How Would Yakovlev Advise Putin Today on Ukraine and ISIS?

Richard Pipes, Alexander Yakovlev. The Man Whose Ideas Delivered Russia from Communism. Northern Illinois University Press, 2015

Alexander Yakovlev. The Man Whose Ideas Delivered Russia from Communism is the apt title of Richard Pipes’ study of a man who was to Mikhail Gorbachev what Henry Kissinger was to Richard Nixon. Yet the scope of Yakovlev’s work and achievements were in fact far greater than Kissinger’s, and his role in Russia’s last revolution is to this day wholly unappreciated. Pipes was able to have access to unique documents kept by Yakovlev’s son, Anatoly, as well as Yakovlev’s writings.

What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant and remarkable man, who underwent a slow transformation from enlightened apparatchik to reform Communist to genuine democrat. Aside from his historical significance, Yakovlev also worked for President Boris Yeltsin and briefly for President Vladimir Putin before his death in 2005. And one of the questions we ask here is how would Yakovlev advise Putin on the Ukraine and ISIS today?

Yakovlev’s Double Life

Pipes does an outstanding job of providing Yakovlev’s impoverished peasant background, his youth and military experience in WWII, and his exceptional education. He discusses how Yakovlev began his reassessment of Leninism, particularly after Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin. Sickly in his youth and born to an illiterate mother, Yakovlev nevertheless rose to be the acting head of the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda.

Yakovlev was sent to Prague just after the Soviet invasion to preside over a group of journalists. Within a few days he realized that putting the Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček before a revolutionary tribunal would be a mistake. The decision had to be changed due to the Czech people’s massive passive resistance.

Returning to Moscow after the Czech invasion, he informed Brezhnev that it was “necessary to support Dubček; his program is absolutely normal… He [Brezhnev] understood nothing of the theory of Leninism and I wanted to use his ignorance to say that what Dubček is doing now is absolutely right from the Marxist point of view… At the end of our talk, he said, ‘Thank you very much, Alexander, but I must ask you not to say what you told me to [Prime Minister Alexei] Kosygin.’” Suffice to say Brezhnev confirmed his rivalry with Kosygin, who for a long time questioned the wisdom of intervention.

This exchange should be read with great interest by scholars who have explained the Soviet invasion in terms of Brezhnev Doctrine, like Professor Karen Dawischa and Dr. Mark Kramer, and denied the utility of a modified bureaucratic politics paradigm as a methodological tool in explaining Kremlin decisions.

“I was not a heroic type like Yeltsin,” Yakovlev also confessed to us in September 2000, when we had the unique opportunity to have two hours- long, in-depth discussions with him at his office. Nevertheless, injured as a young man in the WWII defense of Moscow, Yakovlev was a patriotic and courageous man. When we observed him with his large, peasant head and receding hair, visibly limping from one shelf to another looking for the unpublished manuscript he kindly shared with us, it dawned on us that one of the reasons why some of his daring views were tolerated by Brezhnev and company was that his visible leg injury reminded them he was a seriously wounded war veteran.

Politically Incorrect

By 1972, Leninist political correctness ruled. Yakovlev experienced a setback that year. He wrote an article in Literaturnaya gazeta (Literary Gazette), the Party periodical of the literary elite, attacking views which found a voice primarily in two nationalist and reactionary periodicals Molodaia gvardia (Young Guard) and Nash sovremennik (Our Contemporary).

The subjects of his venom were a sort of semi-fascist, mixed salad, upholding patriotism and autocracy, at times anti-Semitic, and indicting pro-Western radical reformers for poisoning the Russian soul. They blamed the Jews for Russia’s misfortunes, and overly praised the virtues of village life.

The unpardonable mistake Yakovlev made was not to check thoroughly with his superiors, before publishing a criticism of Russian nationalist writers and their Politburo sponsors. Ideology tsar Mikhail Suslov was not too displeased with the article but he was under pressure from nationalist icon Mikhail Sholokhov, author of And Quiet Flows the Don, to punish Yakovlev. So Suslov gently purged Yakovlev. He sent him to Canada as Russia’s ambassador.

For a decade thereafter, Yakovlev would learn about the Canadian political system, and also about Canada’s neighbor—America.

Russian Reformer

In Ottawa, having developed a close relationship with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Yakovlev eventually concluded that reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev, the tsar of Soviet agriculture, had the greatest potential to become the next leader of the USSR. Thus, as Pipes posits, he arranged Gorbachev’s visit to Canada.

The visit organized by Yakovlev opened Gorbachev’s horizons about the backwardness of Russia’s agriculture. But there was more. Yakovlev managed to develop an unusually close relationship with Gorbachev. Undoubtedly he hoped that if Gorbachev did become the future leader, he would become his Mikhail Speransky (adviser to Tsar Alexander I).

An opportunity came when Margaret Thatcher considered inviting to London the probable future leader of Russia. Yakovlev took the risk of advising Trudeau it would be Gorbachev. Thatcher acted on Trudeau’s tip. Thereafter she briefed President Reagan: “We can do business with Mr. Gorbachev.” The rest is history!

With the aid of Gorbachev, Yakovlev returned to Moscow as the new head of the primary Soviet think tank, IMEMO. Here he worked tirelessly to bring Gorbachev to the pinnacle of power. His task was not an easy one. Henry Kissinger has been known to say, “If you want a friend in Washington, get yourself a dog.” As some Soviets joked at that time, “In Moscow perhaps two dogs would do it.” Fortunately, Gorbachev initially surrounded himself with a band of intellectual, reform-minded advisers, including Georgi Arbatov, Anatoly Chernyaev, and Evgeny Primakov, who helped to smooth his path to power.

A Soviet Henry Kissinger and Much More

Yakovlev succeeded in his goal to become Gorbachev’s closest adviser, and Pipes is correct concluding that he, not Mikhail Gorbachev or any of his advisors, became the man who most clearly conceptualized and fought for most of the unique ideas behind Russia´s 1985–89 revolution from above. Dozens of Kremlin insiders we interviewed agreed that while Gorbachev deserves credit for embracing and implementing most of Yakovlev´s ideas, Yakovlev was their true architect.

Unlike Kissinger, Yakovlev was not just an adviser on foreign policy; he advised on domestic affairs as well. He actually presided over three brain trusts. In foreign policy, his proposals for opening negotiation and arms reduction with Ronald Reagan, were swiftly adopted under the heading of “new thinking.” For the first time, the Soviet Union became willing to embrace genuine détente with America and openly forgo the idea of world revolution. Yakovlev was also influential in Gorbachev’s secretly ordered retreat from Afghanistan.

On the domestic front, it was Yakovlev who dusted off and employed Alexander II’s concepts of glasnost (easing of censorship) that had been introduced for a brief period in 1968 Czechoslovakia. He also introduced perestroika (the restructuring of politics and economy).

Naturally, these reforms did not sit well with everybody—and Pipes documents the evolution of a man who, while undergoing a slow transformation from Leninist to reform Communist and then to genuine democrat, had to cope not only with the hardcore Communists in the Politburo, but also with a centrist leader who often straddled the fence. The most difficult and least successful innovation was the economic perestroika . It became a Sisyphean task to change the command system into a market one, and the reason why Gorbachev’s revolution from above finally failed by 1989–90.

Far ahead of his time, Yakovlev also proposed in 1985 dividing the Communist Party into two parties—genuine pluralism. That did not happen. Gorbachev rejected it. However, the cat was out of the bag and the concept would emerge again in 1989 with the introduction of a semi-democratic duma, the Congress of the People’s Deputies.

How Yakovlev Supported the Sovereignty of the Baltic Republics

As in Czechoslovakia two decades earlier, Yakovlev in 1988–91 opposed Kremlin military interventions and hard measures towards the radical reformers in the Baltics. It all began as he directed a third brain trust that made him equivalent to America’s chief librarian. He presided over a group of prominent historians involved in the recovering, evaluating, declassifying, and preserving historical secrets of the Soviet empire.

In particular, this historical commission under Yakovlev dealt with Stalin’s past crimes in foreign affairs, above all the secret protocols of the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Never published in the USSR, the protocols divided Eastern Europe up between two monsters.

Unearthed by Yakovlev’s office, the secret protocols allowed Soviet historians and popular fronts in the Baltics to address Stalin’s illegal occupation of these states, and thus provide a path to their sovereignty.

While considering the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it is worthy to remember what key reform-minded Baltic leaders in 1988–1991 explained to us. Their nations would not be independent today, if not for Yakovlev. He actively built alliances with Baltic leaders like Estonia’s Edgar Savisaar and Latvia’s Dainis Ivans, against hardliners like Ligachev and his pro-Kremlin proconsuls in 1988–1990.

Yakovlev subsequently helped to counter the pressures exerted on Gorbachev by the military- industrial-security complex leaders (the future August 1991 putschists) to invade Lithuania. “There’s nothing dangerous going on in the republic,” he told the Politburo. His subsequent comments were unprecedented for any Russian leader:

“Yes, there are complications caused by the fact that the center has dictated much that damaged the development of the republic. Union agencies are overloading Lithuania with industry, which has damaged the ecology. Russians are flooding in, unfortunately not the very best people, and migration to the republic is growing.”

But didn’t any of the fundamentalists have suspicions about Yakovlev besides KGB Chief Vladimir Kriuchkov? Of course they did. Egor Ligachev, who until September 1988 shared with Yakovlev Suslov’s old ideological portfolio, was on to him after he read Yakovlev’s 1972 politically incorrect essay.

Yakovlev’s enemies never forgot his article in Literaturnaya gazeta. OMIT, Like Count Sergei Witte earlier, Yakovlev was accused of being part of a Jewish conspiracy, and in late 1987 the anti-Semitic organization Pamiyat’ warned Gorbachev in a letter, “Stop Yakovlev!”. Finally, the fundamentalists launched what Yakovlev called “a first coup attempt” in early 1988 through the empire-wide publication of a KGB-sponsored letter by a chemistry teacher Nina Andreyeva. Yakovlev managed to convince Gorbachev that the coup was directed against him, and together they defeated it.

Yakovlev and Yeltsin, Helping to Deter Military Intervention in the Baltics

Yakovlev’s ideas, together with those of famed dissident Andrei Sakharov, were eventually adopted by the democratic bulldozer Boris Yeltsin. Hating Gorbachev, who had tossed him out of the Politburo, Yeltsin and his supporters helped to assist the Baltics in deterring a military intervention. Ironically, among Yeltsin-Yakovlev supporters were Leningrad’s new reform-minded leader Anatoly Sobchak and his KGB-turned deputy for economic affairs, Vladimir Putin.

Pipes does not discuss in great depth the Yeltsin-Yakovlev relationship. Yeltsin viewed Yakovlev as the only wise and enlightened figure in Gorbachev’s Politburo. He was disappointed with Yakovlev’s lack of support during his own 1987 purge. (Yakovlev: “I am not a heroic type.”) Yet in 1989, as grassroots revolution emerged in the Russian cities and non-Russian republics, Yakovlev, like other radical reformers, established contact with Yeltsin and his supporters in the non-Russian republics, much to the displeasure of Gorbachev.

KGB Chief Kryuchkov then launched a new campaign to save the Soviet empire. He began to undermine Yakovlev’s relationship with Gorbachev by tendentious intelligence reports about his presumed subversion. This was followed by a breach between Gorbachev and Yakovlev that would never be healed.

Still, Gorbachev asked Yakovlev about the wisdom of a larger intervention in Lithuania in early 1991. Yakovlev replied: “If a single soldier fires a single bullet on the unarmed crowds, Soviet power would be over.” Nevertheless, on January 13, 1991, the Russian military intervened, killing 13 people and injuring hundreds.

After the August 1991 failed coup led by Kryuchkov, Yakovlev, by then expelled from the Communist Party, decisively blamed Gorbachev for the putsch attempt, saying he was guilty of brooking a team of traitors.

Why Henry Kissinger Failed to Sell Yakovlev’s Memoirs

A mystery: why, until Pipes, has there been no full biography of Yakovlev? Pipes has set the record straight, correctly pointing out that Gorbachev, unlike Nixon, kept his Soviet Kissinger in the shadows, taking credit for his ideas. Still, that is not a sufficient explanation. This writer, who read the unpublished memoir Yakovlev kindly lent to us overnight, (Omut Pamiati: Ot Stolypina do Putina [Maelstrom of Memory; From Stolypin to Putin], Vagrius, 2001), recognized it was much more significant than the memoir of any other leader with the exception of Gorbachev.

We subsequently tried to help Yakovlev have his book translated and published in America. At my urging, Henry Kissinger, a remarkably kind man, was interested enough to try to sell the manuscript in 2001 to Simon & Schuster and Norton, but he failed. Why?

Why was Yakovlev forgotten before Pipes’ pioneering effort? With the plethora of biographies of Gorbachev and some of Yeltsin, why, until now, not a single one on Yakovlev? Why do we have a translated memoir of arch conservative Ligachev, with Professor Stephen Cohen’s introduction, but not one of arch reformer Yakovlev?

One answer lies in the ongoing clash with the aging American Russologists, some of whom still idealize the reform Communist Gorbachev. The mere mention of Yeltsin’s name infuriates them. Neither was Gorbachev’s parting with Yakovlev friendly. Gorbachev never forgave Yakovlev that he went to work for his rival, Yeltsin, and our supposition is that neither have America’s aging Russologists. Apologists for Gorbachev still believe it was Yeltsin and Yakovlev who jeopardized Gorbachev’s perestroika. They would have liked the USSR to stay united under a reform Communist. Thus some people like Steve Cohen tried to justify Putin’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine as Gorbachev did.

How Would Yakovlev Advise Putin on the Ukraine and ISIS?

Although Pipes’ book did not deal with these questions, the book provides a framework for answering them.

On April 18, 2014, after the invasion of the Crimea, Gorbachev again tried to justify his actions and hidden support for the 1991 putschists in these words: “In 1991, I was categorically against the break-up of a union state. […] This time [2014] in Crimea, everything happened by the people’s will and at their request. It’s a good thing they chose the path of a referendum and showed that people really want to return back to Russia, and nobody is forcing people there.” [It came on the heels of the little green men.]

Yakovlev, who tried to save Dubček in 1968, and who disagreed with using force in Lithuania in 1991, would surely disagree with Gorbachev’s comments. Undoubtedly supportive of Ukrainian independence, he would have urged Putin to use non-military means to deal with the crisis, and have advocated rapprochement between the two traditionally friendly Slavic nations. Putin would probably not have listened, yet Yakovlev’s vision may survive Putin’s rule.

Almost certainly, Yakovlev would have coached Putin in the direction of forging an alliance with America against the Islamofascists, like the one he and Pipes experienced in WWII against the Nazis. After all, Yakovlev advised Gorbachev to work with America during the first 1991 Gulf War in response to the bloody former Soviet client Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Pipes’ conclusions written a year ago do not deal with these issues. Nevertheless, his biography of a unique and unheralded character of the 20th century makes it one of the books worth reading in the 21st. It opens a significant portal to many more golden nuggets to be mined in further studies of Soviet and Russian history. Indeed, the figure of Yakovlev ensures a new evaluation of Russia’s last revolution.

Jiri Valenta with Leni Friedman Valenta


Jiri Valenta is the president of the Institute of Post-Communist Studies. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of many books. His book, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia 1968, Anatomy of a Decision, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1991 (last edition), was published in English, Russian, Chinese and Czech. The latest edition has a preface by Alexander Dubcek.

Leni Friedman Valenta is CEO, editor and co-writer of the institute’s website and is a play writing graduate of the Yale School of Drama.

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