Foreword: How do you like your propaganda? Here is a 2013 example of contemporary media manipulation, promoting the official myth that Communism “collapsed”. Its redeeming feature, however, is that it links the Pierre Elliott Trudeau regime with preparations for the merely staged “collapse” of the USSR on the way to western convergence and the “Second October Revolution” as warned of by KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn in his book, The Perestroika Deception. It also ties the family of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, through intimate friendship, to a key Soviet orchestrator of the planned world overthrow.
C A N A D A
How a three-hour conversation at a
Liberal cabinet minister’s home
triggered the collapse of the
ALLAN LEVINE, SPECIAL TO NATIONALPOST | March 17, 2013 9:00 PM ET
How a conversation at a Liberal MP’s home
triggered collapse of the Soviet Union
Sometimes key historic moments occur for the most mundane of reasons.
Thirty years ago, on May 19,1983, Eugene Whelan, the Liberal cabinet minister of the Trudeau era who passed away this February, was late for dinner.
Mind you, this was not just any dinner. Waiting to dine with him at his home in Amherstburg, Ont., near Windsor, was an entourage of dignitaries from the Soviet Union. The two most important guests were Mikhail Gorbachev, then a high-ranking member of the Politburo and the secretary of agriculture and Aleksandr “Sashka” Yakovlev, the Soviet Ambassador to Canada.
As Mr. Whelan’s wife, Liz, made small-talk with the visitors, Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yakovlev decided to take a walk beside the fields of corn and soybeans. The stroll would become “the walk that changed the world,” in the words of journalist Christopher Shulgan, the author of a 2008 book about Mr. Yakovlev.
In an intense and personal conversation that lasted three-hours, the seeds of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), Mr. Gorbachev’s monumental, if only partly successful, policies that ultimately triggered the dissolution of the Soviet Union were planted. Or, at any rate, Mr. Yakovlev confirmed what Mr. Gorbachev, who would become the general secretary of the Communist Party within less than two years, already had been thinking and hearing from other advisors.
Mr. Yakovlev, who died in 2005 at the age of 81, had never wanted a decade-long assignment in Canada. He had grown up during the brutal Stalin era and had been wounded in his left leg as a young soldier at the battle at Leningrad during the Second World War. Once the Soviets had vanquished the Nazis — an event which roused his Soviet patriotism — he became a historian and also dedicated himself to the Communist Party.
In the late fifties, he spent a year as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, which reinforced his negative views of capitalism and American foreign policy. But his time in the U.S. also left him with a more positive impression of freedom and democracy, even if he repressed such thoughts until much later in his life.
Once he returned to Moscow, he soon became the Communist Party’s chief propaganda minister. His intellectual bent, however, got him in trouble with Leonid Brezhnev, the tough and no-nonsense general secretary of the party. In 1972, Mr. Yakovlev wrote an article entitled “Against Antihistoricism” in which he was critical of the idealistic portrayal of Russian peasants and a “backward-glancing nationalism.”
This hard-hitting academic piece rubbed Mr. Brezhnev and his top officials the wrong way and within a year, he was exiled to Ottawa where he was to remain for the next ten years.
In Canada, he took a keen interest in Canadian politics and agrarian issues and befriended both Eugene Whelan, the green Stetson-wearing minister of agriculture, and then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Though Alexandre “Sacha” Trudeau has said he was “named after Yakovlev,” which is noted in a Wikipedia entry, both Mr. Shulgan and historian John English, author of a recent two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau, point out that it was more likely that Margaret Trudeau, at her husband’s suggestion, consulted with Mr. Yakovlev whether “Sacha” could be used as a nickname for Alexandre.
At Mr. Yakovlev’s urging, Mr. Whelan visited the Soviet Union in 1982 — at the time, annual Canadian wheat sales to the U.S.S.R. exceeded $1.5-billion — and met with his counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Naturally, he invited Mr. Gorbachev to visit Canada, which might have been Mr. Yakovlev’s plan all along, setting in motion the celebrated meeting at Mr. Whelan’s home.
In the spring of 1983, with Ronald Reagan in the White House, the Cold War had heated up again. Two months before Mr. Gorbachev’s arrival in Canada, the folksy American president, in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Fla., had declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire.”
Such rhetoric — along with Mr. Reagan’s plans for his “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative and the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles at bases that could target Western Europe and Asia — made Mr. Yakovlev nervous.
“Somewhere between adolescence and the end of his exile [in Ottawa],” writes Mr. Shulgan, “Yakovlev went from Stalin’s acolyte to Stalinism’s nemesis, from zealous communist to enthusiastic endorser of democratic free-market reform.”
Mr. Yakvolev was not one to miss an opportunity, especially with such a rising star like Mr. Gorbachev, who he no doubt hoped might end his exile in Canada. Finding himself alone at the Whelans with Mr. Gorbachev, he decided to go for broke.
Here is how he remembered the moment in a November 1996 interview he gave at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley:
“At first we kind of sniffed around each other and our conversations didn’t touch on serious issues. And then, verily, history plays tricks on one, we had a lot of time together … and, as it often happens, both of us suddenly were just kind of flooded and let go.
I somehow, for some reason, threw caution to the wind and started telling him about what I considered to be utter stupidities in the area of foreign affairs, especially about those SS-20 missiles that were being stationed in Europe and a lot of other things. And he did the same thing.
We were completely frank. He frankly talked about the problems in the internal situation in Russia. He was saying that under these conditions, the conditions of dictatorship and absence of freedom, the country would simply perish.
So it was at that time, during our three-hour conversation, almost as if our heads were knocked together, that we poured it all out and, during that three-hour conversation, we actually came to agreement on all our main points.”
It is curious that in recounting his 1983 visit to Canada, Mr. Gorbachev in his memoirs published a year earlier does not mention the conversation with Mr. Yakovlev, but dwells instead on a stop he and Mr. Whelan made at a large cattle ranch in Alberta.
He found the visit, he recalled, “inspiring” and educational in contrast to what he later referred to as the “decline in economic incentives and inefficient use of resources” in the stagnant Soviet agricultural system.
Nonetheless, Mr. Yakovlev must have said something right. Because two weeks after his chat with Mr. Gorbachev in Amherstburg, he was invited home to take charge of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
As soon as Mr. Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Union, following the death of Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, Mr. Yakovlev became of one of Mr. Gorbachev’s key advisors and worked closely with him in implementing perestroika and glasnost. 1
He even got his old job back as the propaganda minister and became a member of the Politburo. But this time, he fought for as much freedom as the declining totalitarian regime could bear.
Even though Mr. Yakovlev later broke with Mr. Gorbachev and founded the Democratic Reform Movement, quitting the Communist Party, in August 1991, Mr. Gorbachev remembered Mr. Yakovlev’s historical significance at the time of his former advisor’s death.
“We were able to bring the country to the point of no return [with the democratic changes],” Mr. Gorbachev told the New York Times. “And we did that together.”
Hailed, perhaps with some exaggeration, as the “godfather of glasnost,” Mr. Yakovlev died an unhappy man. He saw in Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, a danger to the democratic movement he cherished.
So disillusioned was Mr. Yakovlev that he refused to vote in the 2004 Russian presidential election, which he regarded as a Soviet-style election with the outcome decided in Putin’s favour before the ballots were cast.
Winnipeg historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guide by the Hand of Destiny. His next book, Toronto: A Life and Times, will be published in 2014.
1 For a more realistic view of the Soviet end of these events, see The Perestroika Deception by Anatoliy Golitsyn; extracts mentioning Yakovlov are here.