Russia: A Big Part in the Big Change

Alexander Yakovlev (center) with George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at their summit meeting in Malta, December 1989
Dirck Halstead/Life Images Collection/Getty Images
Alexander Yakovlev (center) with George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at their summit meeting in Malta, December 1989

No other unfounded myth has caused as much damage to US foreign policy over the last quarter-century as the idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the victory of the West in the cold war. The fact is that the cold war ended by negotiation to the benefit of all parties as the Soviet Union abandoned the Marxist ideology that underpinned and infused cold war competition and confrontation. The same ideology was the basis of the totalitarian system of rule that Mikhail Gorbachev tried to democratize, only to be overwhelmed by the centripetal forces within the USSR that were unleashed by his reforms. Rather than representing a Western “victory,” the dismemberment of the Soviet state illustrated the dictum that a serious attempt at reform can be the most dangerous threat to an autocracy.

In view of the centrality of the ideological shift that underlay Gorbachev’s reforms, the taming of the nuclear arms race, and the removal of the iron curtain that divided Europe, we are in Richard Pipes’s debt for calling our attention to the man whose ideas helped transform his own country and world politics during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Pipes’s compact Alexander Yakovlev: The Man Whose Ideas Delivered Russia from Communism recounts, in eighty pages, the main events in Yakovlev’s life and the essence of his views regarding freedom and democracy. This makes for a rapid and fascinating read, but allows little space for description of the political struggle required to bring these ideas even partially to fruition.

When Mikhail Gorbachev took charge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, outsiders would have considered Alexander Yakovlev an unlikely source of reformist ideas. Born in 1923 in a village near Yaroslavl to a peasant family, he was wounded in World War II, and survived with a lifelong limp. He joined the Communist Party in 1943 and, after completing courses that qualified him to teach, made his career in the Party apparatus that supervised education, culture, and propaganda.

Nikita Khrushchev’s exposure of some of Stalin’s crimes in his 1956 “secret speech” to the Communist Party Congress shattered Yakovlev’s youthful faith in Stalin, but not in the Marxist philosophy that provided the ideological foundation of Communist rule. Yakovlev was considered sufficiently reliable and promising as a propagandist to be selected for an academic year of graduate study at Columbia University in 1958–1959, when the first US–USSR exchange agreement was carried out.

Upon his return to Moscow, he was promoted to the number-two position in the office that controlled propaganda and culture and, in that capacity, served as one of Leonid…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.