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A. N. Yakovlev, 81; Helped Steer Russia Toward Democracy in Gorbachev Era

October 19, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

Alexander N. Yakovlev, a strong advocate of democracy and human rights who crafted many of the perestroika policies instituted by former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, died Tuesday in Moscow. He was 81.

Hard-liners blamed Yakovlev, the philosopher-ideologist of Gorbachev's reforms, for the Soviet Union's 1991 disintegration and for the defeat of Marxism-Leninism in its global struggle with capitalism.

During the 1990s, he worked to awaken the Russian people to the crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and in recent years he accused Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of rolling back democratic reforms in a drift toward political authoritarianism.

Yakovlev's death, of an unspecified illness, "is a great loss for all those devoted to the cause of democracy and freedom in Russia," Gorbachev said in a statement released in London, where he is on a visit. "He stood by the choice we made together -- in favor of freedom, democracy, human dignity -- to the end of his days. No obstacles, no accusations, succeeded in forcing him to change his position."

Yakovlev was born in a small village of the Yaroslavl region northeast of Moscow, near the Volga River. He fought in the Red Army in World War II and was badly wounded in 1943. He studied history, joined the Communist Party and began rising through its ranks.

Working with Gorbachev, Yakovlev had hoped to help navigate the Kremlin leadership through the huge transformation he felt was necessary to reform socialism as a political and economic system and to hold the Soviet Union together as a state.

But he found Marxism so flawed that he argued the Communist Party leadership must end its political monopoly. After alienating party conservatives, he was finally edged out of Gorbachev's inner circle. He left the party just days before a failed August 1991 coup attempt by a group of hard-line Communists. He quickly joined the country's democracy movement.

Yakovlev had been a party maverick for decades. He first offended party bosses in the 1970s and was exiled to Canada for a decade as the Soviet ambassador. It was there, in the early 1980s, that he and Gorbachev met and discovered they were kindred souls.

Yakovlev later described how he and Gorbachev opened up to each other while in Canada, which Gorbachev was visiting as the Soviet official in charge of agriculture.

"At first we kind of sniffed around each other and our conversations didn't touch on serious issues," he recalled.

But one day, they took a long walk on a farm. "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," Yakovlev said. "And he did the same thing.... 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."

After Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, he promoted Yakovlev to key posts. Yakovlev became a full member of the Politburo in 1987, with responsibility for ideology.

Yakovlev drafted Kremlin policy papers for implementing Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost -- reform and openness -- and played a key role in encouraging media freedom.

"We didn't always agree with each other," Gorbachev said Tuesday. "We argued a lot. But we were united by a common understanding of the necessity of democratic reforms."

Georgy Satarov, a onetime advisor to former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, described Yakovlev as "the mastermind and creator of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s."

"The most important thing about him is that he sought absolutely no gains or profits for himself in trying to build democracy in Russia," said Satarov, now president of a Moscow think tank. "I spoke to him many times recently, and I know how heartbroken he was about the setback the country is experiencing now.... The democracy he had in mind was pure democracy, which just failed here the way he understood it. That was what depressed him most of all."


Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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