Friday, December 18, 2009

Yegor Gaidar - RIP

Yegor Gaidar, former Russian minister of finances.Image via Wikipedia

At 53, one of the leaders of economic reforms in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union has died. Many Russians despise him, but they are wrong and frankly, never understood the economic and political situation that the country faced in 1993.

Like many in his position had and continue to learn, the immense problems created by a corrupt, venal and criminal political and economic system are then blamed on the successor as the reforms that are necessary take form and are implemented. (The Republicans and the Bush administration somehow come to mind). As Rome's leaders learned, the "mob" easily forgets - but is just as easily bought off by whomever has the money, the slogans and the simplistic solutions.

I only had the chance to meet with Gaidar once together with Anatoly Chubais, when I first arrived in Russia during the latter part of 2004. The meeting was brief and I was not alone, but I remember clearly how relaxed and logical he was in describing what he felt needed to be done. It was a perilous time, but one that held enormous hope. Unlike Russia today, the chaos was a democratic kind and numerous parties were maneuvering, compromising and arriving at less than satisfactory deals in order to move forward.

Russians used to say that everything was free in the Soviet Union. I remember a town meeting outside of Moscow in 1995 when one person after another voiced similar sentiments. Except it was palpably false. Nothing was free. The speaker, a member of the Duma, then asked if they would prefer the old economy where they had jobs but nothing to buy or one where the shelves were full and choices wide. The difference, of course, was clear. They would have to work to earn what they needed. In the USSR (and I went to school for a short time in Leningrad) prices were cheap - paid for by poor salaries. Nothing is for free.

Yegor Gaidar's choices were stark and, like Robert Frost, he took the road less travelled by - and it made all the difference. Russians can thank him for saving their country regardless of the mistakes - and they were huge. But Russia survived because of him, Chubais and even - yes even - Yeltsin.

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