THE DEATH THIS WEEK of Alexander Yakovlev, the intellectual inspiration for Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, comes as a sharp reminder of what Russia might have been. Mr. Yakovlev, 81, lived most of his life as a faithful Communist. He fought in World War II, joined the Communist Party during Joseph Stalin's reign and rose through the ranks to become its "chief of ideology" under the stagnant leadership of party boss Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Nevertheless, Mr. Yakovlev had the intellectual and moral honesty to break with the party in the 1980s, becoming the behind-the-scenes architect of glasnost, the policy of speaking honestly about the Soviet Union's bloody past, as well as perestroika, fundamental economic reform. He was one of the first to argue that the Soviet Union should stop intervening in the internal affairs of Eastern Europe and that his homeland itself should adopt political pluralism. He headed a commission that was formed to rehabilitate the victims of Stalin's execution squads and concentration camps, in the belief that Russia could not become a full democracy until Russians had a complete understanding, and had completely come to terms with, their nation's tragic history.
But in the end, Mr. Yakovlev was perhaps most memorable for the fact that he stuck to these beliefs, even when, in the 1990s, they became once again unfashionable. As Russian political culture grew less democratic, and as discussion of the past ground to a halt, Mr. Yakovlev kept publishing documents from the Russian archives, kept talking loudly about the moral and cultural legacy of communism and kept criticizing the creeping authoritarianism of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. It says a great deal about his moral standing that Mr. Putin, although the object of much of Mr. Yakovlev's criticism, actually praised him this week for inspiring the "democratic renewal of our country, the development of civil society and the construction of a state based on the rule of law." If more Russian politicians, including Mr. Putin, took those ideals more deeply to heart, Russia would be a different country today.