Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#14 - JRL 7024

PETER MANSBRIDGE (HOST INTRO): Well, it was a momentous event in modern history, the unravelling of the Soviet Union, a communist collapse that transformed the world, and a driving force behind it all, Aleksandr Yakovlev. He's one of the Russian architects of reform, a former Ambassador to Canada who felt the influence of this country. Now, years later, Yakovlev is in another titanic fight, a battle to ensure Russia's future doesn't resemble its past. Here's Dan Bjarnason.


DAN BJARNASON (Reporter): In the new Russia with its allure, glitz and energy, there's a lot of the old Russia going on in the background. The Soviet Union with its sights and sounds never quite went away. Each year, in central Moscow, in front of the Lubyanka, the old KGB headquarters, an aging oracle warns Russia that its lethal past is in danger of poisoning its future. He's Aleksandr Yakovlev, main speaker at a rally commemorating victims of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. Listening are a few ancient survivors of the gulag and their families. For fifteen years, he's been crying for justice. Yakovlev's fighting mass amnesia about mass murder.

ALEKSANDR YAKOVLEV: This entire country is a land of crosses, millions and millions. Honestly, I don't know that there is another country in the world that is so dense with crosses, with graves of people. We lost 100 million people during the twentieth century.

BJARNASON: Keeping Russia's past in the past is an obsession for Yakovlev. A war hero, retired diplomat, then architect of glasnost, he's now offering a final service to his country. To be its conscience. This lovely forest near his hometown of Yaroslavl was a killing ground where decades ago, Stalin's secret police, the KGB, secretly murdered thousands. Forests like this one are being discovered all over the country, and the victims' total tally is in the millions.

YAKOVLEV: We, all of us, must recognize what happened. Maybe I' m too strong, but until we do, we don't have the right to live. Names, names, names, names, names, names, names.

BJARNASON: There's an old lesson in all this, warns Yakovlev. All that's needed for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing.

YAKOVLEV: Don't be afraid of your friends. The only thing they can do is betray you. Don't be afraid of your enemies. The only thing they can do is kill you. Be afraid of indifferent people. Indifferent people. I'm afraid just of indifferent people.

BJARNASON: His odyssey from true believer to a denouncer of the entire communist system was not a journey of one big leap but of small incremental steps as his faith eroded pebble by pebble. Yakovlev was once at the pinnacle of the Soviet power structure as a founder of glasnost under the wing of Mikhail Gorbachev. David Remnick, now editor of The New Yorker, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Moscow. He knew Yakovlev back when he was a backroom Kremlin operator with plenty of clout.

DAVID REMNICK (Editor, The New Yorker): He's an enormous player. He is, he was, to me, Gorbachev's good angel, intellectually, spiritually, and politically. But Yakovlev was the most coherent and the most forceful and the wiliest, I would say, of the reformist advisors in Gorbachev's camp.

BJARNASON (on camera): There's a little known story about Russia's road to perestroika and glasnost, and it's about us. It's part of Canada's history too. This episode that changed the world was launched in, of all places, in this Canadian wheat field. But all this comes later. Yakovlev's story begins in rural Russia.

BJARNASON: The symbols of the Soviet system still dot the Russian landscape, even at Yaroslavl, Yakovlev's hometown, a five-hour drive north of Moscow. His story is the story of a kid from a backwoods place right out of Tolstoy. In World War II, he fought against the Nazis, believing he was helping to build a better country and a better world. It was with the defeat of the Nazis, a moment that should have been a time of great celebration, that at this railway station, his communist faith first began to crumble. At war's end in 1945, a train chugged through Yaroslavl packed with returning Soviet soldiers, former prisoners of the Germans. They were heroes, they thought. They were wrong. Stalin had decreed that any Soviet soldier who had been captured was a traitor.

YAKOVLEV: Actually, they were being taken to the gulag, all of them. This platform was full of women. Ninety-nine percent women, screaming, shrieking, crying, calling out names. The trains' windows had bars on them. Through them, those tired, unshaven men were throwing out little pieces of paper. They had their names on them. They were hoping someone would pick up the papers and pass on to their loved ones that they were still alive. From the German camps right into ours. Very few survived, very few.

BJARNASON: Those first seeds of doubt were now planted, but he still was a loyal Soviet operator as he rose through the system. Yakovlev ended up working for the Central Committee, a position of enormous clout. He was in the audience in 1956 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin as a criminal. It was a stunning attack on a Soviet founding father and another small step down Yakovlev's road to disillusionment.

YAKOVLEV: I remember feeling a sense of horror. How could this be? Stalin a criminal? Khrushchev was listing fact after fact. This was terrifying. I even thought any second now, once all of us delegates leave, they'll arrest him and ship him to Siberia.

BJARNASON: But at that time, he didn't let his inner doubts get in the way of his career. In 1957, he was one of a handful of KGB approved students let out of Russia to attend a foreign university, Columbia, in fact, in New York City, the very heart of the capitalist world. Yakovlev's early unease stayed with him, but he felt more comfortable in the Khrushchev era. There were fewer people in the gulags and writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were now allowed to publish. Yakovlev's career peaked when he was appointed chief propagandist for the regime. He had enormous authority with the power to destroy careers.

YAKOVLEV: My job was political, to instill the Soviet communist spirit throughout the culture. We controlled newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, religious institutions, books, even sports. I was supposed to watch for political mistakes. Did I ever have to do difficult things? Yes, I did, but there are different ways of doing that kind of work.

BJARNASON: Yakovlev says he used his authority as moderately and as humanely as possible, preserving his job while doing a minimum of harm to people's lives.

REMNICK: You can be sure that he didn't speak up at every moment when he felt that his conscience was pricked. He chose his spots.

BJARNASON: David Remnick's "Lenin's Tomb" is now a virtual textbook on glasnost, perestroika and the collapse of communism. Back in the Soviet era, cautions Remnick, Yakovlev could not have held on to his job if he had been a soft liberal.

REMNICK: Please don't mistake Yakovlev for a dissident. But on the other hand, this, what occurred in the Soviet Union would never have happened had there only been dissidents. There had to also be figures from within the Communist Party who were brave enough to seize the opportunity to change it.

BJARNASON: After Leonid Brezhnev came to power, Russia started backsliding into its old habits. In the '70s, Solzhenitsyn was banned again and exiled. Dissidents were locked up. The KGB got meaner. But the drift backwards was noticed by only a handful of premature anti-Stalinists such as Yakovlev and another comrade on his way up, Mikhail Gorbachev.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: During the Brezhnev years, for all intents and purposes, we returned to neo-Stalinism. It wasn't as severe, but it was a regime where the party had monopoly over everything and not just over external matters, but also over what was happening inside people's minds. You could be arrested for telling a joke.

BJARNASON: Yakovlev grew more convinced that Soviet society was careening towards a dead end, that it would never produce liberty nor prosperity. In his search for ways to open Russia to fresh air, he hit on what was to be his first connection with Canada. In 1972, stick handled the Canada-Russia hockey series through the sceptical Politburo. It was his first big step as a risk taker putting his cozy career on the line.

YAKOVLEV: We needed to prepare psychologically. This preliminary preparation took us about a year. Finally they asked us point blank, do you guarantee victory for us? We responded very carefully, we can't guarantee anything, but according to various sports experts, the games will be competitive. So when our guys did win the first game, all the credit was taken by the nay-sayers.

BJARNASON: Emboldened by the success of his hockey diplomacy, Yakovlev took another gamble. He wrote an article condemning Russian nationalism and anti-semitism. Taboo subjects in the Soviet Union. For this sin, in an earlier era, Yakovlev would have ended his days in the gulag, but in a less brutal USSR, he was merely demoted to a cold faraway diplomatic Siberia.

REMNICK: The best thing that ever happened to Yakovlev was the fact that he spent ten years in what you would call exile. That is to say as the ambassador to Canada. It got him out of the way of having to do things like prosecute writers or write horrible tracts about the United States or Canada or whatever it was. He was doing a diplomatic job.

BJARNASON: During his ten years in Canada, he travelled widely and informally and got to know this country better than any man from Moscow ever had before, and even became friends of Pierre Trudeau.

OLEG KALUGIN: The Canadian experience, I'm sure, played a crucial role in Mr. Yakovlev's future reassessment of Soviet policies.

BJARNASON: An old Soviet classmate of Yakovlev's at Columbia University in the '50s was Oleg Kalugin. He, too, had a meteoric career rising to become a General in the KGB, in charge of counter-espionage and eventually a member of the Yakovlev-Gorbachev Glasnost gang. Now in exile in the US, he says Yakovlev was transformed by his time in Canada.

KOLUGIN: A man, or any person, cannot be impregnated with a revolutionary or other idea unless he has an experience. If he has an experience, because theories are maybe great, tremendous, I mean really overwhelming, and yet you would look at them as theories. But once you get involved, once you have an experience, then theories become realities. They put inside you something which may mushroom into a new world outlook. That's what happened to Mr. Yakovlev.

BJARNASON: Ever hungry for more fresh ideas from the west, Yakovlev again turned to Canada. He was at the centre of a plot to introduce North American capitalism, the Big Mac, into the heartland of communism. To Yakovlev, McDonald's was more than burgers; it was a dynamite symbol of a modern, popular, efficient, consumer-oriented economy, everything Russia was not. His co-conspirator for more than a decade of frustrating negotiations was George Cohon, the head of the Canadian arm of the McDonald's empire.

GEORGE COHON: What better symbol than to allow a company like McDonald's in to show the world that we're open for innovation, for change. He said don't quit. I was just about ready to quit after working all these years, and he's the one that really said to me, sitting in his office in Ottawa, and he was the ambassador, George, the ideology will change, don't quit.

BJARNASON: Yakovlev's experiences outside the Soviet Union were giving him a clearer vision of what was happening inside. As his decade long assignment in Canada was drawing to end in 1983, he was becoming more convinced that the Soviet system, if it was to be saved, needed not reform around the edges, but a fundamental change at its core. Yakovlev had a brainstorm. Bring over the new Soviet agriculture boss. He was a rising young hot shot in the Kremlin called Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a stroke of genius. Eugene Whelan, then Canada's Agriculture Minister, was Gorbachev and Yakovlev's unofficial host and tour guide.

EUGENE WHELAN (Then Minister of Agriculture): We think we had a little bit to do with getting rid of the cold war and changing the Soviet system. We think we did. In Canada.

BJARNASON: At Whelan's home for dinner near Windsor, Ontario, the two Russian dignitaries suddenly asked to be alone, and they wandered off into that historic wheat field, well away from the ears of their KGB escorts.

WHELAN: They were by themselves. My wife give them permission to go and walk in the field behind the house and the KGB and the RCMP come to her and say, where are they at? And she said, I told them to go back, if they want to go for a walk, go for a walk in the back field.

YAKOVLEV: We were alone in the field. Security people, both Canadian and ours, were away on the side, and something just snapped. This happens sometimes. He talked about a situation inside our country, about how everything had to change, and so choking on our words and having completely lost control of ourselves, we agreed that if things continued as they were, it would end up badly. So this was a very serious discussion. Eighty percent of it later became real during the perestroika years.

BJARNASON: So the road to perestroika in a sense began with two men walking through a Canadian wheat field?

YAKOVLEV (laughs): In practical terms, of course, it began in our minds, but the first public display of it took place during that conversation, yes.

GORBACHEV: This was a free country where people lived and worked in the conditions of freedom. People could show initiative, something that in our country was often punished, and it's from that point of view that our conversation with Yakovlev definitely took place, a conversation about the Canadian experience, about using it as an example.

BJARNASON: By 1985, the two were together in Moscow with Gorbachev at the helm and Yakovlev back home as his main advisor. They were determined to use that talk in Eugene Whelan's wheat field as a road map to what would become known as glasnost and perestroika. The idea was to create an open society with normal freedoms, but the Stalinist past got in the way, when we come back.


DAN BJARNASON: The Gorbachev-Yakovlev reforms led to the break-up of the Soviet system and powerful enemies, hardliners in the KGB and the Communist Party saw their monopoly on power vanishing, so they made a grab to get it back. In August, 1991, tanks in the streets of the capital. The plotters staged a coup that quickly fizzled, but in the political chaos that followed, the Soviet Union collapsed and Gorbachev went with it. In the post-coup euphoria, old Soviet symbols were gleefully ripped down, most notably the statue of the founder of the KGB, Felix Dzerzhinsky, torn from his pedestal in front of the KGB headquarters in central Moscow. It was a measure of the rage Russians felt then towards the killers of the secret police. Just where did Felix end up? Not far away.

BJARNASON (on camera): This is the graveyard of fallen monuments, an outdoor art museum in Moscow. It's full of discarded icons tossed out after the collapse of communism, but there are forces at work here trying, symbolically at least, to bring this junk back from the grave.

BJARNASON: Now there are demands in Russia to get Felix back, here on his old pedestal in front of the KGB headquarters. For all their new found freedoms, many find themselves economically far worse off than before, and their plight plays right into the hands of those who yearn for old Soviet days, the Felix fans. Oleg Kalugin knows all too well how dangerous those forces can still be.

KALUGIN (soundup on a bus): In my time, we placed a bug in the United States Congress.

BJARNASON: The former Soviet KGB General, with his spy days behind him, now gives bus tours of his old espionage haunts in Washington. He's been forced into exile here. Back home, he was recently convicted in absentia of treason and sentenced to fifteen years for writing a book on his years as a Soviet spy master.

KALUGIN: First, the veterans of the KGB wrote a letter to Mr. Putin demanding that I am punished. Mr. Putin responding to the masses stated publicly that I was a traitor. Next, a public campaign of vilification goes. The radio and television, newspapers, all filled with articles about my treacherous behaviour, I betrayed this and that and did great damage, and finally the court comes forward in session and the verdict is read. This is a typical Soviet procedure, fully one hundred percent Soviet.

BJARNASON (Russian anthem playing under): And 101 percent Soviet is Stalin's old national anthem. And that stirring music is now back as the new anthem. For Yakovlev, this is the crowning outrage in building a new Russia.

YAKOVLEV: I don't like this new anthem. It's a mistake. We can't live with it. If we recall that under its sounds, awful crimes were committed and millions executed.

BJARNASON: David Remnick says a nostalgia for things past is an attempt to salvage something worthwhile from the country's heritage.

REMNIK: You need to assert Russianness. Now, what is there of the Russian past that can be used? This is a central question in the development of a new culture there. Well, what are we supposed to do when you have a history of a thousand years of autocracy and czarism and then nearly a century of communist brutality? What are you supposed to do? What past are you supposed to rely on?

BJARNASON: That brutal past is the very point of Yakovlev's latest book called "Maelstrom of Memory," a mild title for a red-hot denunciation of a murderous system.

BJARANSON (question to Yakovlev): This is a damning indictment of people here. "We're slaves with pretensions. We're of no use to anyone. We're just ridiculous. We're sick with arrogance, but we lack dignity. We have ceased to be interesting even as a testing ground for terror." What were you meaning there when you wrote that? What were you saying?

YAKOVLEV: Something very simple. We love stepping on the rake, the old rake which comes up and hits you on the head. We love to repeat our mistakes. I'm very worried about confusing our hopes and dreams with reality. We've already had our future, but our past is still ahead of us. It's a warning. If we continue being indifferent, we'll again fall into the slavery in which we've been for the last thousand years, or we'll simply become extinct.

REMNICK: I think he's probably usefully pessimistic. I think if you really had to press him and say does he think there would be an across the board neo-Stalinist repressive movement like the one he lived through, I think if hard pressed to the wall, he would probably say no. But his pessimism and his behaviour now as an old man, as somebody warning about the past, is extremely useful. I mean, to forget it would be the greatest of follies.

BJARNASON: Aleksandr Yakovlev's struggle is to make people care. He warns that indifference to evil is his country's worst enemy. As he takes on what is probably the final mission of his life, he's haunted by ghosts, millions of them. They shriek out from their mass graves "don't forget us, don't let the past become Russia's future." For "The National," I'm Dan Bjarnason in Moscow.

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