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The Soviet Ambassador By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Soviet Ambassador: The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika
By Christopher Shulgan
MacLelland and Stewart, $34.99 (Can.)

Biographies of Soviet politicians are not exactly the literary rage and it is good to see a talented writer like Christopher Shulgan taking on Aleksandr Yakovlev. The former Soviet boss is of interest on his own terms but the story here is the role of Canada in the transformation of Yakovlev from a servile Stalinist to a reformer and architect of perestroika.

The author drew on papers from Yakovlev’s family, a mountain of written material. Armed with a Canada Council grant, Shulgan mastered the material well enough to provide brisk accounts of Yakovlev’s war service, his rise in the Communist Party, and his time at Columbia University in New York. Soviet specialists will want to go over this material with considerable care. The collector’s item here is Yakovlev’s trip to Hollywood as part of a junket of Soviet journalists organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Then 46, the bald, overweight Communist hobnobs with the glitterati at a party hosted by Steve McQueen and Jane Fonda in the Hollywood Hills. “Their heroes were people like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Lenin held a special place in their hearts.” Jane Fonda takes Yakovlev aside and lectures him on the dangers of American militarism. “She criticized Yakovlev’s country for underestimating the full danger of Washington’s yen for provocation.” (Shulgan’s emphasis)

Later, as ambassador to Canada, Yakovlev comes to know the Doukhobors, exiled pacifist Russians living in British Columbia, who protest by disrobing and starting fires. Most of interest is Yakovlev’s friendship with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. From the author’s lively account of Trudeau’s antics, one of the strengths of this book, it is clear that the USSR already had a faithful Canadian ambassador in the dashing Prime Minister.

“Was Trudeau a communist?” Shulgan wonders. It’s an interesting question but the author doesn’t run far with it. The subject was debated around Montreal after Prime Minister Trudeau’s 1952 trip to the USSR, he says, but on this question the author marshals no new archives or anything from Yakovlev’s material. On the other hand, the author is very clear that Trudeau was “nearly alone among leaders of the Western democracies in sympathizing with the Soviet side of the Cold War.”

When Trudeau visited the USSR, Stalin was still at the helm and the author’s account of Yakovlev’s career makes it clear that Stalin was preparing new repressions against “cosmopolitans,” code for Jews. Stalin’s murderous campaigns were already well known through books such as The God That Failed and the reports of Malcolm Muggeridge and others on Stalin’s planned famine in the Ukraine. 

Shulgan doesn’t get to this theme until the end of his book, where he says “Lenin, Stalin, and the system they created are unrivaled in homicidal productivity.” That was the system Trudeau defended, but his pro-Soviet stance is portrayed as though it had little meaning, as if Trudeau had been a supporter of Brazil or New Zealand. Trudeau gets every benefit of the doubt but that disappears when the author turns to the United States.

Here the USA is nothing more than race riots, assassinations, Vietnam, My Lai, and Watergate. Worse, Cold Warriors (upper case his) such as Ronald Reagan run the place. The author believes this is all a failure of American capitalism and American democracy.  It’s an echo of the argument, common in the seventies and eighties, of moral equivalence between East and West. Partisans of this view judge the USSR on its promises, and the USA on its worse cases. The author shows a troubling tendency to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt. When in 1983 they shoot down KAL flight 007, killing 269 passengers including 63 Americans and 10 Canadians, he reserves his indignation for Reagan who “used the incident to justify further buildup of nuclear arms.”

The unreflective anti-Americanism is unworthy of a serious book and detracts from the account of Yakovlev’s political journey. At end, the author says Yakovlev was not the originator of perestroika, and Yakovlev himself said his time at Columbia University put him onto the virtues of democracy. Long before that, Yakovlev surely knew full well what a free election was, and how they worked. One doubts he needed the tour of Canada to know why Canadian farmers outproduce Soviet collective farms.

The Soviet Ambassador includes the predictable charges that the United States has too much influence and is stealing Canadian identity. It doesn’t follow that because the United States is influential that anybody, least of all a prime minister of Canada, should take up the Soviet cause.

Was Trudeau a communist? That question remains as least as interesting as Alesksandr Yakovlev, and much closer to home. Meanwhile, The Soviet Ambassador is evidence that that Christopher Shulgan could write a fine book on the subject if he didn’t let USSR-USA moral symmetry and boilerplate anti-Americanism distract him.

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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