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.
On the one hand, the past two decades were a period of great success for free market ideas, as Russia cast off central planning and embraced, mostly, a market economy. Under the influence of Gaidar’s ideas, Yeltsin’s government privatized industries, lifted price controls, and embraced foreign trade. But though Russia achieved a market economy, it did not become a European-style democracy, a fact that many in the Gaidar team regret.
Aven and Kokh mostly attribute this failing to a lack of serious political work on the part of liberal forces. “What we may really be accused of,” Kokh says “is economic determinism. We were focused on the economy and, being genuine Marxists, believed that economic transformations would rapidly transform the rest—the society, traditions, and people, or, in Marxist terms, the superstructure.” the notion privatization and the emergence of a business class would naturally create support for democratic governance proved inaccurate. Aven agreed, noting that “It turned out that changing the economic rules does not mean changing the country.” Aven and Kokh probe each interviewee about the liberals’ failure to create a sustainable party or political movement, believing that a liberal platform could have won elections had it been organized.
Many critics of the Gaidar team, however, think the liberals’ problem was not with their lackluster political organization but with their policies. Is it really true that a majority—or even a large minority—of Russian voters in the mid-1990s would have voted in favor of a party advocating privatization and price increases? The Communists, after all, were a leading force in the Duma throughout the 1990s. Yeltsin did win two presidential elections, though it is debatable whether his victories were because of or in spite of his economic record.
Kokh and Aven acknowledge that the unpopularity of the economic reforms complicated their desire for market liberalization and democratization. Aven suggests that the liberals might been more successful had they handled social reforms better, but both he and Kokh admit that, at the time, both thought economic changes were far more important than democratization.
“I recently found a transcript,” Aven recounted, of “our discussion of the possibility of employing authoritarian mechanisms for the reforms,” along the method of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. “I have much less confidence in the possibility of such an authoritarian scenario now, especially in Russia,” Aven said. Kokh, by contrast, mentioned no such loss of faith in such methods, even noting that, “for a short time I lived under an illusion that Putin might follow that path.”
Of all the interviews, the most interesting is that of Anatoly Chubais, who managed Russia’s privatization process and ran Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign. Chubais is perhaps the most hated politician in Russia today, yet he remains an influential figure nonetheless. In his interview, Chubais repeatedly took issue with Aven’s attempt to compare Russia with Poland and the Czech Republic—two other countries that abandoned state socialism at the same time as did Russia, but whose economic and political trajectory since then has been far more benign.
Chubais thinks these comparisons are irrelevant. “Why do you keep looking to the West?” he asks Aven. “This is a misunderstanding of what the country named Russia is,” Chubais told Aven, underscoring his belief that Russia was never a country that could have elected as president a pro-market democrat such as the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel. The reason? “There is no genuine demand for democracy in Russia now,” so the only effective methods will be crudely populist at best, authoritarian at worst.
Russia’s social and economic structure meant that its political system was inhospitable for market liberals. “We had a radical lack of understanding of the country and the people, due to our urban origins and lives,” Chubais said. Regardless of their level of political organization, Chubais believes, the liberals around Gaidar never had a real shot at power.
“That sounds mystical!” Aven retorted. “A regular electrician from a Polish shipyard”—Poland’s first post-communist president Lech Walesa—“could incite half the country to action.” Chubais: “Now you’re speaking about Poland again. Kazakhstan and Belarus are around us, Petr, not Poland.”
The question of whether can Russia be both capitalist and democratic is not only a question for historians of the 1990s. Even today, Aven notes, doubt about the compatibility of democracy and capitalism drives much of Russian politics, as business leaders and oligarchs support authoritarian politics in part because they believe an alternative political system would threaten their businesses. “The main problem of Russia,” Aven told Chubais, “is that its elite believes that to be true. And that is why it connives with every whim of the authorities. The thinking is, ‘Well, we’re barbarians, what can you do about that?’ That is a very comfortable position. Certainly Russia is not Poland. But that does not mean it is genetically unprepared for democracy and capitalism.”