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THE SOVIET AMBASSADOR

The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika

By Christopher Shulgan

McClelland & Stewart,

359 pages, $34.99

Although he was not well known in the West, Alexander Yakovlev, Soviet ambassador to Canada from 1973 to 1983, was a pivotal figure in the development of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the second half of the 1980s. As Toronto-based journalist Christopher Shulgan points out in his well-researched and thoughtful biography of Yakovlev, who died in 2005, it was Yakovlev who persuaded Gorbachev to introduce a policy of glasnost, or openness, which resulted in unprecedented freedom of the press. Once the media were allowed to criticize the government openly, there was no turning back. The deep-seeded discontent of the Soviet people was publicly voiced and the foundations of the Communist-controlled Soviet regime began to collapse.

Yakovlev, at the time a full member of the Politburo and the party's chief ideologue, was also the intellectual force behind Gorbachev's perestroika, the program of restructuring that dismantled the Soviet command economy and paved the way for market reform. In Shulgan's view, without Yakovlev, perestroika might never have happened: "Throughout Gorbachev's six and a half years in power, Yakovlev was the radical counterbalance to the conservatives. ... Had a stubborn, uncompromising figure like Yakovlev not existed, Gorbachev's tendency toward consensus might have corrupted his reformist bent in the face of hard-line communist opposition, before perestroika had time to develop - if it started at all."

How did Yakovlev, a product of the Stalinist system who for much of his career as a party bureaucrat toed the Kremlin line faithfully, become such a rebel? Considering his background, Yakovlev seemed an unlikely candidate to become the "intellectual father of glasnost." He was born in 1923 to a family of poor peasants in the Yaroslav region of Russia, northwest of Moscow. Although his father had finished only four years of school and his mother was illiterate, Yakovlev was a good student with a passion for reading. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was recruited, at 17, into the Soviet army.

Within a year, Yakovlev was badly wounded and decommissioned, returning home on crutches. Against his mother's wishes, he enrolled in the Yaroslav Pedagogical Institute to study history and soon began his steady ascent up the Soviet career ladder, rising to become head of the Communist Party's propaganda department in 1969.

Throughout this time, Yakovlev was a firm believer in the Stalinist system. Even a stint as an exchange student at Columbia University in 1958 did not cause him to veer from his convictions. After he returned home, he wrote several diatribes against the United States and its economic, social and foreign policy.

It was not until 1972, when Yakovlev wrote an article criticizing Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism, that signs of his rebelliousness emerged. The Brezhnev regime was displeased with his article and "banished" Yakovlev to Ottawa, where he remained as ambassador for the next 10 years. Yakovlev learned a lot while he was in Canada, observing first hand the parliamentary elections, developing a close relationship with Pierre Trudeau and making an intensive study of Canadian agriculture.

But the turning point for Yakovlev was the visit to Canada by Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev in 1983. As Yakovlev and Gorbachev toured the country together, they began to share their views on the necessity for significant reforms in the Soviet Union. According to Yakovlev, Gorbachev "understood that what was going on in our country was leading to catastrophe."

Shortly after Gorbachev returned to the Soviet Union, Yakovlev was summoned (at Gorbachev's behest) back to Moscow to become director of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations. He soon became Gorbachev's closest adviser, helping him to prepare for the top party leadership post and to make plans for perestroika.

Christopher Shulgan has done an excellent job in documenting Yakovlev's career in the Soviet government and describing his exceptional role in the events that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he skirts over one of the most significant episodes of Yakovlev's life - his chairmanship, beginning in 1988, of the Commission to Rehabilitate Victims of Political Repression. While he went to great efforts in disclosing the crimes of Lenin and Stalin, Yakovlev stopped short of looking into the repressions under the regimes of Stalin's successors, when countless political and religious dissidents were sent to labour camps and psychiatric hospitals for their beliefs.

This is not surprising, because for part of that time Yakovlev was in charge of the Soviet propaganda machine, which was essential to the KGB's campaign against dissent. Indeed, Yakovlev was deputy chief of the Central Committee's propaganda department during the notorious 1966 trial of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were sentenced to long terms in the Gulag. His department drafted an entire strategy for media coverage of the trial, the first such "open" trial of dissidents in the post-Stalin era. Clearly, Yakovlev was not about to open up the archives on this period when he himself was complicit in the repression.

Shulgan explains the black mark in Yakovlev's past by saying that he had no choice during the anti-dissident campaigns but to follow the party line, and that "he had to sacrifice his personal beliefs for the good of socialism." But, of course, Yakovlev did have a choice. And the choice he made was to enjoy the privileges and comforts of life at the top of the party hierarchy while those who had the courage to speak out against the regime suffered, and even lost their lives, for the cause of freedom.

In order to achieve lasting democratic reforms after 1991, Russia needed to come to terms with its past, as the countries of Eastern Europe struggled to do. But with Yakovlev and other former apparatchiks in charge of the Russian archives, this could not happen. The records on the KGB's campaign against dissent were not opened up, and those who carried out the political repressions of the 1960s, '70s and '80s were never called to account.

Instead, Russians ended up in 2000 with a president who was an ex-KGB officer and who reversed perestroika and steered the country back toward authoritarianism. Whatever Yakovlev's accomplishments as a reformer in the Gorbachev period, he was one of the reasons that democracy in Russia ultimately failed.

Amy Knight's most recent book is How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies.