Moscow Alexander Yakovlev, a onetime Soviet ambassador to Canada and a key architect of former president Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms that shook the last years of the Soviet Union, died Tuesday, according to a foundation he headed. He was 81.
Mr. Yakovlev died at his home in Moscow of an unspecified illness, said Oleg Pivovarov, a spokesman for Mr. Yakovlev's International Democracy Foundation.
He suffered from high blood pressure and earlier in the day had visited the Kremlin Clinical Hospital, Pivovarov said.
Mr. Yakovlev, who joined the Soviet Communist party's governing Politburo in the mid-1980s, was known as the “godfather of glasnost” for spearheading Mr. Gorbachev's policy of openness that gradually lifted the heavy hand of the state off the new media and individual speech.
That program, and perestroika (restructuring), were keys to Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to liberalize society and expose past excesses of the Soviet administration.
Some believe those reforms set in motion the process that led to the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991.
“He made an enormous contribution to the democratic processes and the transformation of the country,” said Mr. Gorbachev, who was on a trip to London, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Mr. Yakovlev, born in the village of Korolyovo in the Volga River's Yaroslavl region, fought in the Red Army in the Second World War and was badly wounded in 1943. He graduated from the history faculty of Yaroslavl University and became a Communist party apparatchik.
He rose through the ranks, but after a falling out with other members of the party leadership was sent to Canada, where he served as Soviet ambassador from 1973 to 1983. It was there that he had a fateful first meeting with Mr. Gorbachev in 1982, when the future leader was on a visit as a representative of the Politburo.
It was an electric encounter of like-minded men, he recalled in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press.
“We were in an open field waiting for the arrival of an official,” Mr. Yakovlev reminisced. “We discussed everything, we interrupted each other and said ‘that thing must be changed, and that one's intolerable ... everything's intolerable.' ”
After Mr. Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, he quickly named Mr. Yakovlev to key party posts. In 1987, he became the full member of the Politburo in charge of ideology.
As a senior adviser to Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Yakovlev played a key role in encouraging media freedom. He fended off attacks from a die-hard wing of the Communist party that fumed at news reports exposing Soviet leader Josef Stalin's purges and other heavy handed tactics by party officials.
Mr. Yakovlev also initiated the exposure of a 1939 Soviet secret pact with Nazi Germany that paved the way for the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
He also actively contributed to Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika reforms that gradually narrowed the Communist party's role and encouraged the development of nascent liberal parties.
“Yakovlev played a pivotal role in perestroika,” Eduard Shevardnadze, Mr. Gorbachev's foreign minister and the former president of Georgia, told AP. “He was a remarkable, greatly educated man. He was a close friend, and I'm feeling a great pain.”
Mr. Yakovlev said in the AP interview that his efforts often brought disappointing results.
“I thought it would be enough to say ‘Look people, you are free.' But intellectuals raised their heads, then started whining – and everybody else did not give a damn,” he said.
Mr. Yakovlev could also be brutally honest about his old boss.
Shortly after a failed coup attempt by a group of hardline Communists who wanted to oust Mr. Gorbachev, he blamed the Soviet leader himself for bringing the plotters into his inner circle.
Mr. Gorbachev was “guilty of forming a team of traitors. Why did he surround himself with people capable of treason?”
“We often argued but always understood each other,” Mr. Gorbachev said Tuesday of Yakovlev, ITAR-Tass reported.
The failed coup hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. After its demise, Mr. Yakovlev became head of then-president Boris Yeltsin's commission for rehabilitation of victims of Soviet political repression. In that role, he remained a key figure in publicizing Soviet-era abuses.
In 2000, he attracted world attention by contending that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg had been shot to death in the Soviet secret police headquarters building in 1947. Mr. Wallenberg helped save thousands of Jews in Hungary in the waning months of the Second World War but disappeared after Hungary was occupied by the Red Army.
Mr. Yakovlev later established the International Democracy Foundation, which he led until his death.