AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Following the rise of Vladimir Putin more than 20 years ago, Russia has once again descended to become a malign force on the global stage after a brief period of hope following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The culmination of this was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fully revealed the depravity of the Russian regime.
As the world rises to meet this challenge, it will take not only courage from the Ukrainian people and other freedom-loving nations to counter the Russian threat, but also individual Russian citizens who dare to expose Putin’s lies. Two examples from the last century, one working from within the Soviet regime and one within the United States, prove just how effective such bravery can be at liberating the oppressed and toppling an evil empire.
Following the Russian revolution and the rise of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union came to embody the very worst of mankind. Stalin’s paranoia led to the torture and imprisonment of tens of thousands, and in the end tens of millions would die under his brutal dictatorship.
Nonetheless, the Soviet propaganda machine had most Russians convinced that Stalin was the savior of Russia, and that the Soviet Union was the enlightened center of the world. One such person born into this climate was Alexander Yakovlev, a peasant who grew up on the banks of the Volga River. Yakovlev served valiantly in the Red Army in World War II, and subsequently rose to become an important figure in the Communist Party.
Thousands of miles away in the United States, another young man, Whittaker Chambers, was born to a working class family in Philadelphia. After a troubled childhood that saw his brother commit suicide at 22, Chambers turned to the Communist Party for a sense of belonging, eventually becoming a Soviet spy.
As distinct as they were, both by their positions and their upbringing, Yakovlev and Chambers ultimately made indispensable contributions to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Chambers, with the pivotal role of being the Soviet underground manager in the United States and Yakovlev as an influential member of the Soviet leadership, shared rare traits of the courageous witnesses of history, a clarity of moral judgment, a quest for higher meaning, and the intrepidity to fight back against the regime.
Both men began to become disillusioned with Soviet-style communism as Stalin commenced his Great Purges in the 1930’s. Millions were sent to work camps in Siberia, many of whom never returned. Following World War II, Yakovlev witnessed prisoners of war shipped off to the camps for the supposed crime of being captured, as their mothers and wives wept on rail platforms. This image never left him, and his faith in the regime began to wane.
Following Nakita Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 exposing Stalin’s crimes, Yakovlev’s break with the regime became complete. In his memoir, Yakovlev’s disdain for the regime was laid bare as he described Soviet communist as a “religion of evil” and “neo-Cainism.” Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler were, he argued, the three greatest criminals of the century. Yakovlev was convinced that Russians must repent, seek forgiveness from the camp’s survivors, kneel at the graves of the innocently killed, and understand that all lived in a criminal state. Only then, he said, will a spiritual breakthrough occur.
Yakovlev slowly began working from within the system to bring about its demise. For his efforts, Yakovlev was eventually effectively exiled to serve as the Soviet ambassador to Canada. But with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, Yakovlev returned to the Soviet Union and was granted a key post in the Central Committee.
From here, he acted as the architect of perestroika and glasnost, pushing Gorbachev to abandon the hardline Communist policies of his predecessors. He published more than 20,000 secret documents and 75 volumes that revealed the criminal nature of the Soviet Union. He led a commission that reviewed and repealed one million sentences, and more than two million victims of the repressions had their good names restored.
It was Yakovlev who convinced Gorbachev to resign and open the possibility of the Soviet Union peacefully dissolving. Though he remained a staunch critic of the United States and Western democracy, Yakovlev nonetheless played a pivotal role in helping the West triumph over the Soviet Union.
In the United States, Chambers began to fear that he might be one of the next victims of Stalin’s purges. In 1939, he decided to take action against the Soviet Union and began exposing the names of Soviet spies in the United States – including one that would become the central character in the “trial of the century,” Alger Hiss, who was at the time a high-ranking official at the State Department.
In 1952, Chambers published a book entitled Witness about his experience, part autobiography and part warning about the dangers of Communism that would go on to great critical acclaim. Soon thereafter he would join William F. Buckley as a senior editor of National Review, becoming an important voice in the fight against Communism.
Today, it will similarly take those working inside and outside of Putin’s regime to bring an end to his reign of terror. Much as Stalin’s Great Purges did more than 80 years ago, Putin’s brutalization of the Ukrainian people has served as a wake-up call for many who were previously sympathetic or at least apathetic to Putin’s cause. Now, the question will be if a few courageous individuals again have the courage to step forward.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.
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