(HOST) We are familiar with the concept of “unsung heroes.” Commentator Vic Henningsen commemorates an unfamiliar figure who helped change the world.
(HENNINGSEN) Alexander Yakovlev is an unfamiliar name. Yet Yakovlev, who died in October, may have had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union than many more familiar figures like Mikhail Gorbachev or Ronald Reagan.
A veteran of World War II, in which he was severely wounded, Yakovlev began his career as a loyal Stalinist, earning a doctorate in history and climbing the party ladder like a faithful apparatchik. But, in 1956, he learned of then Premier Khrushchev’s “secret speech” revealing the evils of Stalinism. In 1958 he spent a year as an exchange student at Columbia. These experiences seem
to have influenced Yakovlev to re-examine his political philosophy and he began to argue for more transparency in the Soviet sys-
tem. He summed up his thinking in a single word that later became world-famous: “glasnost” or “openness.”
In 1982 he met a junior member of the Politburo with similar ideas, Mikhail Gorbachev. Three years later, Gorbachev was premier and Yakovlev was his senior advisor.
As chief of ideology, Yakovlev worked to implement the ideas of openness that he and Gorbachev believed were key to the Soviet future. He argued for freedom of the press; he maintained that the Soviet Union should stop interfering in Eastern Europe; he pressed it to embrace pluralism, undertake economic reform, become more democratic. In short, the Soviet Union should engage in fundamen-
tal restructuring, what came to be called “perestroika.”
Accomplishing this required shining a clear light on the dark and secret past of the Soviet Union. Yakovlev opened the Soviet ar-
chives to reveal Stalin’s purges and other Communist crimes. A people ignorant of their past, he argued, could not progress to a democratic future.
But acknowledging past evils proved problematic as it became clear that glasnost and perestroika were leading not to the sal-
vation of the Soviet Union, but to its collapse. This made little difference to Yakovlev, who remained committed to what the philosopher Camus called the highest form of patriotism: not devotion to what a country had been or was, but to what it
could be, ought to be.
To the politicians, Yakovlev was one of those annoying people
who are always morally correct but whose correctness was too politically costly to consider. He eventually parted company with Gorbachev; he quarreled with Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yelt-
sin; and with his successor, Vladimir Putin all because they weren’t moving fast or far enough. Indeed, under Putin, Russia
has retreated from openness.
It seems unlikely that Russia would ever establish an award like our Presidential Medal of Freedom. But were there such an honor, Yakovlev would be an obvious candidate. Were he alive, he might well refuse it. A country whose leaders refuse to address the bur-
den of the Communist past, he would argue, has little freedom worth celebrating.
This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.