Under the banner of perestroika, a fundamental liberalization took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. As a result of these changes Jews were permitted to emigrate freely and the authorities stopped hindering Jewish cultural and religious activity and also contacts between Soviet Jews and Jews in the West and in Israel. In 1989, after a fifty-year interruption, the JDC resumed activity in the USSR and, in 1991, on the eve of its disintegration, the Soviet Union reestablished diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.
At the same time, Gorbachev took the first steps toward a reconciliation between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1987 the first sixteen churches were returned to worshippers. In 1988 the Russian Patriarchate regained another 500-700 former church buildings and in 1989 another 2,000. In September 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed a law “on freedom of conscience and religious association.” According to this new legislation, the state could no longer interfere in religious matters and religious associations received the status of legal entities so that they could own property. In this more liberal social atmosphere the synagogue gained new opportunities.
The process of the return of synagogue buildings to their legal owners began in Ukraine. In 1989 two synagogues in Lvov were returned. In 1990 synagogues were returned in Donetsk and Kherson. In the same year, Kharkov’s Choral Synagogue, where a sports club had been located, was returned to the Jewish community. A group of young Kharkov Jews, who had joined the council of the local religious community, played a decisive role in the regaining of the synagogue. In their struggle they gained support of the American Orthodox Union. At that time Cincinnati, Ohio and Kharkov became sister-cities. This made it possible for the municipality of Cincinnati, while promising aid in the form of medical equipment to the mayor of Kharkov, to bring up the lack of premises for the Jewish community in Kharkov. This linkage may have also encouraged the municipal authorities of Kiev to return a synagogue.
A turning point was the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) out parts of the former Soviet Union. The presidents of republics of the CIS (as well as of states that did not joint the CIS) sought support from religious organizations, especially Christian ones, whose popularity was increasing at that time. Many people then believed that, with their connections abroad the Jews also might help attract the investment of foreign capital that was needed for the transition to market economies. For this reason, leaders of CIS countries began to make more or less definite promises to return property that had been confiscated by the Soviet regime from religious associations.
All this led to the establishment of a legal basis for the restitution of religious buildings, including synagogues. The Ukrainian law of April 23, 1991 “on freedom of conscience and religious organizations” stipulated that “religious buildings and property owned by the state are to be returned to …religious organizations or transferred to the latter for use without payment.” As a follow-up to this law, on March 4, 1992, President Leonid Kravchuk issued a decree that required the appropriate bodies to carry out the transfer to religious associations of religious buildings that were not being utilized for their original purposes. A subsequent order of the President gave local bodies the authority to implement this restitution by December 1, 1997.
Similar legislation was also adopted in Russia. On April 23, 1993 President Boris Yeltsin issued an order “to transfer to religious organizations religious buildings and other property of a religious nature that was owned by the Federation” and, on May 6, 1994, the Russian government adopted a parallel resolution. This was followed, on March 14, 1995, by a government resolution which stated that especially valuable objects of a religious nature would be handed over only “for use” and not transferred as property.
In Belarus, the law “on the freedom of religion and religious organizations,” adopted on December 17, 1992, permitted (but did not require) local authorities to transfer church buildings to religious organizations “as property or for free use… with the exception of those which are being used for cultural purposes.”
The situation was more complicated in Moldova, where neither the presidential edict of August 12, 1991 “on measures to guarantee the development of Jewish national culture and the satisfaction of the social requirements of the Jewish population” nor the government resolution of December 9, 1991 on the implementation of the original edict promised to return synagogues, but only promised to provide Jewish organizations with premises for their activities.
In Azerbaijan, the law on religious freedom that was adopted on August 20, 1992 stated that government institutions could transfer buildings and other property for free use or ownership, if these were to be used for religious education.
In Georgia Jewish leaders succeeded in receiving back synagogues in Batumi (in 1992) and Akhaltsikhe (1995). However matters became complicated by the fact that the Georgian Jewish community had decreased sharply due to a large immigration to Israel. For this reason some provincial synagogues (in Kulashi, Sachkheri, and other places) which belonged to Jewish communities were closed. In Tskhinvali the synagogue was ultimately overtaken by Pentecostals.