Alexander Yakovlev Shed Light on Dark Places

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Alexander Yakovlev, who advised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on glasnost and perestroika, was buried this week. After the Soviet Union collapsed he devoted himself to documenting Soviet repression.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The trial of Saddam Hussein has been compared to the trials of other deposed leaders, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and wartime officials of Nazi Germany and Japan. The collapse of dictatorship is not always followed by a national reckoning. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was never held to account, nor were his successors, but one Russian, a former high-level Communist official himself, fought to the end of his life to catalogue the regime's crimes against humanity. That man, Alexander Yakovlev, died this past Tuesday of a heart attack at his home in Moscow.

Yakovlev was the brain behind Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. As a member of the Communist Party's inner circle, he devised the twin strategies of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, restructuring. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Yakovlev dedicated himself to opening its archives. He bulldozed his way through traditional Russian secrecy to extract documents on those who had been imprisoned, executed or starved to death by Lenin and Stalin. With those records, he helped restore the good name of more than four million Soviet citizens. Here's what Yakovlev told NPR about his work back in 2001.

(Soundbite from 2001)

Mr. ALEXANDER YAKOVLEV: (Through Translator) There is nothing more convincing than documents. We can express an opinion, agree with it or not, but a document is a document, objective reality. There is nothing to argue about.

ELLIOTT: An American researcher who's also interested in those documents is Mark Kramer, director of Cold War Studies at Harvard. The last time he met with Yakovlev in June, the Russian crusader spoke of his deep sense of awe for the task before him.

Mr. MARK KRAMER (Harvard University): Yakovlev at that point in referring to some of the documents he was looking at about the crimes of the Stalin years said, `Very often when you read these documents, you become scared, but I become even more scared when I think there are tens of millions of people in this country'--meaning Russia--`who are absolutely indifferent to this information.'

Mr. YAKOVLEV: (Through Translator) All the time there was war, war, war and we grew accustomed to this. Sometimes it's paradoxical. Our Russian nation suddenly gets upset about the death of one person at the hands of the authorities, holds public rallies. This is the right thing to do because we must cherish the life of every person, but when hundreds of millions die, people just shrug and say, `Well, you know, it's war. What can you do? It's famine.'

ELLIOTT: Yakovlev himself served in World War II, and after being wounded, rose through the Communist Party ranks to become ideology chief. By the time Gorbachev came to power, Yakovlev was having serious doubts about the Soviet system. He had spent 10 years as an ambassador to Canada and was convinced of the need to break with the past. In his NPR interview, Yakovlev reflected on his own and his fellow citizens' personal responsibility.

Mr. YAKOVLEV: (Through Translator) It's necessary to repent. Otherwise this sense of impunity will continue. Sometimes people say to me, `Why should I apologize? I didn't inform on anyone.' `But you took part in all this.' `But I didn't go to rallies,' they say. `I didn't applaud,' but millions of people did applaud. No one is saying that people should go to some place and kneel down and prostrate themselves. No. But you have to tell people and deep in your own soul you have to repent.

ELLIOTT: Mark Kramer of Harvard says there's no one now to fill Yakovlev's shoes, no one with his stature or passion for examining the darker side of Russia's modern history.

Mr. KRAMER: He wanted democracy to succeed in Russia. He believed that coming to terms with the past was a crucial part of that.

ELLIOTT: The new Russian leadership, headed by a former KGB man, doesn't seem very eager to come to terms with the past. In recent years, Yakovlev found it harder and harder to gain access to Soviet-era archives, and the Kremlin denied him burial in the Moscow cemetery where Russian national heroes are often laid to rest. President Vladimir Putin did not attend yesterday's funeral service, but sent an administrative aide with a wreath.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Alexander Yakovlev died Tuesday. He was 81 years old.

(Soundbite of music)

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