MOSCOW (Reuters) - Yegor Gaidar, architect of the tumultuous reforms that helped cement Russia’s post-Soviet transition but drove millions into poverty, died on Wednesday. He was 53.
As the late President Boris Yeltsin’s reform commissar, Gaidar provoked both awe and anger for helping to dismantle a centrally-planned economic system by freeing prices in 1992 before the dust had settled on the ruins of the Soviet Union.
Dubbed “shock therapy,” his reforms devalued the savings of millions of Russians and gave a handful of “oligarchs” the chance to grab the assets of a former superpower on the cheap. He was portrayed on placards as a traitor and villain at countless pro-communist demonstrations in the 1990s.
Gaidar’s policies, though extremely painful for millions, helped Russia’s transition from Communism and supporters say the reforms ultimately prevented Russia from spiraling into a civil war after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"He was a great man. A great scientist and a great statesman," Anatoly Chubais, a close friend and fellow reformer, wrote in a blog on his www.chubais.ru website.
“Russia was tremendously lucky that Gaidar was there in one of the hardest moments of its history. At the beginning of the 1990s, he saved the country from hunger, civil war and collapse,” said Chubais.
Gaidar died of a blood clot at his country cottage, or dacha, outside Moscow at 3 a.m. (0000 GMT), a spokeswoman said. He had been working on an economic paper, she said, adding that he had not complained about any health problems.
President Dmitry Medvedev sent condolences and praised Gaidar for creating the foundations of a market economy. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin applauded Gaidar for serving Russia at one of the most troubled periods in its history.
Gaidar last held a formal government post in January 1994 but he remained influential in the shadows, offering informal advice to Putin on a range of economic issues.
Born in Moscow on March 19, 1956 to an illustrious Russian family, Gaidar graduated in economics from Moscow University in 1978 and continued his studies at post-graduate level.
Extremely courteous, Gaidar, a portly figure with thinning hair, had the manners of a professor. Friends said the refined exterior hid a steely determination to risk all for his belief that Communism and the Soviet empire were deeply flawed.
Gaidar said he turned against state communism after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but decided that the only way to change the system was from inside.
“The Soviet Union was bankrupt in 1991 — there were no reserves left. It was simply over, and I know as I had to deal with it,” Gaidar told Reuters in an interview in 2006.
The grandson of a Bolshevik regiment commander who became one of the Soviet Union’s best known children’s writers, Gaidar rose to prominence in late 1991, aged 35, as a deputy prime minister and was later appointed acting prime minister.
Gaidar, like Yeltsin, was often criticized for using Soviet methods to impose ruthless top-down reforms with little heed for the social impact.
“The idea of communism was good but unrealistic; the idea of the market is good but has not worked,” veteran nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who leads the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), told Ekho Mosvky radio station in a comment on Gaidar.
But Gaidar gave vital support to Yeltsin at a crucial moment in October 1993 when the latter faced down a rebel parliament in a confrontation that paralyzed the country.
When supporters of the Supreme Soviet converged on Ostankino television station, Gaidar made a dramatic televised appeal to people to turn out in the streets to support Yeltsin.
The economist was struck by a mysterious illness on November 24, 2006, while on a visit to an Irish university to publicize a book. Russian doctors were at a loss to explain the ailment, which left him bleeding from the nose and mouth.
He later said enemies of the Kremlin probably tried kill him with poison, though it was not clear why he would have been seen as a threat.
Writing Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Ralph Boulton