Yegor Gaidar: Economist and politician who oversaw the Soviet Union's transition to capitalism

Rarely has a great nation's destiny been entrusted to one so young as Yegor Gaidar. He was only in his mid-thirties when he was economics minister and acting prime minister of Russia, and he served in those posts for little more than a year, between 1991 and 1992. But in that short period, Gaidar's "shock therapy" – the removal of price controls, massive public-spending cuts and a first wave of privatisation – forced his country to make the horrendously painful but historically vital transition from the backward, non-functioning Soviet system into the modern capitalist era.

The credit crisis and recession of today may be nerve-wracking. But they are positively benign compared to the chaos that confronted Gaidar, amid the ruins of the Soviet Union. The system was not at risk of collapse; it had collapsed. Shops were empty, the currency was worthless and production had ground to a near-standstill. The choice lay between total state control, rationing and probable martial law, and the uncharted waters of the market. Gaidar unhesitatingly chose the latter.

"I was not absolutely sure that we would succeed," he told an interviewer in 1997. "But I was absolutely sure that there was no other way. And I was absolutely sure that delay would be suicide for the country." So, too, was his boss Boris Yeltsin, who knew that if unpleasant but unavoidable medicine had to be taken, it should be done at once.

In the process, Gaidar showed not just the courage of his intellectual convictions, but physical courage as well, in a country where he was widely loathed and with a tradition of random political violence. His policies unleashed an inflation that wiped out jobs and savings, and Russia's cities offered harrowing scenes of old and young lining the streets, selling what little they possessed to try to make ends meet. But those same policies put goods back on empty shelves, and set Russia's feet, however shakily, on the path to a market economy.

Yegor Gaidar was born into the Soviet version of aristocracy. His grandfather, Arkady, was a ferocious Red Army commander in the Russian civil war, and later a writer, who died fighting the Germans in the Second World War. His father Timur was a Pravda foreign correspondent who covered the Cuban missile-crisis and became a friend of the Castros. Gaidar's daughter, Maria, would continue the tradition, as a pro-democracy activist, a leader of the "Other Russia" and "Da!" ("Yes!") youth movement which is bitterly opposed to the autocratic Vladimir Putin.

After graduating from Moscow State University in 1978, Gaidar obtained an economics doctorate two years later, before becoming an editor of the party journal Communist. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, he was a supporter of perestroika, but gradually became convinced that the system Gorbachev was trying to mend was in fact beyond reform.

In 1991 he left the party, and joined the government of Boris Yeltsin's Russian Federation as economics minister, a post that became even more important after the demise of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991. In June 1992 Yeltsin named Gaidar prime minister, but a hostile parliament refused to confirm him, and six months later he was replaced by the cautious apparatchik Viktor Chernomyrdin.

But Gaidar's loyalty to Yeltsin was unflagging. In the attempted coup of October 1993, he went on television to urge Moscovites to defend their elected government. Gaidar finally resigned from government in 1994, but remained an influential adviser of Yeltsin, before serving again as a deputy in the Duma between 1999 and 2004.

An undistinguished public speaker, and unaffected by the vanities of power, he was not a natural politician. Indeed, with typical mordant wit, he once described himself as a political "kamikaze". His office was modest and often untidy. His habits, apart from the love of food betrayed by his ample girth, were mostly frugal.

In November 2006, Gaidar was at the centre of a bizarre incident when he collapsed and was rushed to hospital in Ireland, a day after the death in London of the dissident Alexander Litvinenko, apparently poisoned by agents of the Putin government. Gaidar initially claimed he was victim of a similar assassination bid, but was fit enough to return home within 24 hours.

In recent years he wrote several books, including Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia (2007). His fear by then was that Russia might go the way of Weimar Germany, in which ultra-nationalist and authoritarian leaders would emerge in the wake of economic collapse and lead the country to disaster.

Rupert Cornwell

Yegor Timurovich Gaidar, economist and politician: born Moscow 19 March 1956; married Maria Strugatskaya (three sons, one daughter); died Moscow 16 December 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living