The news of the death in Moscow Tuesday of Alexander Yakovlev, the former Soviet leader and recognized “father of glasnost,” recalled an incident involving Yakovlev in October, 1985 that clearly foreshadowed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yakovlev, who had been appointed the chief propagandist of the communist party, was speaking at the Higher Party School about the changes that were anticipated under the new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Yakovlev said that the changes would be in the direction of greater openness.
A member of the audience asked him, “What will we do if the West begins to direct television broadcasts to this country?”
Yakovlev answered, “We’ll watch.”
It was Yakovlev’s contribution to open the Soviet Union to the outside world and, now, with the Soviet Union gone, both supporters and those who opposed him this week praised his historic role. Gorbachev said, “We were able to bring the country to the point of no return and we did this together.”
During the six years from 1985 to 1991 when the fate of the Soviet Union was in the balance, however, there was no such unanimity about his contribution. He was accused of being an agent of the U.S. and of Zionism and there were threats against his life.
The reason for the hostility was that Yakovlev perhaps more than any other individual – was the undertaker of the Soviet ideology. Through his management of the press, millions of Soviet citizens became acquainted with a reality that was totally different from that that had been inculcated for decades by the Soviet regime. As Yakovlev was to say later: “I was the chief ideological official but the ideology I was defending was not communist ideology.”
There was only one way to make a career in the Soviet Union and that was through the communist party and Yakovlev, like thousands of others, demonstrated outward loyalty to a system that he actually deplored. It was the behavior of officials like Yakovlev that inspired Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky to comment that the Soviet Union was actually run by anticommunists.
Yakovlev joined the communist party during the Second World War and his first doubts about the Soviet system surfaced in 1956 when he was invited to the twentieth party congress and heard Khrushchev’s famous secret speech on the crimes of Stalin.
Yakovlev buried his misgivings and worked as a propaganda official organizing the official press coverage of dissident trials and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1972, however, he wrote an article in the newspaper, Literaturnaya Gazeta, attacking chauvinism, nationalism and anti-semitism. The ideas were expressed in party language but to Soviet officials the point was clear fascist tendencies were surfacing in the party leadership.
In response to the article, Yakovlev was exiled as ambassador to Canada. It was there that he met Gorbachev during the latter’s visit in 1983. The two spoke frankly about the need for fundamental change in the Soviet Union and when Gorbachev became the head of the communist party, he made Yakovlev the new head of the department of propaganda.
In the Soviet system, ideological control was exercised by chief editors who functioned as censors and paid for the slightest error with their jobs. Yakovlev took two steps to change this system. He staffed major publications with fellow liberals and he provided them with political protection, often engaging in major internal political battles to defend their right to publish the truth. The result was that Soviet newspapers began to convey an accurate picture of the world and when, in 1988, the revelations in the press started to include detailed accounts of the Stalin era atrocities, the credibility of communist ideology was destroyed.
With the fall of the ideology, the hidden fault lines of Soviet society were revealed, including national conflict, the exploitation of workers and a party bureaucracy that could only be held together by force. The Soviet Union lasted for three more years but it was already doomed because no system resting on such shaky foundations could hope to survive.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a presidential commission on rehabilitation was formed and Yakovlev was named its chairman.
The first fruit of the commission’s work was the rehabilitation of the sailors in Kronstadt Naval Base who revolted against the Bolsheviks in 1921. The commission rehabilitated the farmers of the Voronezh and Tambov regions who rose up against Bolshevik rule, prisoners of war, members of the socialist parties, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, all of whom had been unjustly condemned and participants in the workers’ revolt in Novocherkassk in 1962 as well as Raoul Wallenberg and his chauffeur. In the end, the commission also rehabilitated 4.5 million individuals.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said that Yakovlev was perhaps the only person who carried out the reform of the Soviet system consciously.
In fact, this may not have been true. As Yakovlev writes in his memoirs, “we tried to lay new roads through the swamp of socialist illusions that we took for solid ground. We were offended by bureaucratism, waste, dogmatism, the rightlessness of people and the atrocities of Stalinism but not the system itself.
But, unlike others, including Gorbachev, Yakovlev showed no inclination to stop the reforms when they threatened the system and he carried his personal reevaluation of values to its logical conclusion in an affirmation of the value of the individual.
In his last years, Yakovlev, alone among former leaders of the Soviet regime, has publicly called for repentance, a message that conflicts with the growing tendency in Russia to glorify the Soviet past and ignore its victims.
In 1996, at the ceremony for the dedication of a monument to the victims of the Kolyma slave labor camps in the city of Magadan, Yakovlev said, “So that these crimes can never be repeated, we must acknowledge the past and ask forgiveness of the still living survivors of the concentration camps.”
On another occasion, Yakovlev put the matter more simply. “What was done in Russia for 70 years,” he said in a conversation with me, “was done by people without morality and we are all responsible. A people without conscience cannot create prosperity, government or family. This is why there is no future for Russia unless we learn a simple lesson. If you sin, you have to repent.”
With Yakovlev’s death, Russia has lost a liberator and a man whose spiritual path serves as a model for the nation as well.