In this slim, highly provocative book, Richard Pipes, the doyen of Russian studies in the West, engages in a much-needed exercise in historical reparation. We have here the first biography of an ideologue turned heretic and then apostate, whose ideas begot, to a decisive extent, the collapse of Lenin’s state. Organised in short chapters focused on the key moments in Alexander Yakovlev’s political life, the book highlights the most significant moments in Soviet history during the second half of the past century. Indeed, the title of one of Yakovlev’s own books could serve as a condensed assessment of the real nature of a system once celebrated as the Great Experiment: A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Violence, ruthlessness, brutality, extremism: these were for Yakovlev the defining features of the Soviet dictatorship. As Pipes shows, he came to such intransigently devastating conclusions as a result of an agonising search for historical and moral truth.
Pipes accurately argues that Mikhail Gorbachev’s worldview, with its revolutionary consequences, was crucially influenced by Yakovlev’s Weltanschauung, an outlook much more articulate than the general secretary’s rather inchoate views. In fact, most scholars agree that it was Yakovlev who proposed the policies known as perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Born in 1923 to a poor peasant family, Yakovlev absorbed from his early youth the main tenets of the Soviet doctrine: egalitarianism, internationalism, the cult of the party and its luminaries, etc. He fought and was wounded during the Second World War. In the war’s aftermath, he studied at party schools and became an enthusiastic ideological apparatchik. He was the embodiment of Homo Sovieticus, subserviently conformist. He saw poverty and injustice around him, but sang loyally in harmony with the prevailing optimistic libretto.
The shock came in February 1956, with Nikita Khrushchev’s earth-shattering anti-Stalin “Secret Speech”. Yakovlev was in the audience and witnessed what can now be seen as the beginning of the end for Lenin’s party. From that moment on, he gradually developed doubts regarding the institutional, cultural and moral legitimacy of Bolshevism. The Prague Spring was another eye-opener. As head of the party’s ideological department, Yakovlev opposed the chauvinism encouraged by Leonid Brezhnev and his sycophants. He was demoted in 1972, following the publication of a mildly unorthodox article, and was sent as ambassador to Canada. It was there that he met Gorbachev in 1983. The two men exchanged views about the desperate need to reform the USSR. Yakovlev returned to Moscow and, after Gorbachev became number one in March 1985, he climbed the ladder to full Politburo membership. Thanks to him, cultural liberalisation moved with breathtaking speed. De-Stalinisation proceeded dramatically, to the dismay of conservatives who came to abhor Yakovlev. They were convinced that he was a Central Intelligence Agency agent recruited during his 1959 Columbia University fellowship.
Finally, as Gorbachev acted chaotically and refused to break completely with the old system, Yakovlev radicalised. He questioned the entire Bolshevik tradition, compared it to fascism, and found the origin of the catastrophe in Lenin’s sacralisation of violence and abysmal contempt for the rule of law. It became clear to him that Bolshevism and democracy were irreconcilable. Homo Sovieticus morphed into Homo Antisovieticus. He wrote books in which he demonstrated that, from the very outset, Leninism was a totalitarian project. Stalin exacerbated what Lenin initiated. In documenting Yakovlev’s epiphany, Pipes makes a seminal contribution to the literature on disenchantment, apostasy, illumination and awakening.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics, University of Maryland, College Park, and author of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century (2012).
Alexander Yakovlev: The Man Whose Ideas Delivered Russia from Communism
By Richard Pipes
Northern Illinois University Press, 168pp, £21.00
Published 25 January 2016