Few individuals were better positioned to reveal the truth about the socialist experiment of building communism in the former Soviet Union than Alexander N. Yakovlev, whose membership in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and distinguished political and administrative career spanned decades. Former head of the CPSU’s Department of Ideology and Propaganda, Ambassador to Canada, Director of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations, member of the Politburo and Secretariat of the CPSU, and so-called “Godfather of Glasnost,” Yakovlev was an insider from the Stalin-era to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and rebirth of the Russian state.
A string of experiences beginning early in his life led Yakovlev to question and ultimately turn against Soviet communism. Serving in World War II, Yakovlev witnessed returning Soviet POWs being sent to the Gulag. In 1956, he witnessed Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin in person. After rising through the ranks of the CPSU Central Committee’s propaganda department, in 1972 he published an article attacking Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism in the Party, which led to him being “exiled” to Canada as ambassador. He met Mikhail Gorbachev during a visit to Canada, and when Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the CPSU he raised Yakovlev to a secretaryship in the Central Committee in 1986 and to the Politburo in 1987.
After 1987 Yakovlev was one of the Politburo’s half-dozen most powerful politicians and a radical reformist advisor to Gorbachev. He helped steer the policies of Perestroika and Glasnost, and as head of the CC’s ideology section, he established a new section dealing with human rights. Yakovlev encouraged a public reckoning with the crimes of the Soviet regime and also publicized the hitherto secret protocols of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. By 1991 he publicly renounced Marxism and resigned from the Communist Party.
After the failed Communist coup of 1991, against which he had warned, and the dissolution of the USSR, Yakovlev became chair of Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Commission for Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, where he worked with classified documents dealing with Soviet political repression. The next year, he became founding president of the International Democracy Foundation (now known as the Alexander N. Yakovlev Foundation), which seeks to provide historians the means necessary to write a true account of Russia in the 20th century by publishing and making publicly accessible essential documents, many which were previously classified.Yakovlev died in 2005.
Having played a significant role in the system, Yakovlev recognized the necessity of a moral reckoning for the crimes of Soviet communism. Based on his own research, he asserted that 20 to 25 million people in the USSR were killed for political motives or died in prisons and camps and a further 10.5 million or more died during the famines of the civil war and the 1930s. In A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, he observed, “Papers are not destroyed; people are. More and more of the bloodstained documents pile up on my desk. From the archives of the president and of the Lubyanka, headquarters of the KGB. If only the files would burn up and the men and women return to life! But they will not return.” Yakovlev’s personal witness, combined with his privileged access to state archives, lend heavy weight to his moral condemnation of Soviet communism. With his personal integrity and pioneering activism, Yakovlev helped establish the foundation of truth that is the basis of any lasting reconciliation.
See More on the Death Toll of Communism HERE