Among those closest to Mikhail Gorbachev when he was in charge of the Soviet Union (1985-1991) was Alexander Yakovlev. Portrayed as the evil genius behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, he is often cited by Russians as an agent of Western Intelligence, apparently recruited when on exchange in 1958-1959 and studying at Columbia University alongside Oleg Kalugin, a man since known to have been a probationary KGB officer who was later stripped of his rank by Gorbachev and moved to the United States in 1995.
Yakovlev was a war veteran but he also had close relatives, as did many, who had suffered grievously from the bloody collectivisation of agriculture under Stalin that began in 1929. And when he went on exchange Yakovlev spent almost all his time reading in the little library that formed a part of the church hostel down the road from Columbia where he stayed. He soon realised that life in the United States was nothing like the Dickensian image presented by the Soviet régime. He knew that the Soviet Union had to catch up. This was what Khrushchev promised but failed to deliver.
“Catch up”, because although the beneficiary of American generosity, Yakovlev did not take to the United States at all. But he did realise – most certainly after the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964 – that the Soviet Union had to change fundamentally in order to catch up, and that meant democratisation on the Western model. He was, however, both deeply patriotic and profoundly anti-Western. Just as Japan was prepared to learn from the West in terms of technology, it did not mean that the Japanese either liked or wished to adapt to Western culture; so too with Yakovlev.
Interviewed in 2010, Marshal Dmitrii Yazov, former Soviet Defence Minister (1987-1990), who was latterly embroiled in the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, claims that Yakovlev was being cultivated by the KGB when, in 1984, he accompanied the then aspirant Gorbachev to Britain in 1984. Yazov claims Yakovlev met alone with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a dedicated anti-Communist, and that no one knew exactly what they talked about. He claims the KGB were “in shock” but that they let Yakovlev “get away with it.” The insinuation is that somehow he was won over to the other side. A very unlikely proposition. But the least one can say about the US-Soviet cultural exchange is that it did reinforce an intense individualism among some of its Russian participants. In that sense the notion of recruitment by the other side is redundant.
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