In July 1992, the Constitutional Court of the newly-minted Russian Federation convened to inquire into the activities of the Communist Party. A lawyer representing the now-disbanded organization that had ruled Russia for 80 years approached the stand for an examination of Alexander Yakovlev, the right-hand man of the Soviet Union’s last general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Formerly an elusive chief of propaganda, this was one of the most public appearances of his career, and despite his secrecy, his reputation preceded him. The lawyer began with a pointed question: “Please explain what you did to destroy the Soviet Union.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, accusations of betrayal followed Yakovlev for the rest of his life. Ten years later he began his memoir with a barb at his endless critics: “Yes, I am that same Yakovlev,” he wrote, assuring the reader that it was “precisely me who is the main culprit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB, the army…and everything else. In short, a man of demonic possibilities.”
The first time Alexander Yakovlev came to doubt the Soviet Union was just after it had won its Great Patriotic War against Germany in 1945. Then a 23-year-old marine senior lieutenant, Yakovlev had been injured storming a machine gun nest in the swamps of Leningrad in 1942. His home village didn’t have much in the way of a hospital, so he spent the rest of the war recovering in its regional capital Yaroslavl. One day, a year after the war was over, he heard that a train car of returning soldiers was passing through.
He limped over to the train station to see if he could greet them. But when the train finally came to the station, it did not stop. As he soon learned, this is because these soldiers were not actually on their way home. Instead, the train contained a few of the nearly two million returning Soviet prisoners of war on their way to Siberian filtration camps—surrender had become a criminal offense during the desperate days of 1941 under Red Army Order 270. Prisoners liberated by the Western Allies were investigated for espionage. From there, many would be deported to the Far East, where they were to toil in the platinum mines of Magadan.
Yakovlev knew that he could have easily been one of them had he been captured by the enemy instead of rescued by his comrades. With an impeccable war record, an officer’s epaulets, and a recently-acquired Party card, he had great opportunities available to him instead. He studied history in Yaroslavl and was then recommended to the Communist Party’s Higher Party School in Moscow, where promising candidates were groomed for a role at the Central Committee, the Soviet Union’s executive administrative body.
He was promoted to work in the Central Committee shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, and living in Moscow he would have observed that the deadly stampede at his funeral never made it into the news. Working at the Central Committee also gave him access to the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Union in 1956, where Nikita Khrushchev, the new general secretary, gave his unannounced Secret Speech denouncing Stalin. Like Yakovlev, many of the personnel there were new, including more than two-thirds of the Politburo, the senior leadership drawn from the Central Committee. Because of this, the Secret Speech would remain an event that framed the rest of Yakovlev and his colleagues’ lives. The general secretary began his speech before his thousands-strong audience impersonally enough:
Comrades! The cult of the individual caused the employment of faulty principles in Party work and in economic activity. It brought about rude violation of internal Party and Soviet democracy, sterile administration, deviations of all sorts, cover-ups of shortcomings, and varnishings of reality. Our nation bore forth many flatterers and specialists in false optimism and deceit.
But then Khrushchev, who had worked with Stalin in the party since the 1920s and, unlike Yakovlev’s generation, had watched the personality cult develop over time, began to rattle off countless episodes of Stalin’s arrogance and brutality. The speech turned into the toppling of an idol. He castigated the old general secretary’s behavior during the war:
…during the whole Patriotic War, he never visited any section of the front or any liberated city except for one short ride on the Mozhaisk highway during a stabilized situation at the front. To this incident were dedicated many literary works full of fantasies of all sorts and so many paintings.
He spoke of the “absurd, wild” purges of the late 1930s, where an astonishing 70 percent of the members of the Central Committee’s 1934 Congress were shot. Here, the speech’s transcript records that Khrushchev’s audience expressed “indignation in the hall” in response. Indeed, these revelations and criticisms were unthinkable—including for Khrushchev, who nervously rambled through the speech, stammering, coughing, and improvising as he went.
But whatever indignation there was in the hall, Yakovlev did not hear it. For the entirety of the speech, the entire Central Committee remained deathly quiet—either from shock or a sense of self-preservation, lest it be some strange test of loyalty—and so after the speech, Khrushchev’s assistants wrote in applause, indignation, and even laughter into the transcript. Yakovlev noted that while it was quiet enough to hear a chair creak, not one of them did:
Everything seemed unreal…the words crossed out everything I had lived. Everything flew apart into little bits and pieces, like fragmentation shells during the war. No one looked at each other—either from the unexpectedness of what just happened, or from the confusion and fear which seemed to have then settled on the Soviet people forever.
After Khrushchev finished he waited for the usual standing ovation, but the stone-faced apparatchiks remained silent. His scribes dutifully recorded it as “tumultuous, prolonged applause.” Yakovlev wrote that as the attendants shuffled out the hall, the moment felt like “a star of great faith falling down to a wicked earth.”
The Secret Speech sparked a crisis of faith among many of the younger cadres, including Yakovlev, and initiated a broader, gradual decay in party discipline that would continue for 40 years. Compared to its mass mobilization during the Stalin era, the party’s ability to embark on great projects and reforms would begin to slowly wither away. In the mind of every would-be hardliner, the question lingered: if even the Central Committee wasn’t safe, then what could happen to me?
Like many others, Yakovlev became sluggish at work. Feeling disillusioned, he decided to take a break from the Central Committee and began postgraduate education at the Academy of Social Sciences, where he reread Marx and Lenin in search of answers. It was then that he decided Marxism was fundamentally flawed and led to dictators like Stalin, but he still had hopes that Khrushchev’s reforms would transform the country for the better.
Despite flashpoints like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the tenure of the new premier brought some of the first American-Soviet joint initiatives since the war. In 1958, Yakovlev was one of the seventeen students selected to attend Columbia University in the first-ever Soviet-U.S. Fulbright exchange. There, he studied the reforms of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal. He also toured the Midwest, explaining to his curious farmhouse hosts that Soviets did not, in fact, practice polygamy. Back in New York, the recent publication of the Soviet dissident novel Dr. Zhivago saw American students asking him to point out the lines that would’ve gotten it banned. Despite his anti-Stalinist outlook, he was not impressed by the book, and observing America’s wealth inequality and segregation he could not say he was impressed by the country either.
When he returned to Moscow he published a series of anti-American books with names like The Call to Slaughter: American Falsifiers of the Problems of War and Peace. These books are curious outliers in his oeuvre, and it’s hard to imagine they were written for any other reason than to stave off possible associations with Western thinking. Thirty years later, one American journalist confronted him over passages from one of these books, On the Edge of the Abyss. In response, Yakovlev gave a start. “You’ve really read that book, haven’t you,” he said. When the journalist answered in the affirmative, Yakovlev supposedly smiled and replied “Maybe I should, too.”
When Yakovlev returned from his trip abroad, the Central Committee had a position waiting for him. By 1960 he was the head of the newspaper section of the propaganda wing of the Agitation and Propaganda (or Agitprop) department. But Khrushchev’s reforms had changed much in the time he had taken a break from party duties, and Yakovlev would be thrown into a new cultural world unfathomable just a few years before. As his involvement in this sphere grew, he made decisions that would lead to him leaving the Soviet Union once more—this time with no choice.
With the arrival of what would be called the “Khrushchev Thaw,” the ink began to flow. Intellectuals and political dissidents, many of whom had been released from the gulags just a couple of years before, began to poke their heads up at evening parties in crowded Moscow apartments. In private settings like those, debates on the reforms of the new era could take place mostly unmolested by the secret police. From there, conversations filtered into public discourse: between 1955 and 1957, 27 new “thick journals” were launched, reviving a pre-revolutionary media form wherein intellectuals submitted their takes on literature, political theory, and current events to long-form periodicals, each with its own political persuasion. But even though these writers were allowed to push the limits of contradicting Soviet authority, they actually served as useful tools for Khrushchev’s administration.
After the death of Stalin and especially after the Secret Speech, Khrushchev inherited a hostile bureaucratic state. He now counted many enemies among various departmental heads and the Politburo’s old guard—former Stalin advisors Georgy Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov came close to orchestrating a coup against him in 1957. By allowing the publication of anti-Stalinist magazines, Khrushchev could let the Soviet Union’s cultural sphere strike against the Stalinists for him.
Among less ideologically-inclined communists, Stalinist cultural artifacts were still a regular problem. Yes-men and the fear of reporting mistakes made the Soviet information space very opaque, even for its senior leadership. On top of that, Khrushchev’s Politburo was conflict-averse, because no one wanted the kind of party discipline that led to denunciations, then purity spirals, then great purges—instead, the “party line” was upheld at all costs, and public debates or disagreements were basically unheard of. But having devolved from the absolutist governance model of Stalin toward a more involved collective leadership of the whole Politburo, Khrushchev and his deputies needed sources of dissent to test how his reforms in agriculture and foreign policy were being received. For this, his administration needed a controlled but insightful opposition.
Just as there was a detente within the Politburo, Stalinist-style terror as a means of controlling society was no longer an option. But political dissidents still presented a threat to the government, and they needed to be concentrated and monitored. And so it was easier to insert KGB informants into the editorial boards of state-controlled publications rather than unofficial, untraceable samizdat magazines.
This is where Yakovlev came in. His job was to balance and discipline the editorial boards of thick journals, and to serve as a liaison between the intelligentsia and the Central Committee—all it took to cut a disruptive article was one phone call. However, not all of these publications came under his jurisdiction, because there was no central agency that controlled every publication, and censors placed in different departments brought their own ideological lens to each case. Because of this heterogeneity, there was a considerable difference in outlook between each publication.
The ideological alignments of the thick journals give us a gestalt of the post-Stalin era’s ideological landscape: Noviy Mir (New World) was liberal, literary, and internationally prestigious. It published works like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which struck directly at the holdout Stalinists who ran the journal Oktyabr. Meanwhile, straightlaced communist academics expounded wood-tongued theory in Kommunist. It was also where bureaucrats like Yakovlev published anonymous articles that warned specific authors to tone down their critiques. A paper run by the youth wing of the Communist Party, Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), was one of the most curious—breaking from Soviet doctrines of historical materialism, its Russian nationalist writers promoted a “Russification of the spirit” against cultural “Americanization,” as well as a reinvigoration of the Orthodox Church.
Many of these publications were based in Moscow and were staffed by people who had ties to the elite. Some were even members of the Central Committee, and their privileged status protected them from complete suppression. This did not go unnoticed by the reading public, which consumed thick journal gossip voraciously for hints of what was going on at the top. The first free Soviet elections in 1990 saw many writers and academics from this world become parliamentarians, before getting ousted in the next election cycle by professionals who knew better how to mobilize the masses.
Yakovlev personally frequented the literary salons of the Noviy Mir types and developed a pro-Khrushchev, liberal persuasion during this time. But it was impossible for him to discipline Stalinist and conservative voices unilaterally. Even though propagandists like him made censorship decisions according to their own ideological lenses, it reflected poorly on their department—and career—if too many cases were filtering up to the Central Committee for review. And so much to Yakovlev’s chagrin, Russian nationalists like those of Molodaya Gvardiya were permitted to exist as an intellectual force.
They skillfully played into legitimate worries of much of Soviet society and its Moscow elite. Throughout the 1960s and the stagnation period of the later decades, nationalists raised alarm over the decline of the Russian peasantry, rising rates of alcoholism and divorce, decaying historic architecture, and the replacement of Stalinist Russification with the incoherent “new historical community” of Soviet peoples, a state-promoted cultural campaign that tried to tie all of the USSR’s highly distinct ethnicities into one common culture. Nationalist cliques won sympathy by calling attention to and organizing efforts to solve these problems.
Their increasing popularity among Soviet leadership was beginning to worry Yakovlev. As ideological divisions within this “new historical community” intensified, he mulled the best way to respond.
“Against Anti-Historicism” and Exile
Khrushchev’s increasingly erratic policy decisions put him in low standing amongst the rank and file of the Party, but the new consensus was still against a return to Stalinism. In 1964, a faction of Stalinists under the leadership of former KGB head Alexander Shelepin organized a coup, and Khrushchev was informed of his deposition while vacationing on the Black Sea. But the old guard of the Politburo was able to maneuver in an opponent of Shelepin, Leonid Brezhnev, as a replacement. Brezhnev was agreeable, predictable, and not the type to rock the boat with either radical or reactionary reforms.
On the day of the coup, Yakovlev was summoned to the Kremlin, where he noticed the usual guards had been replaced with military cadets. The party’s propaganda chief informed Yakovlev that Khrushchev’s tenure was over—and that he was offloading the task of condemning Khrushchev in the papers to him. It wasn’t a desirable assignment. If Khrushchev ever managed to beat back the coup, Yakovlev would then find himself purged. And besides, Yakovlev respected Khrushchev personally as the condemner of Stalin.
But the announcement did raise his profile. At this point Yakovlev was respected in the Politburo for his learning and prose, and just as he was tasked with helping usher Khrushchev out the door, he was assigned to welcome Brezhnev in. He wrote the new general secretary’s first speech to the Central Committee and many others afterward, spending the rest of the ‘60s between Brezhnev’s villas and hunting lodges, shooting billiards with other speechwriters. He often tried to sneak liberal catchphrases like glasnost, or transparency, into Brezhnev’s speeches, but these additions were crossed out by his colleagues every time. Close to Brezhnev in a way few others were, Yakovlev gained prestige in the thick journal world. His privileged status meant that his responsibilities in the Agitprop department increasingly carried the seal of the general secretary.
From 1965 on, the inclusionary politics of thick journals that created room for diverse political debate became an increasingly controversial policy within the Party. To the outrage of reformists like Yakovlev, nationalist and Stalinist intellectuals allied to put gradual pressure on Brezhnev’s clique and gradually rehabilitate Stalin. Emboldened, this informal ecosystem of nationalists known as the “Russian Party” blended support for underground nationalist groups in Soviet society and Stalinist leadership in the Politburo.
Liberal thick journals like Noviy Mir that preached reform were put under constant pressure. In 1969, an article in the conservative weekly Ogoniok (The Spark) entitled “Against What Is Noviy Mir?” accused it of being an anti-Russian and anti-Soviet publication, launching a campaign that eventually led to the sacking of its editor-in-chief.
Yakovlev decided that he had to launch a retaliatory salvo to reverse the conservative tide. His article “Against Anti-Historicism” was published under his own name on November 15th, 1972, in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta (The Literary Gazette). At 11,000 words, it called out nationalist authors by name, accusing them of using non-Soviet, chauvinistic historiographies for anti-Soviet ends.
Keeping in the maximalist tradition of the Russian intelligentsia, aside from Marx and Lenin it also cites Marcuse, Freud, Toynbee, and Ortega y Gasset. But setting aside its party jargon and intellectual posturing, the subject of his critique reveals the allowances and contradictions of free speech in the Soviet press:
The party has always been intransigent toward everything that might hurt the unity of our society, including any nationalistic infections, no matter from where and from whom they might emanate. One such infection appears in reflections about the non-class “national spirit,” “national feeling,” “national folk character,” “the call of native unity,” which appear in some articles marked by an objectivist approach to the past. Their striking peculiarity is the detachment of present-day social practice from those historical changes that occurred in our country during the years that followed the Great October; the disregard or incomprehension of that decisive fact that in our country there has emerged a new historical community of people—the Soviet nation. The authors of these articles virtually avoid such words and concepts as “soviet,” “socialist,” “kolkhoz.”…It is as if there exists or can exist in our country some kind of national character outside the decisive influence of the revolution…outside the cultural and scientific-technical revolution, outside the basic social constants of time!
Reaction in the press was swift. An official like Yakovlev publishing such a high-profile piece in an established literary institution like Literaturnaya Gazeta was interpreted by publishing houses and editorial boards as an order to censor the mentioned writers. Those named all had their articles suppressed and their books pulled from publication. But even as writers raced to their typewriters to give their take on an apparent decapitation of the nationalists by a liberal censor, Yakovlev’s move backfired.
While he had checked in with his colleagues to see if he could get away with publishing it, Yakovlev’s article had not been cleared by the more conservative minister of culture. Factions within the Central Committee and Politburo were upset. Phone calls were made, and despite the fact that it took up a great deal of that issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta, no discussion of it was permitted to appear in the Soviet press over the following weeks.
The constant need to publicly police intellectuals—who were often high-ranking Central Committee members like Yakovlev—was becoming an embarrassment to the Party. Word got around the Politburo, and before long Brezhnev summoned Yakovlev to a one-on-one meeting. Always a people-pleaser, Brezhnev did not enjoy being associated with any kind of ideology and thought Yakovlev’s article would send the wrong message to the rest of the party: the article’s publication was too close to his upcoming speech for the 50th anniversary of the USSR, which was supposed to be drafted by Yakovlev. Their proximity would make it look like Brezhnev was endorsing reformism. Affable as ever, Brezhnev gave Yakovlev a gentle pat on the back, told him everything was going to be alright, and had him removed from his post by April 1973. Yakovlev was sent to work as an ambassador for the USSR’s embassy in Canada.
Already 50 years old, suddenly uprooting himself from the usual rhythms of life in Moscow was a shock. While his wife joined him in his exile, his children and grandchildren remained in Russia. He got along poorly with workers at the embassy in Ottawa, who had preferred his predecessor.
During this low point in his career, Yakovlev struck up a friendship with Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. When the Soviet Union’s hockey team came to play Canada’s, they watched the match and took their families ice skating together. When Trudeau ran for reelection in 1974, it provided Yakovlev an inside look into how mass democracies are run.
He also observed Canada’s agriculture and economy closely—it was not as capitalist and chaotic as in the United States, and not as socialist and authoritarian as in the Soviet Union. But from all outside appearances, it looked like Yakovlev was to twiddle his thumbs in Canada for the rest of his life instead of implementing any of these practices back home. He still kept abreast of the intellectual world he left behind, where he was still considered a legend among reformers and a dark puppetmaster among conservatives. The two factions continued to tilt at one another; Yakovlev could tell that the old-school nomenklatura had lost control over the “spiritual life” of the country entirely.
The years passed. In 1983 he was visited by the minister of agriculture Mikhail Gorbachev, a promising cadre who was known to have liberal sympathies. Flying around Calgary and Niagara Falls in a turboprop plane, they gradually opened up with one another:
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 took a long walk…and, as it often happens, both of us suddenly were just kind of flooded 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, the conditions of dictatorship and absence of freedom, the country would simply perish. So it was at that time, during our three-hour conversation, almost as if our heads were knocked together, that we poured it all out and during that three-hour conversation we actually came to agreement on all our main points.
An ocean away from Moscow, this all seemed like idle chatter. But soon events would be set in motion that saw both men make a meteoric rise in prominence.
Return, Collapse, and the Battle for Gorbachev
Brezhnev brought stability to a USSR ravaged by internal contradictions, but the last years of his life saw failure in the Afghanistan War, unchecked declines in party discipline that led to corruption, and the entrenchment of military and industrial lobby groups that prevented reform. By this point, failures in Soviet agricultural policy saw the country importing grain from the United States to sustain itself, and while the USSR was scientifically advanced, it failed to implement technological innovations outside of heavy industry or military contexts. It patched the hole of economic stagnation by increasing commodity exports, but this only enabled further complacency among the nomenklatura.
After years of poor health, Brezhnev died on November 10th, 1982 at 75. His successor, Yuri Andropov, died in 1984, and the general secretary that followed, Konstantin Chernenko, died a year after that.
General secretaries were always selected from the Politburo, but its average age had been steadily rising since Khrushchev’s time. The median age of its members was now 70, and its youngest member was Gorbachev at a spritely 54. The old guard of the Politburo realized something had to change. After some behind-the-scenes discussion, Gorbachev’s only competitor, Andrei Gromyko, agreed to be the first member of the Politburo to nominate him, and the rest soon followed.
Now in power, Gorbachev immediately signaled that the party would not be going through business as usual. Channeling his discussions with Yakovlev, he announced the policies of perestroika, which meant that economic restructuring through market liberalization would replace central planning, and glasnost, which entailed total information freedom and transparency that went beyond the controlled dissent of inclusionary politics.
Gorbachev also initiated a purge of the party. This had also been planned by Andropov, Chernenko, and their cadres, but their deaths and the politics of succession had distracted reformers from getting anything done. Gorbachev’s appointment saw the party filled with fresh blood at the same time he excised much of its bloat. One energetic younger cadre who was appointed by Gorbachev and rose to the Politburo, Boris Yeltsin, sacked thousands of Moscow nomenklatura. “We dig further and further down,” he announced after firing around 50,000 party members and assistants, “but can never find the bottom of this cesspool.”
Like Gorbachev, most supporters of perestroika and glasnost thought that these policies were the key to building a better kind of socialism. Gorbachev himself earnestly believed in a more humane version of the Communist Party. In the early days of his administration, even powerful orthodox communist representatives who saw themselves as rivals to Gorbachev recognized the need for reform as societal decline worsened.
After Brezhnev’s death, Gorbachev arranged for Yakovlev to return home. In 1985, he was installed as the official head of the Agitprop department. Intensive discussions of the future of the country were being held at every level of society, and Yakovlev served as the direct line between the liberal humanist intelligentsia and Gorbachev himself. He drafted notes for Gorbachev with some of his ideas for reform in the political sphere. Some more speculative writings that were not adopted included a plan to split the Communist Party into a “socialist” and “national democratic” wing.
For Yakovlev, this was not some technocratic attempt at fixing the party. By this point, he was using his new authority to look into the state archives of the Stalin era. There, he found details of the Katyn massacre of Polish prisoners of war by the army he fought for as a young man, and of how Lenin’s reign could be just as brutal as Stalin’s. He was already ahead of mere reformers: he decided that the entire Marxist system had to be thrown out. He described Marxism as a “neo-religion, subject to the interests and whims of an absolutist power that has exalted dozens of times and then trampled into the mud its own gods, prophets, and apostles.”
Yakovlev got to work quickly. At the Party’s official magazine, Kommunist, the orthodox communist editor-in-chief was fired and had further publications of his work suppressed. The publication Ogoniok, whose articles had incensed Yakovlev to write “Against Anti-Historicism,” suffered the same fate. The men Yakovlev installed would serve as cheerleaders of perestroika.
As high-level shakeups transformed the face of the party, however, the rest of the country continued its downward spiral. The slow-motion collapse in productivity throughout the 1970s and ‘80s was beginning to be felt, and acute food shortages and industrial failures were starting to occur. One harsh winter in 1985 paralyzed the train network, bringing the entire industrial economy of the country to a screeching halt. The Chernobyl nuclear incident would take place a year later.
The entrenched bureaucracy of the Soviet Union made serious gaffes in response to these crises. For example, in an attempt to curtail the growing black market economy, a new ban was instated on the broad category of “unearned income.” This often extended to privately cultivated foodstuffs, so greenhouses, gardens, and street market stalls were seized and destroyed even while the shelves of state-run grocery stores remained empty. One Literaturnaya Gazeta article, “The Criminal Tomato,” solemnly explained these actions as a decision reached by the “commission for the struggle against negative phenomena.”
One stalwart Politburo conservative and former industrial boss, Yegor Ligachev, bemoaned the collapse in party discipline and the government’s inability to mobilize the population—in the Stalin days, the party could’ve mobilized the population and sent them into the fields to help collect the harvest on time. Ligachev noted that while it was Yakovlev who was closest to Gorbachev’s ear, the propagandist had close to no experience managing a country, city, or even factory—his entire career was built on newsroom or party intrigue.
It was at Yakovlev’s advice that Gorbachev allowed the media space to consume much of his attention. He received and visited many representatives from the West, spoke at the United Nations, and received a Nobel Prize in 1990 for his opening of the country and unilaterally withdrawing troops from Europe, while crime, drug use, and worker absenteeism skyrocketed at home. Back in Moscow, whenever Ligachev was present for Politburo meetings to discuss how exactly economic reforms were to take place, the room seemed to ice over.
Yakovlev and Gorbachev himself often met with editors and writers, encouraging them to leave no stone unturned when it came to revealing party corruption. But such a sudden reversal of the censorship techniques of the past amounted to a printed revolution. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, carefully monitored speech norms prevented the media from challenging Soviet authority. But as Yakovlev’s men in outlets like The Moscow News, Ogoniok, and even Pravda unleashed a deluge of new information that revealed the myths of the Soviet state, the artificiality of its civic identity, and the extent of corruption among its upper cadres, they were unwittingly emboldening the two factions that would successively overthrow Gorbachev: the communist hardliners and liberal nationalists.
In March 1988, an article entitled “I Cannot Forsake My Principles” appeared in the conservative Sovetskaya Rossiya. It was written by a chemistry teacher named Nina Andreyevna. Her article characterized the reforms as a slandering of Soviet history and that it was creating confusion among the youth, and its popularity tapped into a widespread discomfort with perestroika. There was a growing realization among traditional communists that the ostensibly communist government was no longer treating the party as if it was on the right side of history. If that was going to be the case, what was the point of the Soviet Union, and what was going to happen to it?
At the time of the article’s publication, Gorbachev and Yakovlev were so alarmed by its popularity that Yakovlev flew back from a trip to Mongolia to address it. Considering that Gorbachev had also been out of town when it was published, they considered it to be a move by “reactionary forces.” For two days, the entire Politburo was convened to discuss the article, and those who had tentatively supported its points were whipped into denouncing it. Ligachev, who was incorrectly suspected of arranging for its publication, was publicly humiliated and demoted. Instead of putting energy into other matters, Gorbachev and Yakovlev co-authored an article condemning the Nina Andreyeva piece.
The Cultural Department which both Ligachev and Yakovlev worked for was abolished and reformed with a steady-state loyalist at its helm. Ligachev was booted into obscurity as the minister of agriculture, and Yakovlev was made head of the foreign affairs commission.
The whole episode revealed serious gaps in the reformers’ understanding of the freedom of expression. Georgy Shakhnazarov, one of Gorbachev’s senior aides characterized Andreyeva’s criticism as “unheard-of insolence—as if some miserable provincial priest had rebelled against the Pope and cardinals by accusing them of blasphemy.” Far from being a blossoming of free, constructive speech, glasnost was conceptualized and implemented as a weapon against the Soviet bureaucracy. For Yakovlev, who spent his entire career reading between the lines of published media to see what its ideological intent was, perhaps it could not have been otherwise.
The consequences, however, were beginning to escape Yakovlev’s control. Nationalist separatism in the Baltic and Transcaucasian republics was turning violent. Economic growth was declining year after year. Rumors around a KGB coup began to swirl. “Perestroika,” he realized, “became independent from its initiators.” But at that point, he didn’t care much about what this meant for the fate of the Soviet Union: “around 1988 it became clear to me…that a society built on violence and fear cannot be reformed.”
In a sense, he was right. Falling into a common pattern, perestroika and glasnost itself had been a “revolution from the top.” Most of the political and media heavy lifting was not coming from the Soviet people but from established actors and institutions—be it Yakovlev’s publication of archival research through his sockpuppets in legacy media, or conservative elites organizing a coup against Gorbachev in 1991 and Yeltsin 1993. In one meeting of the Politburo in 1988, Yakovlev noted that less than 15 percent of the population generally approved of economic and political reforms—half the support of 1986.
As economic and social conditions continued to deteriorate, Yakovlev’s relationship with Gorbachev began to sour as well. By 1988 Yakovlev was starting to get sidelined by Gorbachev, who worried his close association with the propaganda chief was destroying the consensus he needed to build with conservatives. In private, Yakovlev incessantly made the case for the dismantling of the “criminal” Communist Party and opposed any compromise with conservative factions in the government. One Politburo member (who happened to owe his career to Yakovlev) explained Gorbachev’s possible rationale in his diary:
[Yakovlev] has the same issue with Gorbachev’s ingratitude. He has not received a single “Thank you” in their five years of working together, not even for what Yakovlev initiated. Sure, he has a friendly relationship and trust (and sometimes a pretense of trust). But not a hint of recognition or reward. Most likely, Gorbachev does not want to identify himself with Yakovlev in front of the [Politburo] or [Central Committee] (where they hate Yakovlev), or society. By identifying himself with Yakovlev he would be disassociating himself from Ligachev once and for all. He is keeping A.N. “for himself,” for when he needs some advice, or to assign him to write something.
But Gorbachev’s attempts to placate conservatives would ultimately fail anyway. On August 19th, 1991, hardline communists affiliated with the military and KGB launched a coup, detaining Gorbachev at his Black Sea vacation home like they had with Khrushchev. But the plot was poorly planned and executed, and the leaders who did not commit suicide in its aftermath were apprehended and imprisoned. While it destroyed the conservatives as a viable political force, it empowered Boris Yeltsin, who had recently agitating against Gorbachev and was popular among the people. The coup plotters had been holed up in the White House, a Moscow administrative building, and when a crowd of thousands of protestors surrounded it Yeltsin was seen giving anti-Soviet speeches atop an army tank.
With his power now restored, Gorbachev still insisted on the correctness of the “socialist choice” and the possibility of communist “renewal.” But a few days after the coup on August 23rd, at a meeting of the Russian parliament, Yeltsin humiliated Gorbachev by forcing him to read aloud a transcript from the first day of the coup. It demonstrated that all but two of the leaders of the plot were ministers Gorbachev had personally nominated to their positions.
It was all over. The Central Committee was dissolved that same day, and Gorbachev resigned the day after. Yakovlev was not present—while he claimed to be on the “kill list” of the coup plotters, he had resigned from the Politburo in 1990, and from the Communist Party two days before the events of August 19.
Too late to change the outcome of the Soviet collapse—widespread banditism in the 1990s, a sharp drop in lifespan, and wars in the former Central Asian republics, Caucasus, and Ukraine—Yakovlev would realize that far from being a paradigm shift, perestroika fell into a pattern of state-enforced revolution upon an unwilling population:
Perestroika from the very beginning…was an attempt to execute all the reforms from above, and it was done in the hopes that people would follow the enlightened rulers. All the attempts at reform in Russian history were of similar nature, and probably this is why all of them have resulted in no absolute success.
Perestroika was explicitly conceptualized as a “reformation” of socialism, and as such many of its supporters self-identified as humanists. But humanism alone cannot unify a political entity made of hundreds of millions of people, each with its own cultural distinctness and political calculus. Yakovlev and Gorbachev could intellectually oppose separatist nationalism in the Baltics, Caucasus, and Central Asia all they like—when push came to shove, they both believed it was better to cede those territories to regional elites rather than risk violence in trying to preserve them. But regardless of its ideological failings, much blood had been spilled to create and then cohere the Soviet Union as a political entity. If its borders had been preserved, perhaps the internecine revanchist wars we see today could have been prevented.
On a tactical level, Yakovlev understood the halls of power. Balancing political dissidents and takeovers of competing media outlets had taught him that. But on the level of political science, he could not extend the concept of political necessity to social relations or even international politics. Yakovlev believed in “common sense” and “real atheism” over both “nationalistic infections” and “Bolshevik neo-religion,” but common sense is not a useful or visionary tool for reshaping reality—oftentimes, the only lasting solutions to hard problems of social organization are unintuitive, and they might even involve irrational belief in the sovereign, the state, or the divine.
Nationalism, geopolitics, and economic planning were all things Yakovlev found to be remnants of the “primitive thinking of the Cold War era.” Primitive as they may be, they are facts of the world order, not propositions, and it seems that today we are missing the diplomacy and compromising spirit of that period of history. Perhaps it was only a system as secluded as the postwar Soviet Union that could incubate a class of leaders like Yakovlev, who was naïve enough to believe that attaining world peace was as simple as dismantling their own political foundation. In doing so, such a class created the conditions to see itself abolished. No wonder, then, that there are few men like Yakovlev to be found in the Kremlin today.