Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Savior? Villian? Economist Yegor Gaidar Dies

I first read it in a cable TV newsticker today: "noted Russian economist dies". The economist in question though wasn't some bland academic, but rather Yegor Gaidar, the man who depending on your point of view in the early 90's either saved Russia from collapse and civil war or plunged millions of Russians into poverty.

In 1992 Gaidar had the thankless task of serving as Acting Prime Minister just as the Russian economy, now free from the centralized control of the Soviet Union, was literally falling apart. I remember a friend telling me stories of standing in lines for rations of food, the markets - never bountiful in Soviet times - had nothing on the shelves. Gaidar believed that drastic action was necessary, so he put into action a plan of rapid reforms that came to be known as "shock therapy". The idea was that a quick, though hard, adjustment of the country's economy would be better in the long run than years of measured steps.

Gaidar took away Soviet-style price controls, which freed up the Russian marketplace. Put prices, naturally, shot up and when paired with a currency devaluation that happened the year before, many Russians suddenly found themselves poor and without the Soviet-era social safety net to catch them. For many it was indeed "shock therapy", some still have not recovered. For that reason, Gaidar was reviled by many Russians, but he also has his supporters, especially among Russia's liberals who say that without his drastic reforms, Russia very likely would have collapsed, adding that his shock therapy set the stage for Russia's economic boom in the mid-2000s.

Love him or hate him, Gaidar had a deep impact on Russia that merited more than just a few words in a newsticker crawl.
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