Yegor Gaidar does Mongolia
Last Wednesday, a person of great influence died quietly in Russia. His name was Yegor Timurovich Gaidar. He was only 53. Yet his decisions, during the years following the collapse of communism, led Russia along its bumpy, imperfect path to a market economy. Russia is a mess today. But it would have been a lot worse without him. I think he saved Russia. But I don't want to talk about that. What might or might not have happened is best left to economists and politicians. I am neither; I'm just a guy who happened to spend a few days with him in Mongolia. Mr. Gaidar was invited by the Mongolian Government to speak at its Economic Policy Conference in October 2008. The economic crisis was in full swing. Long-awaited mining agreements had not yet come into force. Russia, with an economy heavily dependent on extractive industries, and with a massive stabilization fund, seemed to be an excellent model for Mongolia's path forward. The World Bank was the organizing force of the conference. Although I'm not World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, my organization, is a part of the World Bank Group. So I volunteered to help. I let slip that it would be an honor to meet Mr. Gaidar, and that I speak decent Russian. Before I knew it, I was volunteered to organize his visit from start to finish. It was not easy. According to World Bank protocols, you request presentations weeks in advance so that there is time to have them translated. I was pressured to get them. I transferred the pressure to Mr. Gaidar's assistant, Mikhail Slobodinskii. I got nowhere. Mikhail laid out the facts: Yegor Yimurovich is beyond Powerpoint. He sketches out his presentations on the flight to wherever he's going. Mikhail then spends the night creating the presentations on his laptop. I understood perfectly. I met Yegor Timurovich and Mikhail at the airport on the early morning Moscow flight. It was a shock to actually meet him in person. I had spent 1992-94 in Russia, when his influence was at its peak. Suddenly, he was in the VIP lounge of the Ulaanbaatar international airport. In my hands. He was charming. He was also short, and had a big, bald head, like a gigantic baby. But a genius baby. And a confident baby. An all-knowing baby. He knew exactly what he wanted. To rest for an hour. To prepare for his presentation. To have a cup of tea. He gave quick, light commands to Mikhail. To me. Everything flowed from his decisions. World Bank protocol faded to nothing; we all just reacted to him.
I'd like to say that his presentation was historic, but by then I knew everything was fine and my mind went numb. I don't remember it at all. For me, the best time of Yegor Timurovich's visit was hanging out with Mikhail. He is an avid photographer and was aching to see the real Mongolia. He had a camera with a topside viewfinder, making it possible to take candid shots. I took him outside of the city, where he photographed a horseman, a few cows, and some gers. But he really wanted to see people. So I took him on a few walks on the back streets of the city and to the Narantuul market. He took some incredible shots. If I can get his permission, I'll put a link to them in this blog.
During Mr. Gaidar's visit, I mentioned that my wife is an economist. When he left, he gave me a copy of his book, with a note and an autograph, to her. She was delighted. The book is now in our apartment in Kiev. I will always remember this thoughtful act, from a person coming from a country where thoughtful acts are an exception.
Many terrible things happened following the shock therapy policy that Mr. Gaidar prescribed. But in my view, his prescription was the most thoughtful act that could have been done for a country with such a twisted, sick history, and that Russia will become a modern, healthy country much, much more quickly because of him.
Russia will remember him longer than they remember Putin. He is on the right side of history.