If you were going to make a list of the most thankless jobs of the late 20th century, taking responsibility for newly independent Russia’s economy in 1991 would be near the top. That position fell to Yegor Gaidar, who writes in his memoir, “Days of Defeat and Victory” (University of Washington Press, $30, 342 pages, illus.), that he was smart enough not to want the job, but took it anyway.
Only 35 at the time, Mr. Gaidar was one of a group of Western-oriented economists who had tried to put some fiscal sense into Mikhail Gorbachev through the late 1980s. He agreed to join Boris Yeltsin’s government in November 1991. Two months later, the author was leading Russia into so-called “shock therapy.” It was a rough ride. His kindest critics in his homeland and they are legion have said his policies involved more shock than therapy.
The Russian parliament had no stomach for Mr. Gaidar’s painful fiscal reforms, his exertions to unlink government from the economy. By the end of 1992, he was replaced by Viktor Chernomyrdin. Mr. Gaidar later returned to government as an economic adviser to Mr. Yeltsin, and leader of a pro-reform parliament faction.
“All the positive things we had managed to accomplish in 1991 and 1992 eliminating the threat of famine, filling the stores with goods, converting the ruble, and creating a free market that had one way or another started to function all this had become part of ordinary life, and it neither surprised nor particularly gladdened anyone,” Mr. Gaidar writes, with regret but no bitterness, summing up the situation after his ouster.
The book chronicles Mr. Gaidar’s experience in and around Russian politics from the late 1980s through Mr. Yeltsin’s election victory in mid-1996. It’s a good read written by a thoughtful, intelligent man the grandson of a Bolshevik revolutionary and popular Soviet author who was at the heart of Russia’s transition from communism to nascent capitalism and democracy. Mr. Gaidar’s memories of the constitutional crisis and brief civil war of 1993, and his role during that period, are gripping. His description of Moscow’s descent into the first Chechen war and the hostage crisis at Budyonnovsk are particularly interesting.
Whatever you feel about Mr. Gaidar as a politician and honest observers should be merciful to a guy forced to run from one crisis to another, most not of his own making his book reinforces the notion that if Russia’s leadership featured more people like him, the country might be much better off today. Honest, humane and relatively unambitious, the author is also one of a tiny handful of Russian politicians judged by most even his harshest critics to be beyond corruption. Even rarer, he was willing to make hard decisions and take responsibility for them.
Mr. Gaider is candid about his faults. He is not very charismatic and was unable to articulate to ordinary Russians the reasons he thought his painful reforms were necessary. Some readers may be annoyed at his “I told you so” predictions about the economy and the bloodshed in Chechnya, but interviews and articles from the time will show that his forecasts were probably right more often than wrong.
Mr. Gaidar concedes that it’s strange to write memoirs in your early 40s, but he wanted to make sure he left a legacy in case a vengeful communist or nationalist candidate won the presidency. As one might expect, much of the book is a defense of his economic decisions and a rebuttal to those who view him as an irresponsible theorist who jumped at the opportunity to launch an experiment in one of the world’s biggest labs.
Defending his choice to liberalize prices in 1992, Mr. Gaidar writes: “Putting off liberalization of the economy until slow structural reforms could be enacted was impossible. Two or three months of such passivity and we would have economic and political catastrophe, total collapse and civil war. I was convinced of it.”
“I, who between 1987 and 1990 had perhaps shouted loudest of all about the terrible danger of liberalizing prices when government finances were in disarray and monetary circulation was in chaos, would end up being the one to pick up the pieces.”
The decision as to how to finance the Chechen war is indicative of the dilemmas that fill the book: “Again, the choice was between a catastrophic option and a merely bad one.”
The book’s title, taken from the writing of Boris Pasternak, is a good fit for the time period Mr. Gaidar describes. There were few decisive victories or defeats for Russia’s reformers in that time. One was always a subset of the other, with government decisions usually a mishmash of compromise that continues to obscure what path Russia is heading down.
The defeat of the August 1991 coup attempt was one of the victories, especially for the author, who was marked by the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. “This was perhaps the first day since August 1968 that I felt I had every right to be proud of my country and my people,” he writes.
But Mr. Yeltsin and the reformers never managed to capitalize on that victory. The rest is ongoing history.
Ron Laurenzo is a reporter for Defense Week.