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.
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.
“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