreign to me, and yet I felt presence. Raisa came in for a moment. She was an admirer of Spinoza. She put her hand on my shoulder and then disappeared. I took my pen and wrote in big letters: ‘NO TANKS TO WARSAW’.”

More than a generation later, I have tried to faithfully capture the essence of his words as an awe-filled tribute to a leader who—whatever else may be said about him—had the courage that night to make one bold decision that changed the world forever. I share it here in the passionate hope, against all despair, that his example will lead others to imitate him today.

A few years later, in the spring of 1995, Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Netherlands again. This time it was on invitation of the Dutch Government who were facilitating a meeting of hearts and minds with the leaders of the two promising international ecological organisations that had come into existence as a response from civil society to the breakthrough Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where representatives of all nations had assumed responsibility for the preservation of a healthy planet. Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong, President Founders of Green Cross and the Earth Council, were both present.

The aim was to forge an alliance, in common pursuit of an all-embracing people’s document, a true Earth Charter. The deliberations had been conducted in an exemplary fashion by members of both delegations and equal partnership had been established. 

Nevertheless, I had come to the Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague to bid farewell with a heavy heart. At the concluding session before departure, everything seemed to have been to no avail, when Maurice Strong refused to sign a plan of action prepared by Gorbachev, and as a result both had left in anger.

Mikhail entered the hall with outstretched arms and invited me to join him in his room. There we settled together with Alexander Likhotal who served as interpreter, while Raisa packed the suitcases in the annex room. Gorbachev came right to the point. What had deeply hurt him was the expression used … “We first have to discuss this draft in a democratic fashion with the group. We are not in the Politburo.” What followed was an emotional self-reflection on leadership. He had transformed the Politburo in seeking Glasnost and Perestroika and paved the road towards safe world peace.

The fact that he now was out of office did not prevent him from continuing to lead the process towards peace for humans and nature. On the contrary. But the world powers, in particular in Russia, refused to engage him.

And now it seemed to happen again. Then he smiled with his whole body: ‘I know I overreacted. Maurice Strong, and all of you who dare to dream of a sane, safe world without the threat of nuclear arms, are my family. And together we will succeed. And the Earth Charter will flourish.”

The next day, after reconciliation, an extraordinary and unprecedented participatory process started, involving thousands upon thousands of individuals and groups which has led to the Earth Charter. And it has become a call of conscience to humanity which – I believe with a complete faith – will be heeded, in time. We are all indebted to the example of assertive, serving leadership of two giants of thought and action, Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong, who were able to forge cooperation not despite, but thanks to, differences.

May their abiding memory inspire the so desperately needed future leadership.