Book Review: Gaidar’s Revolution

Alexei Golovkov had a problem with the portrait of Lenin in his office. Golovkov, a top official in Boris Yeltsin’s presidential administration from 1991-1993, thought the Lenin portrait was out of place in post-Communist Russia, so he took it off the wall and set it in the back room of his office. The next day a new Lenin portrait appeared. He took that one down, too, only to find a third portrait the following morning. “What’s this?” he asked an assistant. “The manual says you must have a portrait,” the assistant explained. “You have the right to take it down, but I must hang up a new one.”

Yeltsin and his ministers struggled to rid Russia of the legacies of communism, but—like Lenin portraits hanging on the walls of government offices—reminders of the Soviet past were difficult to discard. A book by Petr Aven and Alfred Kokh, Gaidar’s Revolution, newly translated into English, looks back at the 1990s to assess why the goals of the pro-capitalist forces proved so difficult to realize.

Aven and Kokh are far from disinterested observers. Aven, now the head of Alfa Bank, served as Minister for Foreign Economic Relations from 1991-1992, while Kokh worked on privatization. Each is an outspoken admirer of Yegor Gaidar, the free-market economist and Prime Minister who spearheaded economic liberalization under Yeltsin. Both Kokh and Gaidar see the 1990s as a period marked by both great successes and lost opportunities.

The book consists of interviews with a dozen Yeltsin-era politicians, from Russia’s first deputy prime minister, Gennady Burbulis, to defense minister Pavel Grachev, to economy minister Alexander Shokhin. Some of the interviewees, such Anatoly Chubais, were long-time allies of Gaidar, while others, such as Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin’s first foreign minister, were closer to Yeltsin.

The book’s interviews are most interesting not for the new facts they bring to light—although there are many of these—but for the insight they give into how Russia’s leading economic liberals make sense of the past 25 years of history…

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