On the eve of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival in the United States for a summit meeting with President Ronald Reagan, more than 200,000 protesters in Washington, and a much smaller number in Moscow, protest Soviet policies concerning Russian Jews. The protests succeeded in focusing public attention on human rights abuses in Russia but had little impact on the summit.
The agenda for the Gorbachev-Reagan summit largely focused on weapons control issues, particularly the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan and support of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua were also topics for discussion. Over 200,000 protesters in Washington attempted to shift the focus to another issue-the Soviet government’s treatment of Russian Jews. In particular, they called on the Soviets to allow Jewish emigration from Russia and for an end to Soviet oppression of Jewish dissidents and critics of the Soviet government. In a letter that was read to appease the protesters, President Reagan stated that he would “not be satisfied with less” than the “release of all refuseniks [jailed dissidents] and for complete freedom of religious and cultural expression.” A demonstration set to coincide with the protests in Washington was roughly disrupted by Soviet plainclothes police in Moscow. The few dozen protesters had their signs and banners seized and destroyed and some were physically assaulted.
Despite the protests and Reagan’s rhetoric, the issue of Soviet human rights abuses played almost no role at the summit. The Soviets insisted that the protesters be ignored and U.S. officials, anxious to get an arms control agreement out of the summit, essentially complied with the Russian requests. A major arms agreement was, in fact, signed during the meeting.