Arkady Volsky

Kremlin troubleshooter


Arkady Ivanovich Volsky, political adviser: born Dobrush, Soviet Union 15 May 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died Moscow 9 September 2006.

Arkady Volsky enjoyed an improbably varied career working as a senior aide to three Soviet leaders before reinventing himself as "the voice of the oligarchs" in post-Communist Russia. Famed for his ability to get on with people from all walks of life, he began his career on the floor of a Moscow car factory in the 1950s and ended it as the honorary chairman of Russia's most powerful lobby group for big business and the oligarchy.

He rightfully enjoyed a reputation as the man who nearly became Russian prime minister on several occasions. But above all he was known for his skills as a peacemaker and deal-broker. He was equally at home rubbing shoulders with the Kremlin's most powerful occupants as he was dealing with some of its most implacable enemies.

Hence, in 1991, he found himself acting as an intermediary between the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who were too proud to speak to one another. Conversely, in 1995 he found himself conducting strained talks with Shamil Basayev, Chechnya's most notorious rebel commander; his mission was to secure the release of hostages. The two situations could not have been more different, but Volsky's flair for compromise meant he coped with both.

Arkady Volsky was born in 1932 in the town of Dobrush in the Gomel region of what was then the Soviet republic of Belarus. Little is known about his parents except that they were teachers who became partisans during the Second World War and fought against the Nazis. Arkady was evacuated to an orphanage and thereafter his parents appear to have played little or no role in his life.

He went on to study at the Steel and Alloys Institute in Moscow and in 1955 he started work on the shop-floor of the famous Zil car factory in the Russian capital. He worked there for 14 years and in 1969 he was appointed the Communist Party's most senior representative at the factory. It was at this point that he was promoted to become a bureaucrat attached to the Communist Party's Central Committee itself, the beating heart of power in the then Soviet Union. With a brief to restructure heavy industry, he played a key role in the creation of some of Russia's biggest car and truck manufacturing companies.

In 1983 he became a senior economics adviser to the then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and when Andropov died the following year became an assistant to his successor Konstantin Chernenko. When in turn Chernenko died in 1985 Arkady Volsky took up an important advisory role under Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1989 Gorbachev appointed him his personal troubleshooter in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region claimed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia; Volsky was perceived to have acquitted himself well in difficult circumstances.

When hardliners attempted a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, Volsky helped hasten its failure. He contacted the Soviet leader, who was under house arrest at the time, and told the world that Gorbachev was not ill and unable to perform his duties, as the plotters had claimed.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, he turned his back on the Communist Party and the following year set up the Russian Union of Manufacturers and Entrepreneurs (RSPP). In time it became the most powerful lobby group, representing Russian big business and eventually attracted the support of the country's leading oligarchs. The group held regular meetings with Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin and played a leading role in the reshaping of Russia's economy.

However Volsky fell out with the Kremlin over the prosecution of one of his most famous members - Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The oligarch, once Russia's richest man, was sentenced to eight years in jail last year for fraud and tax evasion charges. Like many others, Volsky felt the charges were politically motivated and said so, incurring the Kremlin's wrath. Last September he was replaced as President of the RSPP by a more Kremlin-friendly candidate and given the decorative title of Honorary President instead.

He continued to command widespread respect, however, and a Who's Who of former Soviet and Russian leaders issued statements lamenting his demise. Media reports said he died of leukaemia, a disease friends believe he contracted after overseeing the clean-up operation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

Andrew Osborn

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