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Jewish World Review
Dec. 21, 2005
/ 20 Kislev 5766
A man of parts
We diminish ourselves when we fail to honor the passing of a great and good human being. It is now a few weeks since the death of Alexander Yakovlev. I was surprised that it went virtually unnoticed in the West, for here was a man who played a singular role in the history of our times.
He lived most of his life as a faithful member of the Communist Party, rising in the ranks to become the chief of ideology under Leonid Brezhnev. Yet this same Soviet apparatchik, as he called himself, underwent an unparalleled transformation to play a central role in the end of the Cold War and the elimination of Communist rule in the Soviet Union. He became the champion of the greatest reform initiatives of the entire Soviet era, in which he came to be known as "the father of Russian democracy" and the "godfather of glasnost," the policy of openness that gradually lifted curbs on the press and on individual speech. He was also the principal advocate of other political and economic reforms known as perestroika.
What moved him? He came to believe that there were universal human values that should take precedence over class struggles; that the Communist Party should abandon its monopoly power and accept the challenges of pluralism; and that Bolshevism should be denounced, as he put it, for its "fixation on keeping power at any cost by force and unconstitutional means, if necessary." When Communist rule was finally abandoned, Yakovlev said, "It was an end of an unbelievable crime."
Passion. Yakovlev understood that it was the lack of a democratic regime in Russia that was the source of all of its difficulties. "If you are free," he said, "the rest falls into place." His stated objectives were "free individual and free society; democratic political system; the rule of law, not the rule of individuals; modern economy;. . . liberation of society from that supremacy . . . of state over both society and individuals; and maximum possible opportunities for self realization of property."
Let us remember this is not John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, imbued from childhood with the values of the Enlightenment, but a man who imbibed from birth the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism and thrived in that society. Remarkably, Yakovlev understood that the collapse of communism was not the same as the emergence of freedom. He knew how much Russia in its 1,000-year history had nurtured a culture of dependency "on the leader, on the state. On the boss, on somebody." So he insisted that without the reforms "what we will wind up with is a mixture of criminality, dictatorship, corruption."
He had the wisdom to see that Russia could never embrace its future without understanding its past and the courage to make it confront those decades of shame. Yakovlev headed a commission to identify the victims of Stalinist repression and was instrumental in the posthumous rehabilitation of more than 5 million wrongfully accused citizens who were victims of Joseph Stalin's execution squads and concentration camps. Then he initiated the exposure of the secret 1939 pact with Nazi Germany that paved the way to Soviet annexation of the Baltic nations. Even when he retired, he began the process of publishing some 30 or 40 volumes to document the narrative history of Russia's secret police in the 20th century and their critical role in Communist rule and cruelty, so that the crimes could never be expunged from memory.
Yakovlev, finally, was a major force in many of Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign policies, including the policy of nonintervention in Eastern Europe. He stuck to his belief in democracy even when in the 1990s it became unfashionable once again. In the coup against Gorbachev, Yakovlev poured scorn on the putschists at a time when their chance of victory was still real, as the Times of London said. In the coup against Boris Yeltsin, he made his way through the barricades and joined Yeltsin's defenders in the White House. Yet when the coup against Gorbachev failed, he didn't hesitate to break with him for abandoning the most crucial component of the reform program and bringing into his inner circle the hard-liners and plotters, including the KGB's Vladimir Kriuchkov. Later, when Russian political culture again grew less democratic under Vladimir Putin, Yakovlev criticized the creeping authoritarianism of the Russian president.
No one today in Russia fills Yakovlev's shoes. No one has his stature, his intellect, his passion for democracy, and his willingness to examine the darker side of Russia's modern history.
An inspiring commitment to human values shone through this man, whom I met on virtually every one of my 20-odd visits to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. It was an honor to work with him on the Internet publication of the archives of the secret police so that they could never again be suppressed. His leadership, and his life, will serve forever as a marker for those who believe that Russia can be a greater country and provide a better life for its citizens as a democratic state.
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman
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