How a group of British Columbian anarchists inspired democracy in Russia
It stands as one of the more unusual turning points of the Cold War, thanks mostly to the surprise appearance of several naked middle-aged women. It began with a plasterer named Peter Voykin driving his 1970 Ford Meteor toward the local community centre in Castlegar, in the Kootenay mountains of southeastern British Columbia, on the Saturday before Victoria Day in 1980. As a Doukhobor, a member of a sect of Christian anarchists who settled in the Kootenays after fleeing Russia in the 1890s, Voykin was a vegetarian and a pacifist who championed an ethic of communal living and sharing.
For most of the previous four decades, the Doukhobors had been harassed by a zealous splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, which had mastered several idiosyncratic refinements to the art of the political protest, including placard-and chant-filled parades in which many demonstrated without clothes. To punctuate these naked parades, the Freedomites also employed arson and firebombing, often targeting community centres and homes belonging to the main group of “orthodox” Doukhobors.
The latest issue in this version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud was the Doukhobors’ newly forged ties with Russia, a response to their creeping cultural assimilation after almost a century in Canada. The orthodox group was investigating the possibility of a mass migration to their homeland, and to help establish the necessary ties they had invited the highest-ranking member of the Soviet Union in Canada, Ambassador Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, to Castlegar, to attend the annual youth festival, the highlight of the Doukhobor calendar.
On the Saturday in question, Voykin was driving Yakovlev to the opening of the festival. They were heading for the peninsula where the Kootenay River meets the Columbia, the site of the local community centre, when Voykin spied something he’d hoped not to see: a small group of Freedomite protesters. As soon as they saw the car, they held up signs accusing the orthodox Doukhobors of ties with the kgb. Other placards told Ambassador Yakovlev to go back to Ottawa. Half a dozen of the elder women were stark naked.
It was a potentially disastrous moment during an already troubled time for the Doukhobors. But it turned out Voykin needn’t have worried. The ambassador had long since become immune to political protest. Yakovlev’s encounter with the naked protesters was simply an unconventional beginning to a visit that would, as it turned out, alter the fate of the Soviet Union.
Russia has lurched away from autocracy several times since the 1917 revolution — during Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s, Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and, most famously, the heady perestroika period, which began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s assumption of power in 1985 and concluded with the evaporation of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Given current events in Russia — increasing Kremlin control of the economy, constriction of press freedoms and other civil liberties — perestroika seems today like a charming anachronism, an episode of misguided idealism.
The period remains important, however, because it brought Russia as close as it has ever come to functioning, full-blown democracy. Nearly two decades on, academics have come to realize the integral role played by Gorbachev’s strategic adviser — Yakovlev, who is now referred to as the “architect of perestroika” for his behind-the-scenes influence. The former ambassador to Canada was particularly crucial to the press freedoms known as glasnost, which exposed the corruption and inefficiency of Soviet Russia. David Remnick, the current editor of the New Yorker and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his book Lenin’s Tomb, called him “Gorbachev’s good angel.”
If the West is searching for ways to steer an increasingly autocratic Russia back toward functioning democracy, then Yakovlev’s story is a useful case study. And in that case study, one of the pivotal but least understood periods is the decade he spent in Ottawa. As the author of a biography of Yakovlev, I’d set out to understand the man’s ideological journey from anti-Western autocrat to the most potent force for freedom and democracy ever to walk the halls of the Kremlin. I thought his story might provide hints on how to deal with today’s Russian leaders. But as my book deadline approached, there was one aspect of Yakovlev’s story I failed to understand. In his memoirs, he describes the onset in 1978 of a severe depression that was complicated, as the years passed, by an increasingly rancorous Cold War. Then, suddenly, the funk disappeared.
Yakovlev hints at the cure in a compilation of his perestroika-related writings. The first entry is a twenty-nine-page history he wrote about the Doukhobors, whom he credited with reawakening his pride in his Russian heritage, the first step on his path to perestroika. But he was frustratingly vague about the catalyst for his turn-around. How, exactly, had this shrinking sect of Christian anarchists salved his depression, and set him on that path? To learn the answer, I would have to retrace his path in the Kootenays.
Aleksandr Yakovlev was born in Soviet Russia in 1923, to peasants who raised him in a series of rural villages among the treed hills and valleys near the headwaters of the Volga River. His father was a forester; his mother raised Aleksandr and three daughters while also tending to the family’s garden and livestock.