Following the relative thaw of the mid-1950s in the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev, Yakovlev was one of a few Soviet citizens who were allowed to study abroad. During 1958–1959 he attended Columbia University in New York City, where he studied foreign relations.
Returning to the Soviet Union, Yakovlev rose to be head of the CPSU Department of Ideology and Propaganda during 1969–1973. In 1972 he published an article that was critical of both Soviet foreign policy and anti-Semitism. Appointed ambassador to Canada in 1973, he served in that post until 1983. He first met Gorbachev, then a member of the Politburo, when the latter visited Ottawa in the early 1980s. The two men took an immediate liking to each other and had a number of frank conversations concerning the need for reform in the Soviet Union.
When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he appointed Yakovlev head of the Academy of Science Institute of International Relations and the World Economy. In 1987, Gorbachev appointed Yakovlev to the Politburo with special responsibility for ideology and propaganda. Yakovlev became one of Gorbachev's principal advisors, accompanying him on trips abroad and advising him on a wide range of matters.
Yakovlev became perhaps the chief proponent of glasnost. He strongly supported freedom of the press and official recognition of past Soviet crimes. It was Yakovlev who confirmed the secret provisions of the German-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939 concerning the division of Poland and the Baltic states between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Yakovlev favored the introduction of a multiparty system in the Soviet Union. He was much disliked by hard-liners in the Kremlin, and in August 1991 they secured his removal from the Politburo. During the coup attempt a few days later, he strongly supported the democratic movement, which was ultimately successful.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yakovlev wrote and lectured widely. He became the leader of the Party of Russian Social Democracy, and in 2002 he headed the commission that sought to rehabilitate Soviet citizens persecuted during the Stalin era. In 2000, Yakovlev attracted world attention when he announced that the Soviets had murdered Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in 1947. Wallenberg had been working to save the lives of Hungarian Jews during World War II but had disappeared in Budapest following the Soviet occupation.
In his last years, Yakovlev established and headed the International Democracy Foundation. He also lectured and wrote extensively, publishing a number of books. He was strongly critical of President Vladimir Putin's restrictions on democracy. Yakovlev died in Moscow following a protracted illness on 18 October 2005.
Spencer C. Tucker
Gibbs, Joseph. Gorbachev's Glasnost: The Soviet Media in the First Phase of Perestroika. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.; Yakovlev, Alexander N., and Abel G. Aganbegyan. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Translated by Anthony Austin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.; Yakovlev, Alexander N., and Abel G. Aganbegyan. Perestroika, 1989. New York: Scribner, 1989.