Yegor Gaidar, architect of Russia’s shock therapy and economic reform as Boris Yeltsin’s Deputy Prime Minister and then Prime Minister, has died at the age of 53. In my Moscow time, I saw Gaidar in person only once, at the memorial service for murdered journalist Dmitrii Kholodov. The service and viewing of the body took place just outside the Frunzenskaia metro station, a place familiar to generations of historians of Russia. This was the fall of 1994 and Gaidar was, of course, highly unpopular and was almost shouted off the stage by a hostile crowd. I gave him points for showing up.
Millions of Russians still hold Gaidar and his compatriots in that first Yeltsin government responsible for the misery of the post-Soviet years. I’m more sympathetic, both because of the size of the task Gaidar faced and the poisonous political circumstances. As Gaidar put it to PBS in 2000,
I had the general feeling of a short political time. The situation was extremely unstable, one of crisis. We lived in conditions of dual power, so that the country was no longer functioning. But we had a mandate of trust then and we had to get results, at the very least eliminate the most urgent of the crises, otherwise we couldn’t resolve the other questions. First of all we had to solve the crisis brought about by the collapse of the old system and to replace it with a new system, and, if at all possible, to do so that the changes would be irreversible. We had to battle with a new wave of reaction against inescapably difficult changes, which again would lead to more radical changes with the possible formation of a totalitarian regime. These were the two tasks we assigned ourselves in 1992-1993. But the tasks selected were very ambitious, and we had the feeling that no one could guarantee that we would have the time to resolve them.
Discussing losing his post in Yeltsin’s confrontation with the Duma in 1992-1993, Gaidar said
In general, the transformation of Russia in the direction of a market had obviously begun, but I never had the feeling that it was secure, that it was guaranteed. I had the feeling that there still remained a great risk that the situation could be reversed.
This is telling. I have heard it attributed to Gaidar (though I haven’t been able to track down a precise quotation) that he went to work each day as Yeltsin’s Deputy Prime Minister with the goal of finding the one thing he could do that day to make a return to the old system most difficult.
As a research historian, I note that Yeltsin died in April 2007. Boris Fyodorov, another key figure in Yeltsin’s early reforms, died in November 2008. Gaidar has now died. Though all those men wrote accounts of their time in politics, we have lost a major part of the human record of the creation of a new Russia. This shows, by the way, how early mortality is not a phenomenon of Russia’s lumpenproletariat–Russia’s elite is likewise prone to dying too soon.