“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 and Nixon and China
“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 US, and author of The Washington Diaries
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. His name was Aleksandr Yakovlev, a once-devout Stalinist who grew to become the most potent force for democracy and justice ever to walk the halls of the Kremlin.
Today in an increasingly autocratic Russia Yakovlev is 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.
“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.
“Fascinating . . . Shulgan portrays Yakovlev as one of the most controversial and compelling characters in modern Russian history. . .Shulgan manages to present the complex reality of the Soviet society without falling into the trap of seeing it only through the simplistic lenses of Cold War anti-Soviet propaganda.”
–The Montreal Gazette
“Toronto journalist Christopher Shulgan’s The Soviet Ambassador is a compelling and detailed account of the life and ideological development of Alexander Yakovlev, the man thought to be a key figure in shaping Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost.”
–Quill & Quire
“Shulgan does a good job piecing together Yakovlev’s role in the [Soviet Union’s] earth-shattering changes–from interviews with family, friends and previously secret archives, and Yakovlev’s own writing. . . –and Canada’s role in helping him shape his ideas.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“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
McClelland & Stewart, Canada, June 11, 2008
Shortlisted for the BC National Award for Non-Fiction