The Censor Who Ended the Soviet Union
After learning the truth about Stalin in 1956, Soviet propagandist Alexander Yakovlev became disillusioned with the communist project. Decades later, he helped end it.
Everyone has heard of Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR’s last general secretary, but few have heard of Alexander Yakovlev, his right-hand man and one of the primary architects of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Published by yours truly, the story of Yakovlev’s life gives an inside look into the highest levels of a famously closed society. Most perspectives from the Soviet Union we hear of came from those who experienced its repressive elements, for many people did. But it’s less common to hear the details from the other end—how professional censors perceived, sculpted, and manipulated the media space they were in charge of running. Yakovlev’s career is an enduring lesson in media power and “perception management.”
During the Khrushchev era, Alexander Yakovlev worked for the Department of Agitation and Propaganda, and he was tasked with monitoring TV broadcasts and printed publications. Compared to Stalin’s time, great affordances were made for dissident opinions in the press, and carefully crafting a discourse-space was part of Yakovlev’s job.
The reason for this is that a carefully-controlled opposition is useful for serving as a “release valve,” preventing dissidents from getting involved in more radical activities, and their criticisms help those in power gauge their public support. This would be the role that the Russian Communist Party plays today—while it is allowed to sit in the state parliament, it does not pose a structural threat to the system. Instead, it serves as a vehicle for criticism and complaints to filter their way up the bureaucratic structure.
While Russian nationalists, westernizing liberals, and Stalinists were allowed to voice criticisms of Soviet society, this critique was only permitted using the linguistic norms of the Soviet bureaucracy. Yakovlev’s own 1972 article “Against Anti-Historicism” was a prime example of this, even though its aggressive polemics resulted in him losing his job:
One such infection appears in reflections about the non-class “national spirit,” “national feeling,” “national folk character,” “the call of native unity,” which appear in some articles marked by an objectivist approach to the past. Their striking peculiarity is the detachment of present-day social practice from those historical changes that occurred in our country during the years that followed the Great October; the disregard or incomprehension of that decisive fact that in our country there has emerged a new historical community of people—the Soviet nation. The authors of these articles virtually avoid such words and concepts as “soviet,” “socialist,” “kolkhoz.”…It is as if there exists or can exist in our country some kind of national character outside the decisive influence of the revolution…outside the cultural and scientific-technical revolution, outside the basic social constants of time!
The trends and rhythms of Soviet' intellectual discourse blended into the political sphere. While this excerpt and the rest of Yakovlev’s essay are written in flawless party jargon, its subtext—a direct attack on the Stalinists that the liberal Yakovlev thought were gaining the upper hand in party politics—landed him in trouble with higher ups. After all, the ideological standards that official propagandists like Yakovlev were held to was higher than the average letter-to-the-editor author.
Alexander Yakovlev was removed from his post and made the Soviet ambassador to Canada. The years passed. He observed the Canadian political process and befriended Pierre Trudeau. While absent from the halls of power in the Kremlin, his reputation in liberal circles back in Moscow remained strong. But the opportunity to return home emerged when Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of a now-geriatric Politburo, paid him a visit in 1983:
At first we kind of sniffed around each other and our conversations didn’t touch on serious issues. And then, verily, history plays tricks on one…we took a long walk…and, as it often happens, both of us suddenly were just kind of flooded and let go. I somehow, for some reason, threw caution to the wind and started telling him about what I considered to be utter stupidities in the area of foreign affairs, especially about those SS-20 missiles that were being stationed in Europe and a lot of other things. And he did the same thing. We were completely frank. He frankly talked about the problems in the internal situation in Russia. He was saying that under these conditions, the conditions of dictatorship and absence of freedom, the country would simply perish. So it was at that time, during our three-hour conversation, almost as if our heads were knocked together, that we poured it all out and during that three-hour conversation we actually came to agreement on all our main points.
When Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985, Yakovlev was right by his side, implementing the reforms of perestroika and glasnost. He fired the editors-in-chief of publications that weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about reforms, and instead staffed them with ideological allies who now owed Yakovlev their career.
But the liberals Yakovlev enfranchised through media power were also of the belief that the Communist Party had no legitimacy to rule. And Yakovlev himself was uncovering archival documents that damaged the party’s moral authority—such as evidence that the Soviet Union had committed the Katyn massacre in 1940.
Concerned mainly with Gorbachev’s media image, Yakovlev and Gorbachev entertained foreign guests and were showered with praise when they went abroad. At home, great care was paid to make sure that the opening up of society through perestroika and glasnost was not seriously challenged in the press, and entire sessions of the Politburo were held to address responses to critical articles. Meanwhile, the economic situation continued to deteriorate:
The entrenched bureaucracy of the Soviet Union made serious gaffes in response to these crises. For example, in an attempt to curtail the growing black market economy, a new ban was instated on the broad category of “unearned income.” This often extended to privately cultivated foodstuffs, so greenhouses, gardens, and street market stalls were seized and destroyed even while the shelves of state-run grocery stores remained empty. One Literaturnaya Gazeta article, “The Criminal Tomato,” solemnly explained these actions as a decision reached by the “commission for the struggle against negative phenomena.”
With the Soviet media now hostile to the state and the economy suffering from over a decade of stagnation, nationalists in minority republics and Stalinists within the army and KGB were incensed. While Yakovlev did not endorse secessionist nationalists, he wasn’t particularly troubled by the fate of the Soviet Union either. After visiting Latvia when it was on the brink of secession, Yakovlev reported to the Politburo that “normal procedures of perestroika” that would soon blow over.
Instead, the Baltic states seceded and the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. Yakovlev. You can read about how Yakovlev came to not mind that ending here.
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The transition from premodern civilization to modernity was made possible by energy: the Industrial Revolution was first and foremost an energy revolution. In 1770, one coal mine produced the same amount of energy that could be harvested from a 5,500 hectare forest, enabling new economies of scale that would drive urbanization, social reorganization, and technological change.
Benjamin Leopardo writes that a revolution of similar size is just within our grasp—but there are hurdles to utilizing the new energy form to get us there. Nuclear energy has been commercially available for seventy years, but it remains only a fraction of the U.S. and world’s electrical output. Why is this the case?
“Bad science, bad incentives, and bad ideology” seem to be the answer.
The proximate cause of much of the anti-nuclear turn since the 1970s seems to be a misunderstanding of radiation. The most commonly-used model for understanding around the way radiation affects the body is called the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model that assumes that 1) radiation in any amount damages the body and 2) it accumulates in the body over a lifetime, and so even a low dose over a prolonged period is harmful.
However, the scientific basis for this model is questionable.
Initially conceived of as a possible mechanism for inducing mutation, the first supposed experimental evidence for this model appeared in 1927, when the geneticist Hermann Müller bombarded fruit flies with radiation. He then measured transgenerational phenotypic changes at various dose rates, the lowest of which was nearly a hundred million times higher than the background rate. Unfortunately, his data was not included in his 1927 Science publication, and even the 1928 Genetics Conference proceedings paper did not include a control group or discuss his methods. More consequentially, Müller linearly extrapolated the dose response from the lowest dose given to zero. Despite the thin justification for his findings, he was given a Nobel Prize.
Another problem is that developers and regulatory agencies tasked with maintaining the safety standards of nuclear power plants are actually incentivized to constantly introduce new regulations. Many advisory boards are even staffed by nuclear skeptics:
The regulatory environment also included the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by this time, established under the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. Its predecessor organization, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), had been tasked with promoting and regulating the use of nuclear energy in the United States. The NRC, on the other hand, was tasked solely with regulating the technology, as the dual mandate of the AEC was thought to be a conflict of interest. By 1978, nuclear developers had little prospect of selling any more plants to utility companies. Years of increasing costs had slowed down consumer demand significantly, dampening the utilities’ enthusiasm for expanding asset bases. As such, orders for new nuclear plants dropped to zero in that year.
The new regulatory framework still created a very profitable niche into which nuclear power plant developers could step. This consisted of selling equipment and services, generally mandated by new regulations, to utilities operating existing nuclear plants. Without the countervailing mandate to promote nuclear power, the NRC would prove indifferent to whether new regulations were conducive to the flourishing of the technology. Without the prospect of selling new plants, the developers could grow their bottom line only by maximizing the expenditure necessary to maintain existing plants. This cocktail of incentives made it impossible for nuclear power to regain momentum, even once inflation, so important in governing utility behavior, had been tamed. By the time of the 1978 Three Mile Island accident, there were no serious commercial or political interests defending the expansion of nuclear power—including the industry’s own developers.
The linear no-threshold model is still considered the gold standard for regulators. As recently as 2015, a group of scientists filed a petition to the NRC, requesting that the LNT model be replaced with a more data-informed model. It was rejected. In their response, the NRC tacitly admits that it has little concern for the possibility of overregulation, claiming that the model meets their mandate of “adequate protection.” Also disconcerting is that the NRC’s response repeatedly leans on the recommendations of other regulatory bodies and NGOs to deflect any responsibility for using an unsubstantiated model. The NRC asserts that it should use LNT because the International Council on Radiation Protection (ICRP) uses and recommends it. ICRP also has the fortune of passing the buck. Their website informs us that their recommendations stem from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) publications. UNSCEAR, being part of the U.N., is composed of representatives from dozens of countries. The U.S. delegate is an employee of the NRC. The pattern is similar for other countries. Hence, UNSCEAR is largely composed of representatives from bodies it advises, or the advisees of those bodies in turn. Tracking the chain of recommendations back to the source reveals that its links form a circle.
Sometimes, limiting the economic benefits of nuclear energy was the point. During the 1970s, environmentalists were influenced by concepts that stressed human overpopulation and overproduction. “Degrowth” environmentalism saw the economic potentials of nuclear energy as a problem, and because this was not something that could serve as a public argument against nuclear energy, concerns over safety and weapons proliferation were raised instead:
We know this because activists had a proclivity for saying so when they believed they were speaking to a sympathetic audience. “Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation…and add to the cost of the industry,” declared then-Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael McCloskey in 1974. In an even more candid admission about the nature of the group’s strategy, another Sierra Club employee named Martin Litton opined “I really didn’t care [about possible nuclear accidents] because there are too many people anyway…I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end is fine.”
Throughout the 1970s, lawsuits, protests, and an increasingly onerous regulatory environment dogged efforts to build nuclear plants across the country. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969, made lawsuits easy to deploy as a weapon against large infrastructure projects, turning nuclear power plants into prime targets. In 1970, section 309 of the Clean Air Act looped the EPA into the nuclear plant licensing process via review of the environmental impact statement. The 1971 Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee, Inc. v. Atomic Energy Commission decision, which held that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was obliged by NEPA to consider the environmental impacts of a nuclear plant irrespective of whether a challenge had been issued to it, led the AEC to suspend all licensing of new plants while it revised the process to comply with the new ruling.
The ruling would leave the success of nuclear power vastly more dependent on the cooperation of the EPA, which counted many anti-nuclear personnel among its ranks. Less than a year after leaving his position as head of the EPA from 1973 to 1977, Russell E. Train advertised his support for “the phasing out and eventual elimination of nuclear power” which had “not been expressed while he served in former President Ford’s cabinet.” Given the intellectual climate that prevailed in the environmental movement, it would be naïve to assume that Train’s views spontaneously generated upon leaving the EPA or that these views were exceptional within the institution.
These efforts to minimize the use of nuclear energy were largely successful for a time, but efforts to recover the Atomic Age are underway. Read Leopardo’s article here to learn the rest of the story.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
The Censor Who Ended the Soviet Union by Alexander Gelland. After learning the truth about Stalin in 1956, Soviet propagandist Alexander Yakovlev became disillusioned with the communist project. Decades later, he helped end it.
How America Lost the Atomic Age by Benjamin Leopardo. Seventy years ago, nuclear power was poised to launch us into an energy-rich future. Why didn’t that happen?
Vietnam’s Red Napoleon by Avetis Muradyan. The early years of Vietnam’s legendary general Võ Nguyên Giáp show the power of a competent lieutenant working in close trust with a sovereign leader.
“Opportunity Is Always Out There” With Simon Mann. Simon Mann discusses his experiences as a mercenary intervening in the Angolan civil war, getting involved in a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, and his time in some of Africa’s worst prisons.
Ilham Aliyev and the Making of Azerbaijan by Fin Depencier. Ilham Aliyev turned Azerbaijan from a Russian vassal into a pro-Western petrostate. Now, a new Turkish alliance and military victories against Armenia are revealing his ambitions for regional power.
That’s all for now.