Few realize that behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s Cold War-ending perestroika reforms stood an owlish figure who was just as important as the Soviet leader himself. Fewer still know the role Canada played in transforming Gorbachev’s advisor from a devout Stalinist to the most potent force for democracy and justice ever to walk the halls of the Kremlin.
His name was Aleksandr Yakovlev. Today in an increasingly autocratic Russia he’s reviled as the man who brought down the Soviet empire–the "architect" of perestroika and the "godfather" of glasnost, who, some say, was the puppetmaster manipulating Gorbachev’s strings. Yakovlev is acknowledged to have devised the strategy that won Gorbachev the job of Soviet leader. After the Soviet collapse, Yakovlev was the only other man present as Gorbachev negotiated his transfer of power to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. In between, Yakovlev was behind every democratic measure Gorbachev instituted, leading the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Remnick to dub him "Gorbachev’s good angel."
His origins were anything but democratic. As a youth, Yakovlev was a faithful Communist who idolized Stalin. By 1970 he had ascended to a position that controlled every media outlet in the Soviet Union, requiring him to plot repressive strategies against such dissidents as Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov But then a mis-step caused the Party to banish him from Moscow. A disgraced Yakovlev landed in the Cold War backwater of Ottawa working as the Soviet ambassador to Canada. His career should have been over. But Yakovlev’s diplomatic posting functioned as an education in Western democracy. He grew fascinated with elections, attended trials and became an expert in the machinations of a market economy. He also developed a close friendship with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who helped arrange to bring Mikhail Gorbachev on his first visit to North America. It was in Canada that Gorbachev and Yakovlev struck up their friendship as they strategized for the first time the radical changes known as perestroika.
Drawing on interviews with Yakovlev’s family and dozens of his friends, as well as never-before-disclosed archival research material, The Soviet Ambassador recounts Yakovlev’s tortuous evolution from Stalin’s acolyte to Stalinism’s nemesis, from faithful member of the Communist Party to liberal democrat engineering the same Party’s collapse. With profound implications for diplomacy in a conflict-driven age, Yakovlev’s story is also a remarkable testament to the power of conviction, and an inspiring account of an underdog overcoming injustice to improve the lives of his fellow citizens.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Midway through that first Canadian winter, just as all these anxieties were becoming unbearable, the Yakovlevs heard from Moscow the news that Leonid Brezhnev was coming to Canada.
For about 90 minutes each time.
The Soviet leader was flying to Cuba to meet with Castro. Midway between Moscow and Havana, he and his entourage planned to make a refuelling stop in Newfoundland, at the Gander airfield on the province’s frigid northeastern shore. Despite the short duration of Brezhnev’s stopover, protocol dictated the Soviet ambassador welcome the leader upon his arrival.
Yakovlev didn’t know what to expect. His exile to Ottawa happened with Brezhnev’s assent. Would it be awkward, this meeting between the leader and the man he’d condemned to this ignominious exile? How would Brezhnev act toward Yakovlev? Would he be reserved?
Merely polite? Or would he be his usual overbearing and effusive self? Perhaps Brezhnev would provide Yakovlev with an explanation for the reassignment, an indication of how long his exile might last. Perhaps Brezhnev might even ask him to return to Moscow. It was all a mistake, he might say. We need you. Why not? Stranger things had happened in the Politburo.
Preparing for the visit was a nightmare. Yakovlev begged Canada’s External Affairs department to arrange for some high-ranking member of the Canadian government to receive Brezhnev. Then he heard that the embassy’s ranking KGB officer had picked up worrying intelligence about a terrorist group of anti-Castro Cubans, a group called Alfa 66, who were said to have assigned a sniper and a cell of support operatives to attempt to assassinate Brezhnev in Newfoundland. Yakovlev’s staff passed on the rumour to the Canadians, who took it seriously. The Canadians were still smarting from a diplomatic disaster that happened during the visit of another Politburo member, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, in 1971, after Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took Kosygin on an impromptu and under-secured walk across Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. A Ukrainian immigrant recognized Kosygin and, approaching from behind, leapt on the Soviet premier’s back and rode him, piggyback-style, for several moments before police were able to pull off the man. With Yakovlev already on shaky ground, any similar mishap would be costly to his career.
Brezhnev was scheduled to arrive on his first refuelling stop on Monday, January 28, 1974. The day before, Yakovlev schlepped out to the North Atlantic shore along with several other Soviet embassy staffers. The contingent also included diplomats from Canada’s Department of External Affairs and the Cuban ambassador to Canada. Monday morning dawned in a blizzard that was still raging as the first of the retinue’s four planes, a Soviet-made IL-62, landed at Gander at 9:15 a.m. Everyone braced for the leader, but the most senior member on this flight was Brezhnev’s translator. There was some question whether the remaining planes would be able to land amid the blowing snow. As Brezhnev’s plane, another IL-62, descended, visibility was poor. Wind whipped the runway. The atmosphere in the airport verged on panic. The Aeroflot representative was swearing at the KGB representative;
Aeroflot’s rep said the KGB was forcing the plane to land on the wrong runway, one that hadn’t been cleared of snow. In his memoirs Yakovlev floats the possibility that the KGB’s act was deliberate. He wondered whether the agency was attempting to stage a fatal accident in such a way that the West, or at least Canada, would receive the blame for Brezhnev’s death. The danger would have been apparent to Yakovlev. Yakovlev’s career rested on this encounter proceeding smoothly. Stakes were much higher than that, however. If Brezhnev died in a plane crash, the conspiracy-obsessed Soviets were certain to rail about the accident resulting from some nefarious plot of the West. With both sides aiming nuclear missiles at each other, such an accident could trigger events far more serious than the loss of Yakovlev’s job.
Then a power surge knocked out all the radio channels but one between the plane and the control tower. Yakovlev’s Soviet associates reported ice on the runway.
The plane’s wheels touched the runway. The pilots braked. The wheels skidded, then caught.
Brezhnev was safe.
From the Hardcover edition.
Christopher Shulgan’s heavily-reported feature writing has won him numerous honours, most recently a National Magazine Award in 2007 in the category of politics and public policy. A former writer-at-large for Toro magazine, he is a frequent contributor to such Canadian media as The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, He was educated at Queen’s University and Northwestern University, and lives in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
“This lively and well-researched book provides fresh insight into the role played by Ambassador Yakovlev and his Canadian friends in opening the minds of Soviet leaders and getting them to try reforming their system. A fun and informative read!”
— Peter H. Solomon, Jr. Professor, Munk Centre, University of Toronto
“A fascinating story of why even insiders lost faith in the Soviet system—and how Canada played its part. Christopher Shulgan illuminates the key friendship between Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador in Ottawa, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and shows how it contributed to the huge changes in Russia in the 1980s.”
— Margaret MacMillan author of Paris 1919
"Peasant, war hero, Communist party apparatchik, eminence grise of Mikhail Gorbachev—Aleksandr Yakovlev well deserves a biography. The extra virtue of Christopher Shulgan's lively, well written book is that it focuses on Canada where, during his decade as Soviet ambassador, Yakovlev developed many of the ideas that helped Gorbachev change his country and the world."
— William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Amherst College, and 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning author of KHRUSHCHEV: The Man and His Era
"Shulgan presents the complexities of Soviet society without falling into the trap of seeing it only through the simplistic lenses of Cold War anti-Soviet propaganda."
— National Post
"Compelling and detailed. . . . The Soviet Ambassador provides a unique glimpse into the world of the Soviet Union's political elite and Canadian-Soviet relations during the Trudeau years."
— Quill & Quire
"A gripping story of historical significance. The author persuasively traces Yakovlev's enormous role in the implosion of the Soviet Union to the Ambassador's seminal exposure to Canadian democracy at work."
— Allan Gotlieb, former Canadian Ambassador to the United States, and author of The Washington Diaries
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel