The Soviet Ambassador: The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika

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Emblem, Mar 1, 2011 - Ambassadors - 368 pages
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Midway through that first Canadian winter, just as all these anxieties were becoming unbearable, the Yakovlevs heard from Moscow the news that Leonid Brezhnev was coming to Canada. -- Twice. -- For about 90 minutes each time. -- The Soviet leader was flying to Cuba to meet with Castro. Midway between Moscow and Havana, he and his entourage planned to make a refuelling stop in Newfoundland, at the Gander airfield on the province's frigid northeastern shore. Despite the short duration of Brezhnev's stopover, protocol dictated the Soviet ambassador welcome the leader upon his arrival. -- Yakovlev didn't know what to expect. His exile to Ottawa happened with Brezhnev's assent. Would it be awkward, this meeting between the leader and the man he'd condemned to this ignominious exile? How would Brezhnev act toward Yakovlev? Would he be reserved? -- Merely polite? Or would he be his usual overbearing and effusive self? Perhaps Brezhnev would provide Yakovlev with an explanation for the reassignment, an indication of how long his exile might last. Perhaps Brezhnev might even ask him to return to Moscow. It was all a mistake, he might say. We need you. Why not? Stranger things had happened in the Politburo. -- Preparing for the visit was a nightmare. Yakovlev begged Canada's External Affairs department to arrange for some high-ranking member of the Canadian government to receive Brezhnev. Then he heard that the embassy's ranking KGB officer had picked up worrying intelligence about a terrorist group of anti-Castro Cubans, a group called Alfa 66, who were said to have assigned a sniper and a cell of support operatives to attempt to assassinate Brezhnev in Newfoundland. Yakovlev's staff passed on the rumour to the Canadians, who took it seriously. The Canadians were still smarting from a diplomatic disaster that happened during the visit of another Politburo member, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, in 1971, after Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took Kosygin on an impromptu and under-secured walk across Ottawa's Parliament Hill. A Ukrainian immigrant recognized Kosygin and, approaching from behind, leapt on the Soviet premier's back and rode him, piggyback-style, for several moments before police were able to pull off the man. With Yakovlev already on shaky ground, any similar mishap would be costly to his career. -- Brezhnev was scheduled to arrive on his first refuelling stop on Monday, January 28, 1974. The day before, Yakovlev schlepped out to the North Atlantic shore along with several other Soviet embassy staffers. The contingent also included diplomats from Canada's Department of External Affairs and the Cuban ambassador to Canada. Monday morning dawned in a blizzard that was still raging as the first of the retinue's four planes, a Soviet-made IL-62, landed at Gander at 9:15 a.m. Everyone braced for the leader, but the most senior member on this flight was Brezhnev's translator. There was some question whether the remaining planes would be able to land amid the blowing snow. As Brezhnev's plane, another IL-62, descended, visibility was poor. Wind whipped the runway. The atmosphere in the airport verged on panic. The Aeroflot representative was swearing at the KGB representative; -- Aeroflot's rep said the KGB was forcing the plane to land on the wrong runway, one that hadn't been cleared of snow. In his memoirs Yakovlev floats the possibility that the KGB's act was deliberate. He wondered whether the agency was attempting to stage a fatal accident in such a way that the West, or at least Canada, would receive the blame for Brezhnev's death. The danger would have been apparent to Yakovlev. Yakovlev's career rested on this encounter proceeding smoothly. Stakes were much higher than that, however. If Brezhnev died in a plane crash, the conspiracy-obsessed Soviets were certain to rail about the accident resulting from some nefarious plot of the West. With both sides aiming nuclear missiles at each other, such an accident could trigger events far more serious than the loss of Yakovlev's job. -- Then a power surge knocked out all the radio channels but one between the plane and the control tower. Yakovlev's Soviet associates reported ice on the runway. -- The plane's wheels touched the runway. The pilots braked. The wheels skidded, then caught. -- Brezhnev was safe. -- From the Hardcover edition.

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User Review  - bruchu - LibraryThing

A Good Biography on Yakovlev I was both impressed and disappointed by "The Soviet Ambassador." On the one hand, Christopher Shulgan has written a well-timed biography about an under-analyzed figure of ... Read full review

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About the author (2011)

Christopher Shulgan’s heavily-reported feature writing has won him numerous honours, most recently a National Magazine Award in 2007 in the category of politics and public policy. A former writer-at-large for Toro magazine, he is a frequent contributor to such Canadian media as The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, He was educated at Queen’s University and Northwestern University, and lives in Toronto.

From the Hardcover edition.

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