Gaidar’s Death Brings Controversy with Sympathy

gaidar.jpgI am not sure what value I can add to the passing of the former PM and economic architect of the Russian Federation, Yegor Gaidar, to everything else that is being published today.  I just know that I shouldn’t let it go by unmentioned.  He passed away today from a blood clot at the remarkably young age of 53.  I write “remarkably” because one forgets that he rose to the level of Prime Minister by the age of 36, and made many friends and enemies both earlier and later throughout his controversial career.

Gaidar was a complex character with a mixed career during an incredibly challenging time.  For many his passing brings back memories of “shock therapy” economic policies, which ravaged people’s savings, caused widespread sudden poverty, and brought about a period of fiscal doldrums of many people’s worst nightmares.  It shouldn’t be surprising that there remains so much hate and malevolence toward Gaidar on the day of his death, but I am nevertheless taken aback. 

Gaidar was not an outspoken member of the opposition to Kremlin (though his daughter Maria is), and although his signature can be found on some soft liberal positions along with Gorbachev’s, he was a survivor of the 1990s who gave his implicit approval to Putinism.  After suffering an assassination attempt via poisoning in 2006, for example, he resolutely denied that there could possibly be any responsibility on behalf of the government.

It has been a long time since he has been anywhere near relevant inpolicy, and one would also think that some Russians had come tounderstand that there was never any blueprint for the transition fromthe economic disaster of the USSR to what Russia is today.  Indeed, formany of the nationalists who are so enamored of the Russian economicresurgence, somewhere along the line we must acknowledge the course setby this understandably unpopular economist.  “The history book of the early reforms has not yet been written,” saidLeonid Grigoriev, an economist in an interview with Roland Oliphant. “The subject has been too politicallycharged in the past two decades. But when it is, Gaidar will have ahuge place in it.”  Perhaps that quote best explains why there is still so much seething today.

Insofar as official reactions, we can observe an oddly unified frontacross the ideological spectrum – with expressions of condolence,sympathy, and respect.  There are the obvious admirers, such as Anatoly Chubais, giving generous praise to Gaidar’s career, but also others such as Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and even ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. For anyone who was expecting the Putin camp to make a derisive show outof Gaidar’s death, given how often the Kremlin portrays itself as the savior, not beneficiary, from the chaos of the 1990s, would do well to recall the lavish state funeral ceremonies dedicated to Boris Yeltsin.

Perhaps the same explanations apply for the magnanimity in death for Gaidar as they do for Yeltsin?  In an interesting theoretical piece at the time of Yeltsin’s funeral, Times bureau chief Steven Lee Myers saw the incorporation of the Yeltsin legacy, or at least the good part of it, into a growing national myth to benefit the powers of state:  “In this new-minted myth, the bold, firm hand of patriots is whatpreserves democracy, not the messy, uncertain expression of popularwill. The elevation of Mr. Yeltsin overlooked the darker side –the defeat in Chechnya, the rise of the oligarchs, the capitulation tothe West, the drunkenness — partly out of respect for the dead, nodoubt, but also because it let Mr. Putin portray himself, too, as adefender of the revolution and restorer of Russian greatness. (…) It served as evidence of a countrystill searching for the symbols that gird its national idea or identityor, perhaps better to say, a country still arguing over them.

Mr. Yegor Gaidar, of course, was not president, and the national collective memory is unlikely to be so generously forgetful.  He had a very difficult job at a historic time, and remained committed to his beliefs and decisions – many of them erroneous – while overcoming a variety of obstacles.  For Russians and Russia watchers to remember his career will reawaken some unfinished debates, important memories, and overdue measurements of how the country is diverging from past expectations.