The Man Who Saved Russia from the Soviet Union

The architect of glasnost and perestroika.

Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like. -- Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).

Heroes for liberty are not peculiar to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause — that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.

In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions, and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at FEE.org. But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.

The subject of the ninth essay in this Heroes for Liberty from Around the Globe series is the Russian architect of the "perestroika," or "restructuring" of the Soviet Union that ultimately led to its downfall, Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev. The author is Yuri Maltsev, an economics professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Before defecting to the United States in 1989, he was a member of a senior team of Soviet economists that worked on the reform program of perestroika.

--- Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education


It is time to give an important figure in recent Russian history his historical due — Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev. A leading figure in the latter years of the Soviet government, Yakovlev began his career as a Red Army officer and a Communist Party apparatchik, but he ultimately became a devoted and effective enemy of Soviet tyranny.

Yakovlev was a closet classical liberal in one of the most illiberal and collectivist societies in history.He will be remembered as the architect of “perestroika” (restructuring of the political and economic systems) in the late 1980s and its consequences: exposure of the heinous lies and crimes of the criminal Soviet regime and the inevitable demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). For most of his life, Yakovlev was a closet classical liberal in one of the most illiberal and collectivist societies in history. He did not share either the socialist or Russian nationalist worldviews.

During the tumultuous 1980s, the final and climactic decade of the Soviet Union, he was a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party, second in authority only to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was more his student than a boss. The chief of party ideology, Yakovlev was called various names in addition to “architect of perestroika”: "godfather of glasnost,” “Gorbachev's puppeteer,” “Traitor-in-Chief,” “CIA agent,” “ardent anti-Soviet fanatic,” “enemy of the people,” and “capitalist Satan,” depending on who did the name-calling.

Early Life

Yakovlev was born in 1923 into a peasant family in a tiny village on the bank of the Volga River near the ancient city of Yaroslavl. Young Alexander was very well acquainted with the misery of Soviet life during and after the genocidal “collectivization” of the peasantry. Between 1929 and 1932, over 30 million Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian peasants were starved to death, deported to Siberia, or murdered on the spot by Stalin, his Marxist social engineers, and their troops.

Yakovlev never forgot the images of suffering, deportations, murder, and torture. There was not much, however, that he could do about it.

The Second World War began a month after he graduated from high school and he was immediately drafted into the Red Army. He wrote,

Even then, in my eighteen years, I realized that I was bringing cannon fodder to the front. And all my comrades, young officers, thought the same thing. We concealed our doom by bravado, songs, boastful denial, and senseless disputes about how quickly we will defeat fascists. …And at night we dreamed of mothers and homes…

He endured great hardships, serving in the Army as a lieutenant after graduation from officer school. He was badly wounded in the German siege of Leningrad and discharged from the Army in 1944. He hated wars and the governments that initiated them. In his autobiography, The Dusk, he wrote, “Who sent them to their deaths? Why were they killed? For what sins?...The insanity of war, the insanity of governments, the madness of rulers — murderers!”

The same year he joined the Communist Party (it was a necessity for advancement at the time) and became a history student at the Yaroslavl Pedagogical Institute. He was awarded a prestigious Stalin scholarship, but for him,

It became more and more obvious that everyone lied — both those who were giving speeches, and those who listened to those speeches. For me, a village boy, a frontline soldier who went to war from school, all this was unbearable.

Majoring in history, Yakovlev and his insatiable curiosity found his lifelong hero in Piotr Stolypin (1862–1911), a free-market reformer and Prime Minister of the Imperial (czarist) government. Stolypin was assassinated by Dmitry Bogrov, a socialist revolutionary, but his reforms left a deep impression on Yakovlev. They aimed for the creation of a strong farmer and citizen through privatization, the building of rural self-government at the expense of the national government, and the abandonment of communal land use and communal ownership.

Though short-lived, these reforms produced astounding results. Productivity in agriculture almost doubled. In 1912, Russia's grain exports exceeded by 30 percent those of the United States, Argentina, and Canada combined.

“Judging by Stolypin's deeds,” said Yakovlev, “he laid down his life for the Russian peasant to become the owner and the master. …But no. They killed him. …All hopes for a free and prosperous Russia were dashed with the establishment of the criminal socialist regime in 1917. They hung, and shot, and burned...Lenin was delirious with terror...”

When he graduated from the Institute, Yakovlev, as a decorated war veteran, was asked to become a Communist party apparatchik. Bright, attentive, and educated, he made an exceptional career for himself in the party apparatus. Like many of us who detested communism, though, he had to say one thing, do another, and think something else. He respected the courage of dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov but he realized that the only way to destroy what he later termed a “regime of the ultimate evil” was from the inside. History proved him right.

North America and Meeting Gorbachev

In 1958, he was sent for graduate work to Columbia University in New York, along with the future KGB general and later defector Oleg Kalugin. Both Russian communists and fascists today are convinced that Yakovlev became a Central Intelligence Agency agent and was recruited during his 1959 Columbia University fellowship.

Upon his return from the United States, Yakovlev served as editor of several party publications. He rose to the key position of head of the Department of Ideology and Propaganda from 1969 to 1973. He was then appointed the Soviet ambassador to Canada, partly because party officials objected to his anti-nationalist views and wanted him out of the country.

Yakovlev remained in Canada for a decade. In 1983, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the member of the Politburo in charge of agriculture, toured Canada in search of advanced technologies in farming. Gorbachev was looking for lessons that he could take back and apply in the Soviet Union. It was during that 1983 visit to Canada that Yakovlev, cautiously at first, began to discuss with Gorbachev the prospect of liberalization in the Soviet Union. In an interview years later, Yakovlev recalled:

At first we kind of sniffed around each other and our conversations didn’t touch on serious issues. And then, verily, history plays tricks on one. We had a lot of time together as guests of the [Canadian] Minister of Agriculture Eugene Whelan …So we took a long walk on the Minister's farm and, as it often happens, both of us suddenly were just kind of overwhelmed and let go. I somehow, for some reason, 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. We were completely frank. He frankly talked about the problems in the internal situation in Russia. He was saying that under these conditions of a dictatorship and the absence of freedom, the country would simply perish. So during our three-hour conversation, almost as if our heads were locked together, we poured it all out and came to agreement on almost everything.

Less than a month after his visit, Gorbachev asked the Politburo to recall Yakovlev from Canada and appoint him as a Director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (MGIMO) of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow. MGIMO was and still is the most prestigious institution of higher learning and social science research in Moscow. Most of its students are children of the ruling elite.

The Beginning of the End of the USSR

The General Secretary of the Party at the time was the old and frail bureaucrat Konstantin Chernenko, who could barely walk or talk without assistance. Even for Soviet hardliners, it was obvious that someone younger was needed to save the Communist regime. Gorbachev was elected as the General Secretary of the Communist Party on 11 March 1985, only three hours after Chernenko's death. At age 54, Gorbachev was the youngest member of the Politburo.

Almost overnight, free media exposed Soviet history as a sequence of horrific crimes and lies.This event started a train of unanticipated consequences. Gorbachev quickly named Mr. Yakovlev to key party posts. In 1987, Yakovlev became a full member of the Politburo in charge of ideology, the Number 2 post in the Soviet hierarchy. With Gorbachev’s approval, Yakovlev began the program of “perestroika” ("restructuring" in English) which “restructured” the Evil Empire into a pile of rubble in less than five years. Reflecting back on the period years later, he wrote, “The USSR lost the Cold War. ...That victory in the Cold War is our common victory. It was a breakthrough to the civilized community of states…”

Through his policy of “glasnost” (openness), Yakovlev encouraged media freedom. Almost overnight, free media exposed Soviet history as a sequence of horrific crimes and lies. Yakovlev himself revealed the hidden details of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (between Nazi Germany and the USSR) that paved the way for Soviet aggression against Finland and Soviet annexation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That delegitimized Soviet occupation of the Baltics.

When Lithuania moved toward independence from the USSR in January 1991, Gorbachev asked Yakovlev about the wisdom of repression against Lithuanians. “Should we shoot?" he asked. Yakovlev answered, “If a single Soviet soldier fired a single bullet on unarmed crowds, Soviet power would be over.”

There were bullets and tanks: 14 civilians were killed and 702 were injured. And the USSR collapsed later in the same year. In between, Yakovlev resigned from both the Politburo and the Communist Party.

A Vocal Critic of the Regime until His Death

After his lifelong work contributing to the demise of the USSR in December of 1991, Yakovlev became head of Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s commission for the rehabilitation of victims of Soviet political repression. In that role, he exposed the Soviet regime as criminal and genocidal. He called it a kind of fascism and documented its longstanding policies of mass murder.

It was Yakovlev who led Gorbachev to the liberation of the countries enslaved in the USSR.In 2000, Yakovlev presented iron-clad evidence that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg had been shot in Moscow’s Lubyanka, headquarters of the Soviet secret police, in 1947. Mr. Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews in Hungary at the end of the Second World War but mysteriously disappeared after Hungary was occupied by the Soviets.

In his later life, he founded and led the International Democracy Foundation. He advocated the full exposure of the crimes of communism and was critical of President Putin's restrictions on freedoms of speech and economic enterprise.

Yakovlev died on October 18, 2005, at his home in Moscow at the age of 81. “He made an enormous contribution to the democratic processes and the transformation of the country,” said Mr. Gorbachev in his eulogy, “We often argued but always understood each other.”

In reality, it was Yakovlev who led Gorbachev to the liberation of the countries enslaved in the USSR. It was Yakovlev who stood most firmly against the Soviet regime’s deadly socialist ideology with its worship of envy, violence, and mass murder.

Further Reading

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