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.

A statue of Stalin is toppled following the fall of communism
A statue of Stalin is toppled following the fall of communism

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.”

The Rebbe on the End of the Cold War

"What is most miraculous about what is happening in the world today is that it is all being carried out peacefully —something which has never happened before in the history of man. In previous generations, whenever there was a revolution, it was achieved only through destruction and bloodshed. . . . In contrast, the changes we are seeing today, while more extreme than anything we have known in recent memory, have been achieved in a peaceful manner."

From an address by the Rebbe, November 1989 (free translation)