Paul Greenberg

Comrade Gobachev didn't realize there was no more hope of "reforming" Communism than of reforming any other malignant cancer. As he would soon find out -- and become a former secretary-general of the former Communist Party of the now happily former Soviet Union, formally the Union of Soviet Socialist "Republics."

But he was still riding high as he headed for Washington early in December of 1987, where a different kind of welcome awaited him: a rally on the National Mall on behalf of Russia's captive Jews. The Soviets did their best to dismiss its importance. As his KGB interrogators told one of their better known prisoners, the ever-defiant Anatoly Sharansky, the demonstration on the Mall represented just "a bunch of students and housewives."

This country's own Jewish establishment had its reservations about the wisdom of such a display in the nation's capital. How many people could it attract, not being held in New York City with its large Jewish population to draw from? Why make a scene and risk upsetting our own State Department? The experts at Foggy Bottom were still pushing Detente, that decade's version of appeasement, which had acquired a bad name since the 1930s. (When a policy is a proven failure, the State Department changes not the policy but its name.)

By the time the Soviet leader was due to arrive, the demonstration was set. Suppose it attracted only a few thousand? Suppose no one of note showed up? Wouldn't it turn out to be more of an embarrassment than a cry for freedom?

Well, on that cold December day in 1987, the National Mall was packed. Not just 2,000 or 25,000 but 250,000 demonstrators had materialized on the Mall, among them Anatoly Sharansky and other just-released prisoners of conscience. The vice president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, was there to welcome the throng. Americans from all over the country, of all faiths and political persuasions, united by a common belief in freedom, had poured out in their multitudes. Some little bunch of students and housewives. And they say the age of miracles is over.

I knew a lady in Pine Bluff, Ark., who flew up to the rally with her little boy to wave paper flags emblazoned with the word Svoboda! in Cyrillic lettering. Freedom! Soon the vast crowd was repeating the ancient cry: Let My People Go!

And soon enough this pharaoh had to yield, too. The gates were opened, and millions of Russian Jews, having learned from the fate of European Jewry under Hitler, would leave the Soviet Union while the leaving was good. They headed for Israel, for America, for any place they could get in, dwarfing the original biblical Exodus. A detailed history of the whole, improbable story takes its title from a popular saying among Soviet Jews at the time: "When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone." And they were.

The news of the great demonstration in Washington cheered Russia's refuseniks, those Jews who had been denied exit visas for years, and sent a thrill through every captive nation behind the still Iron Curtain, just as when an American president had dared call an evil empire evil. By the time Comrade Gorbachev met that president at the White House the next day, Ronald Reagan could tell him that public opinion wouldn't let him support free trade with Russia without free emigration for its people.

Talk about deja vu: Once again, the Kremlin is fuming, and the Magnitsky Bill is being called all the usual names: a Flagrant Interference in Russia's Internal Affairs! An anti-Russian Provocation! But those fighting for freedom in that country have hailed the bill as pro-Russian, that is, pro-human rights, pro the Russian people.

In the 1980s, the cry was Let My People Go! Today the message of the Magnitsky Bill to Russia's new czars has been slightly altered, but it's just as simple, just as right, and could prove just as irresistible:

Let Your People Go!

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.