Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 119

In an interview with Izvestia, Aleksandr Yakovlev claims that the Soviet secret police sponsored the extreme nationalist movement, Pamyat [Memory], which burst on the political scene when it held a public demonstration in Moscow in 1987. (Izvestia, June 17) As a close associate of Mikhail Gorbachev–his chief ideologist–Yakovlev played a key role in liberalizing Soviet society in the late 1980s. Called “the godfather of glasnost,” he has, throughout his career, warned against the dangers of nationalism. In 1972, an article in which Yakovlev denounced the influence of Russian nationalist writers resulted in his being “exiled” from the USSR for ten years as ambassador to Canada.

In 1987, Yakovlev says in his latest interview, the KGB infiltrated Pamyat, until then a harmless movement made up of art historians and ecologists. Pamyat leadership was taken over by the KGB’s appointee, the virulently racist and anti-Semitic Dmitri Vasilev, who radicalized the movement and brought it to worldwide attention. Yakovlev’s claim is probably true: There have long been rumors that the KGB not only infiltrated Pamyat but also inspired the creation of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s chauvinistic Liberal Democratic Party. But, Yakovlev complains, his warnings about the dangers of nationalism have never been taken seriously. On the eve of the August 1991 coup, Yakovlev says, Gorbachev told him not to “exaggerate.” And, Yakovlev told Izvestia, nationalist extremism is still a serious danger in Russia today.

One reason why people may be inclined not to take Yakovlev seriously, even now, is that, while he complains about KGB infiltration of extremist organizations, he does not mention that he himself in the late 1980s fostered numerous grassroots movements that supported his political goals. He ensured that people of like mind were put in charge of newspapers and magazines and gave them carte blanche to write articles attacking the old order. He is believed to have played an important role in encouraging grassroots movements, including the Popular Front, that spearheaded the independence movements in the Baltic states. While these soon escaped from Moscow’s control, Pamyat never recovered from its takeover. It flourished for only about a year before losing influence. While racism remains a serious problem in Russia today, nationalist sentiment still remains relatively weak, at least by comparison with the dire warnings of many observers a few years ago. Regional identities appear, by contrast, to be strong in a number of places, even growing.