In his book A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, published in English in 2002, Alexander Yakovlev set about exposing the whole Leninist/Stalinist "experiment" as a crime against humanity. As a former senior Communist official, he was of course not alone in condemning the Soviet regime, but he would have been justified in claiming to have launched the first official salvoes that fatally damaged the system he served.
Yakovlev had analysed in earlier works the link between Marxism and Communist political practice. Now he explored the party archives and emerged with armfuls of "bloodstained" documents to recount the unremittingly awful story of Russia in the 20th century. As the most trusted member of Mikhail Gorbachev's Politburo and his chief adviser on reform, and subsequently head of Boris Yeltsin's commission on the rehabilitation of the victims of political repression, Yakovlev was uniquely qualified to study and comment on the mentality of totalitarian power.
Born in 1923 in Yaroslavl in central Russia into a family of poor peasants, Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev served in the Red Army during the Second World War and joined the Communist Party in 1944, after being invalided out of the army in 1943. He started working in the Central Committee Department of Propaganda in 1953 and remained there, with a four-year gap from 1956 to 1960 when he was attached to the Central Committee's Academy of Social Sciences, and, exceptionally, permitted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student at Columbia University in New York in 1959.
As Head of the Department since 1965, he permitted himself in 1972 to publish a newspaper article criticising nationalism in general, and Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism in particular. As this occurred at a time when the benign effects of Nikita Khrushschev's moderate liberalisation campaign had already been eroded by Leonid Brezhnev's "restoration", Yakovlev was lucky that his "punishment" was not more serious than being kept out of the way as Soviet ambassador to Canada for the next 10 years.
He would not describe himself as a "dissident", but rather an unorthodox commentator. In fact he was seething with anger and contempt for much that was wrong in his home country, and he had an historic opportunity to vent his anger in a three-hour conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev during a visit by the latter to Canada as minister in charge of Soviet agriculture.
Yakovlev later recalled how they began tentatively to discuss the need for liberalisation in the Soviet Union, and then suddenly let go:
I threw caution to the wind and started telling him about what I considered to be utter stupidities in the area of foreign affairs, especially about those SS-20 missiles that were being stationed in Europe, and a lot of other things. And he did the same thing . . . saying that under the conditions of dictatorship and absence of freedom, the country would simply perish.
This was strong stuff, and unthinkable for an earlier generation. Though eight years older than the soon-to-be General Secretary, Yakovlev was a closet liberal who, like Gorbachev, had begun questioning his beliefs in the mid-1950s. Two weeks after the visit, in 1983 Gorbachev organised Yakovlev's return to Moscow as head of the prestigious Academy of Sciences Institute of International Relations and the World Economy.
Yakovlev designated three turning points on his personal road to Damascus. First, at the end of the war he witnessed former Soviet prisoners of war being transported in cattle trucks to internment in the Urals and Siberia. He could not understand how Red Army men who had fought on the front and been captured by the Germans could be declared traitors by their own government.
The second shock came as he sat listening to Khrushchev's speech at the Twentieth Congress:
I was . . . hearing words that were destroying everything I had lived by . . . I had been honest in my previous faith, and I was equally honest in rejecting it. I came to detest Stalin . . . From then on I devoted myself to searching out a way to put an end to this inhuman system.
Thereafter, like many other senior Party members who would emerge as reformers in the late 1980s, he lived "a double life of agonising dissimulation".
Sent to Prague in 1968 to supervise the Soviet press coverage of the Soviet army's invasion, and hearing the Czechs shouting "Fascists!" at the invaders was the third and final straw. The 1972 article was written, followed by the move to Canada.
Soon after Gorbachev became General Secretary, Yakovlev was made Head of the Propaganda Department, and shortly thereafter a full member of the Politburo. At this time, the Politburo was still vetting all aspects of Soviet life and endeavour, from industrial and agricultural targets to foreign intelligence tasks and weapons orders, and still monitoring all cultural matters, including visits abroad by distinguished scientists.
To men like Gorbachev and Yakovlev, the spectacle of a bunch of sclerotic should-be pensioners deciding whether this poem or that play was subversive was one of the more shameful vestiges of a system in need of radical reform. The new brooms began to sweep, and by the spring of 1987 the Soviet censors were left to twiddle their thumbs as more and more "politically incorrect" creative works were emerging into the light of day.
Literary editors noticed that their direct line from the Central Committee had stopped ringing, even though they were publishing increasingly controversial material. The magazine Ogonyok and the newspapers Argumenty i Fakty, Moskovskie Novosti and Komsomolskaya Pravda were printing articles and features of literally breathtaking content, and the historians started following the journalists' lead. Glasnost hit the Soviet Union with a vengeance, and Alexander Yakovlev is properly identified as its chief architect.
By 1990 he had become the focus of attacks by conservatives in the party. As the conservatives gained strength his position became more tenuous until he was ultimately removed from the Politburo and expelled from the Party two days before the August Coup in 1991. During the coup Yakovlev joined the democratic opposition against it.
In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, Yakovlev wrote and lectured extensively on history, politics and economics, and reverted frequently to the consequences of the August 1991 coup that led to "the disorderly break-up of the state and to unimaginable hardship for all the peoples of the Soviet Union", which he consistently blamed on "Bolshevik mentality".
He may be forgiven for not seeing, or for overlooking, the fact that all the measures attempted by Gorbachev, in the hope of achieving an "orderly" outcome to the clamour for national self-determination, had in fact emerged from the very policies he and his loyal supporters, above all Yakovlev, had espoused: glasnost, political toleration and civilised behaviour, an end to confrontation with the West, withdrawal without violence from Eastern Europe. In a century of such unrelieved misery for the Russians, the relatively short period of glasnost and perestroika offered a memorable respite, when the mood, at least among the intelligentsia, was optimistic and refreshed.
Yakovlev's is a creditable record, even though it was bound to end in tears.
Harold ShukmanReuse content