Bloody road to glasnost

A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia
July 25, 2003

Before the demise of the Soviet Union, studies of the regime that dealt with its criminality were produced either by western scholars or Russian dissidents. Since then, Russian writers have done much to document past "excesses". As a member of Gorbachev's Politburo, his chief adviser on reform, and subsequently head of Yeltsin's commission on the rehabilitation of the victims of political repression, Alexander Yakovlev is committed to exposing the Leninist-Stalinist "experiment" as a crime against humanity.

Elsewhere he has analysed the link between Marxism and the political practices of communist systems, and now he has descended into the archives, covered his desk in "bloodstained documents" and recounted in harrowing detail the awful story of Russia in the 20th century.

Yakovlev was born in 1923 into the family of peasants in central Russia. He joined the Party in 1944, after being invalided out of the army. He started working in the Central Committee Department of Propaganda in 1953 and remained there, with a four-year gap from 1956 to 1960 when he was attached to the Central Committee's Academy of Social Sciences, and, exceptionally, permitted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student at Columbia University in New York.

As head of the department since 1965, he permitted himself in 1972 to publish a newspaper article criticising nationalism, including Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism. As this occurred at a time when the beneficial effects of Khrushchev's moderate liberalisation campaign had already been eroded by Brezhnev's "restoration", Yakovlev was lucky that his "punishment" was not more serious than being made Soviet ambassador to Canada for the next ten years. This choice of the authorities was unlikely to cure him of his unorthodox tendencies, but was intended to keep him out of circulation. Instead, he was "discovered" by Gorbachev during a visit to Canada and brought back to Moscow in 1983 as director of the prestigious Institute of World Economy and International Relations. Though eight years older than the soon-to-be general secretary, Yakovlev had been recognised as another closet liberal who, like Gorbachev, had begun questioning their beliefs in the mid-1950s. Soon after Gorbachev became general secretary, Yakovlev was made head of the Propaganda Department, and shortly thereafter a full member of the Politburo. At this time, the Politburo was still vetting all aspects of Soviet life, from industrial and agricultural targets to foreign intelligence tasks and weapons orders, and still monitoring all cultural matters.

To men such as Gorbachev and Yakovlev, the spectacle of a bunch of sclerotic should-be pensioners deciding whether this poem or that play was subversive was one of the more shameful vestiges of a system in need of radical reform. The new brooms began to sweep, and by the spring of 1987 the Soviet censors were twiddling their thumbs as "politically incorrect" creative works were emerging into the light of day. Literary editors noticed that their direct line from the Central Committee had stopped ringing, even though they were publishing increasingly controversial material. The magazine Ogonyok and the newspapers Argumenty i Fakty, Moskovskie Novosti and Komsomolskaya Pravda were printing articles of breathtaking content, and the historians started following the journalists' lead. Glasnost hit the Soviet Union with a vengeance, and Yakovlev is identified as its chief architect.

Yakovlev identifies three milestones on his road to Damascus. First, at the end of the war he witnessed former Soviet prisoners of war being transported in cattle trucks to the Urals and Siberia. He could not understand how Red Army men who had fought on the front and been captured by the Germans could be declared traitors by their own government.

The second shock came as he sat listening to Khrushchev's speech at the 20th Congress: "I was... hearing words that were destroying everything I had lived by... I had been honest in my previous faith, and I was equally honest in rejecting it. I came to detest Stalin... I devoted myself to searching out a way to put an end to this inhuman system." Thereafter, like many other senior party members who would emerge as reformers in the late 1980s, he lived "a double life of agonising dissimulation".

Sent to Prague in 1968 to supervise the Soviet press coverage of the Soviet army's invasion, and hearing the Czechs shouting "Fascists!" at the invaders was the final straw. The 1972 article and the move to Canada followed. The treatment of children by the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Stalin is presented by Yakovlev as one of the regime's most heinous crimes.

Whole families were held hostage by Lenin during the civil war; toddlers whose parents were either killed or deported during collectivisation and the purges were incarcerated in institutions; children aged 12 and over of anyone labelled an "enemy of the people" were from 1932 eligible for execution. Lenin's suppression of his political rivals, the persecution of the clergy, the cruel manipulation of the peasants and the decimation and corruption of the intelligentsia, are all presented in judiciously selected documents by Yakovlev. A section of the book provides a cogent analysis of the case fabricated against the Anti-Fascist Jewish Committee in Stalin's last years, foreshadowing a new mass terror that was averted only when its inspirer died. Yakovlev is even today labelled a Russophobe and Jew-lover in the new Russia.

Yakovlev also blames the Bolshevik mentality for the consequences of the August 1991 coup that led to "the disorderly break-up of the state and to unimaginable hardship for all the peoples of the Soviet Union". He may be forgiven for not seeing, or overlooking, the fact that the measures attempted by Gorbachev in the hope of achieving an "orderly" outcome to the clamour for national self-determination, had in fact emerged from the very policies he and his supporters had espoused: glasnost, political toleration and civilised behaviour, an end to confrontation with the West, withdrawal without violence from eastern Europe. It is a creditable record, but it was bound to end in tears.

Harold Shukman is an emeritus fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford.

A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia

Author - Alexander N. Yakovlev
ISBN - 0 300 08760 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 248

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