Farmer-politician nurtured seeds of Russian democracy
Straight-talking minister befriended Gorbachev when U.S. turned its back, GRACE MACALUSO writes from Windsor.
With her husband, Eugene, delayed in Ottawa, it was left to Liz Whelan to welcome the Soviet visitors, who, along with a watchful contingent of RCMP and KGB security, had arrived at the couple’s Amherstburg, Ont., home.
“Gene was held up and would show up a few hours later,” she recalls of the May 19, 1983, dinner party that numbered 50 guests, including Soviet Ambassador Aleksandr Yakovlev and Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev.
As the two men chatted with their hostess, they indicated their desire to speak privately. “I said, ‘Sure, you can go out in the backyard. Nobody will bother you.’”
It would be the first time the pair could speak freely — out of earshot of security officials who had dogged Mr. Gorbachev during his inaugural visit to North America.
As the two strolled along a laneway that bordered fertile fields, Mr. Gorbachev, then secretary of agriculture, remarked on how much more productive Canadian farming was compared to the Soviet system.
“We’re so far behind,” Mr. Gorbachev said.
“I have so many ideas that can help us catch up,” replied Mr. Yakovlev.
Their tête-à-tête in the relative seclusion of Mr. Whelan’s backyard not only planted the seeds of a friendship, but the strategy that would set Russia on the course toward democracy.
The Yakovlev-Gorbachev relationship, forged with the help of Eugene Whelan, then federal agriculture minister, and prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, is chronicled in a new book, The Soviet Ambassador, The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika (McClelland and Stewart. )
Written by award-winning journalist Christopher Shulgan, the book highlights Canada’s role in the evolution of Mr. Yakovlev, whose stint as the Soviet’s emissary in Ottawa from July 1973 to July 1983 coincided with escalating tensions between East and West.
“This evolution goes on throughout his life, and what Canada does is it provides him with some answers and it provides him with the conviction that democracy and limited free enterprise are the solution to the Soviet Union’s problems,” Mr. Shulgan said at his Toronto home.
How did the Canadians encourage Mr. Yakovlev’s democratic conversion? “They did it by being Canadians,” he said. “They did it by being open, by not judg- ing him, by not confronting him.”
They befriended Mr. Yakovlev when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as well as U.S. government sabre-rattling, were heating up the Cold War, Mr. Shulgan said.
Mr. Trudeau, meanwhile, encouraged his cabinet ministers to reach out to the Soviet emissary, recalls Mr. Whelan.
At the urging of Mr. Yakovlev, Mr. Whelan in 1981 visited the Soviet Union, where he met Mr. Gorbachev, then a rising star within the Politburo. Geoffrey Pearson, then Canada’s ambassador, informed the agriculture minister that Mr. Gorbachev was being groomed to be leader, recalled Mr. Whelan.
A meeting that had been scheduled for 20 minutes lasted an hour and a half, he said.
“When we sat down, Gorbachev (through an interpreter) said to me, ‘You know, this meeting is more about politics than it is agriculture.’ I said, ‘ Mr. Secretary, it doesn’t make too much difference to me. I ain’t too bad in either one.’ ”