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Russia: A Lifetime Fighting Totalitarianism

Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of the architects of the reform of the Soviet Union, died in Moscow on 18 October at the age of 81. Yakovlev, perhaps more than any of his compatriots in the Communist Party leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev, was determined to destroy totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union and throughout the eastern bloc.

Yakovlev has often been called the "ideologue of perestroika" and the "godfather of glasnost," referring to his instrumental role in formulating Gorbachev's twin tactics for liberalizing the Soviet system. But he was, in fact, a true champion of freedom and democracy.

Yakovlev was a paradoxical personality, becoming an enemy of communism despite reaching the highest ranks of the Communist Party hierarchy and using this position to dismantle the entire system. As Yakovlev's personality evolved, it led to the evolution of the entire Communist political system.

Peasant Origins

Yakovlev was born on 2 December 1923 into a peasant family in a village near the central Russian town of Yaroslavl. He was 18 when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, and he fought near Leningrad. In 1943, having risen to become a company commander, he was seriously wounded and demobilized.

Yakovlev then enrolled in the Yaroslavl Pedagogical Institute, from which he graduated in 1946 and began a career in teaching.

In the postwar period, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union badly needed qualified people, and Yakovlev was invited to work for the Yaroslavl Oblast Party Committee (Obkom), in the department overseeing institutions of higher education. Yakovlev's party career developed swiftly and by 1953, the year of Josef Stalin's death, Yakovlev already occupied a key staff post in the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow.

After Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicly condemned Stalin at the 20th party congress in 1956, Yakovlev enrolled at the Academy of Social Sciences, which at the time provided perhaps the best humanitarian education in the Soviet Union.

The United States

n 1958, he was sent for further study at Columbia University in New York, and those two years of study in the United States certainly formed the starting point in the evolution of his view of the communist regime and the history of his country. In his numerous books written in later life, Yakovlev often recollected these formative experiences.

After he returned to Moscow in 1959, Yakovlev's party career accelerated further, and he quickly advanced to some leading positions, first in the science and education department of the Central Committee and then in its ideological department. At the same time, he continued to pursue his academic career and he received his master's degree in 1960 and a doctorate in 1967, specializing in U.S. foreign policy.
Yakovlev was and remains the only member of the Soviet political elite who fully renounced and repented for all the crimes of the totalitarian regime.

During this period, Yakovlev's political views became increasingly less orthodox. In 1972, he made a decisive step by publishing an article in "Literaturnaya gazeta" that harshly criticized a group of leading national-patriotic authors. Yakovlev accused the writers of nationalism and anti-Semitism and of glorifying the most reactionary aspects of tsarist Russia. The article angered the senior party, military, and KGB elites that supported the national-patriots. As a result, Yakovlev was ousted from the Central Committee and assigned as Soviet ambassador to Canada.

Meeting Gorbachev

Yakovlev was only allowed to return to Moscow after he made the acquaintance of Gorbachev -- who was then the No. 2 person in the Communist Party hierarchy -- in 1983. In March 1985, Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union and he quickly brought Yakovlev back into the Central Committee. In 1986, he appointed Yakovlev as Communist Party secretary responsible for ideology, information, and culture. This coincided with the beginning of the policy of glasnost, which broke the party monopoly on information and opened up many banned chapters of Soviet and Russian history.

Under Yakovlev's guidance, such flagships of glasnost as "Moskoskie novosti," "Ogonek," "Izvestiya," and others began publishing previously banned worked by emigre and Russian writers, while theaters began showing previously censored movies. The national television channels, which were also under Yakovlev's jurisdiction, threw open numerous windows by providing reports on life in the West and airing free discussion of life at home.

Many archives began releasing information about Stalin's repressions after Yakovlev took over as chairman of the Central Committee's committee on rehabilitation in 1988.

Yakovlev's position, and that of other glasnost supporters, was fortified in 1988 when Gorbachev named him to chair the newly created "glasnost commission," which institutionalized glasnost as a feature of Soviet policy. In 1989, Yakovlev prepared and published a reported to the Congress of People's Deputies about the 1940 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, including information about the pact's secret protocols that carved up eastern Europe between the two countries.

Because of his uncompromising stand against totalitarianism, Yakovlev became the most hated figure among the reformers, widely reviled by hard-liners and reactionaries. Former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev, called Yakovlev "an agent of imperialist intelligence agencies." The Prosecutor-General's Office later granted Yakovlev's request to investigate the accusation and found it to be baseless.

The Post-Soviet Period

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin named Yakovlev to head a new rehabilitation commission, a position that he held until his death. Unlike its Soviet predecessor, the new commission also looked into Lenin-era repressions. Under Yakovlev's chairmanship of both commissions, more than 4 million victims of political repression were officially rehabilitated.

In the post-Soviet period, Yakovlev oversaw the publication of an enormous amount of historical documents. He also headed the Demokratiya foundation and wrote several books. For his supporters, he remained a symbol of the tireless fight against totalitarianism.

Perhaps inevitably, Yakovlev's principled convictions led to his alienation from the administration of President Vladimir Putin. As commented on 18 October, the rift likely stemmed not only from Putin's growing authoritarianism, but from the fact that Putin has openly revived many elements of the Soviet ideology.


Yakovlev played a major role in bringing about the end of the Cold War confrontation and in improving relations with the West, the United States most of all. In the minds of many Soviets, Yakovlev was the man who destroyed the Soviet-era image of the West as "the enemy," an achievement that seems to be being increasingly reversed over the last decade. He was and remains the only member of the Soviet political elite who fully renounced and repented for all the crimes of the totalitarian regime. For these contributions, Yakovlev will certainly be remembered as one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century.