ALEXANDER YAKOVLEV – SOVIET HIGH OFFICIAL WHO HELPED SAVE RUSSIA FROM COMMUNISM

Washington Times on March 8, 2016, published a review by Paul Hollander of Richard Pipes new book Alexander Yakovlev: The Man Whose Ideas Delivered Russia from Communism. Excerpts below:

It is my guess that 99 percent of college-educated Americans never heard of Alexander Yakovlev, high-ranking member of the Soviet ruling elite for much of his life and major architect of the reforms associated with Mikhail Gorbachev. Richard Pipes, the distinguished American historian of Soviet Russia, provides a notable scholarly and public service by writing his first biography that carefully follows every major stage in Yakovlev’s career and political-ideological evolution.

Yakovlev’s great historical role has been to provide crucial ideological support for Mr. Gorbachev’s policies known as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which unintentionally undermined the system and hastened its disintegration. As Mr. Pipes points out, Yakovlev “was the only high official in Russian history to have advocated, and in part successfully implemented, the entire panoply of Western political values … . He was the inspirer of Gorbachev’s reforms.”

The historical importance of Yakovlev is not limited to his contributions to changing the Soviet system. Equally significant is that he ultimately came to reject it in its entirety, including its Marxist theoretical foundations, without any reservations. He reached the conclusion that “a society built on violence and fear could not be reformed” .

It was during his studies at the Academy of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the Party that he “came to understand fully the hollowness and impracticability of Marxism-Leninism, its inhumanity, its artificiality, its inherent contradictions, demagoguery and prognostic fraud.”

Two…unusual chapters in his life probably exerted a durable influence on his outlook. One was a year in 1958 spent at Columbia University as a Fulbright scholar studying Roosevelt’s policies related to the New Deal. Strangely enough, following his return he retained what Mr. Pipes calls an “obsessive hostility to the United States.” The latter remains difficult to reconcile with his subsequent commitment to the Westernization and democratization of the Soviet Union and his belief in the importance of private property.

His 10 years as ambassador to Canada (1973-83) might have been a major source of his subsequent moral and ideological reorientation: “He emerged from the experience a different man,” Mr. Pipes writes. In 1988 he became chairman of the commission that sought to rehabilitate the victims of the Stalin era, a position he held for 13 years. This experience solidified his profound disillusionment with the system:

“…The greatest secret of the party is how it managed to transform all of us into idiots, denouncers, careerists, people without conscience and honor … . The party knew how to play on the basest instincts … . Why have we turned out to be such a herd? … Why did we readily agree with all that the party said? This is the greatest mystery — political, psychological, moral.”

Yakolev also presciently anticipated the Putin era:

“The transition from the violent form of government to freedom, from dictatorship to law, comes to Russia with great difficulty … the genetic habit of treating arbitrariness as a natural condition of life, the ineradicable longing for a tsar-father, general secretary or president as a savior … serves as a nourishing soil for the formation of a slavish psychology. We Russians are prisoners, slaves and victims of Fate, not its masters.”

Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. His study of political hero worship will be published this year by Cambridge University Press.

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