Russia's Yegor Gaidar championed freedom

Thursday, December 17, 2009

YEGOR GAIDAR, who died Wednesday at the age of 53, was a Russian hero little appreciated by most of his compatriots. Many of them associate him with the miseries of the 1990s. History -- if it is written honestly, always a question in Russia -- will record him as a fearless, clear-eyed believer in liberal democracy who accepted an impossible challenge that most others shied away from.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin assigned to Mr. Gaidar, then only 35 years old, the task of rescuing Russia's economy. Mr. Gaidar became associated with what Western economists called "shock therapy," but he always maintained that his reform program was the minimum that could begin to bring Russia out of the wreckage that communism had bequeathed. He freed prices, knowing that some people's meager savings would be wiped out, because there was no other way to get goods to market. He favored rapid privatization, knowing that the only people with capital to invest were, by Soviet definition, criminals, because he had faith that property-holders would begin to understand the importance of the rule of law. And he always defended his program with logic and honesty against enemies who bothered with neither.

His program brought less success than similar policies applied in Poland and other central and eastern European countries. He made mistakes, of course. But he also faced ferocious opposition from unrepentant communists and inconstant support from Mr. Yeltsin. Having spent a generation longer under communism, Russia had a deeper hole to dig out from. And while outposts of the Soviet empire could blame Russia for their unhappiness during the difficult transition to capitalism, Russians, having no such ready scapegoat, found it convenient to blame Mr. Gaidar.

It was always something of a surprise that Mr. Gaidar, scion of an illustrious Soviet family, came to feel so deeply the value of freedom, both political and economic. Certainly it was not an understanding shared by Mr. Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, who spurned Mr. Gaidar's humanism while embracing the nationalism and heavy-handed governance that Mr. Gaidar knew would take the country toward a dead end. Soaring oil prices during most of this decade allowed the Kremlin to set aside the remaining economic reforms Mr. Gaidar knew to be necessary. The health and welfare of the country declined, so much so that Mr. Gaidar's age of demise is close to average for Russian men.

Still, it would be wrong to label Mr. Gaidar a failure. The middle class he dreamed of has indeed emerged in Russia, and it enjoys a kind of personal freedom unknown in previous Russian history. Mr. Putin has given way to the third president of the modern era, Dmitry Medvedev, who talks of a "freer, more just, and more humane" political system. Whether he means what he says, or can bring about the change he describes if he does, is unclear. But the debate over Russia's future, in which Mr. Gaidar engaged so uncompromisingly, continues.

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