Few people noticed the death of Vadim Zagladin, a former aide to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on November 17. Possibly because American economist Milton Friedman, the 1976 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, passed away the same day, and Yury Levada, a sociologist and the founder of Russia's eponymous independent public opinion center, died the day before.
Zagladin played a crucial role in Russian history as a top manager of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee's international department. He determined the vectors of Russia's foreign policy during the Brezhnev era and helped humanize it during Gorbachev's presidency.
He also did much for the ordinary people, because he was one of Leonid Brezhnev's few speechwriters with direct access to his ear, and could privately discuss outstanding national problems with him.
He wrote long political texts surprisingly quickly, with unrivalled diligence and journalistic talent, which attracted the attention of Gorbachev. The initiator of perestroika did not indiscriminately invite the old staff, even its democratically minded members, to his team. But Zagladin became one of the closest aides to the first and only Soviet president, and profoundly influenced the ideology of change in the Soviet Union.
I met that taciturn man last spring. He spoke very unwillingly of events dating back 30 and even 40 years, and, when asked why he had not written his memoirs, replied that he would not like to write negatively about those who deserved it.
Zagladin mostly spoke about the de-Stalinization of state ideology and society. He said that Brezhnev knew who and why was trying to convince him to rehabilitate Stalin but cleverly maneuvered between the advocates of orthodox communism and de-Stalinization, at the very least preventing the former from dominating the latter.
But even Brezhnev was weaker than the System. Zagladin told me that some of his liberally minded speechwriters had convinced the Kremlin leader to see "The Commissar," a film by Alexander Askoldov based on a Civil War story by Isaak Babel. Surprisingly, Brezhnev liked the film, yet this did not prevent bureaucrats from confining it to archives and preventing the director from doing any more revolutionary work. Many years later, "The Commissar" became a signature of perestroika.
The goal of party liberals, from charismatic Alexander Bovin, who later became a brilliant journalist and Russia's ambassador to Israel, to taciturn Vadim Zagladin, who never spoke up against the opinions of the central committee, was to liberalize the regime, even if only a tiny bit, using their positions as aides, consultants and speechwriters to the country's top officials. The most unorthodox members of the group worked in two of the central committee's sections that dealt with international relations and ties with the communist parties of socialist countries.
"Orthodox thinkers did not fit in our team," said Zagladin.
Gorbachev once presented to Zagladin a book of his speeches with an autograph and a line saying that one of the real authors of these speeches was his aide, Vadim Zagladin.
Zagladin lived at a time when words were sometimes mightier than deeds, because a word could undermine and even shatter the system. Vadim Zagladin's words resulted in more than one deed in the last 30 years of Soviet history.