Viktor Alekseyevich Zubkov
Viktor Chernomyrdin was the longest serving prime minister in post-Soviet Russia. He made two brilliant careers for himself in two different countries in two completely different sets of circumstances. From his humble beginnings in the Soviet Union as an ordinary worker, he ascended to plant director, member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and minister.
He helped guide the country through much of the chaos that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The former mechanic also created Gazprom, the world's largest gas company, which held about 17 percent of the planet's natural gas reserves. The state-controlled company is seen as the Kremlin's biggest bargaining chip on the world's economic market.
Viktor Chernomyrdin slowly and tenaciously worked his way up from a machine operator in an oil processing factory to become Prime Minster of Russia – and it was his very tenacity and resistance to change that made him a reassuring political anchor and a frequent compromise candidate during the hectic post-Soviet reforms of the early 1990s.
His stake in Gazprom, where he was chairman on-and-off until 2000, was by some estimates valued at a billion dollars, making him one of Russia’s richest men. From 2001 to 2009 he served as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, and then as an advisor to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev from June 2009 up until his death.
Viktor Chernomyrdin was born into a family of five children in the village of Cherny Otrog in what is now Orenburg Oblast in southern Russia. His father was a bus driver. Viktor finished school with modest results and, following his obligatory military service, began to work as a welder and a machine operator in an oil processing plant in nearby Orsk.
Meanwhile young Chernomyrdin began working with the local branch of the Communist Party, and spent several years in their regional offices. He then continued his education, training as an engineer at what is now Samara State Technical University, and then graduated from Moscow State Open University in 1972 with a degree in economics.
His new qualifications allowed Chernomyrdin to jump-start his career, and he became the director of the Orenburg gas refinery. In 1982 Chernomyrdin was awarded a Ph.D. for a thesis on new methods of gas refinement. That same year he was appointed Deputy Minister of Natural Gas Industries and three years later became the Minister.
During Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, Chernomyrdin helped reconfigure his gas ministry as Gazprom. The Ministry of Oil and Gas became Gazprom in 1989 during the period of government restructuring known as “perestroika” and Chernomyrdin was elected as its chairman. Under his leadership, Gazprom became one of the most successful state owned mega-companies to emerge from the turmoil of the early 1990s. Gazprom quickly mushroomed to acquire media holdings and become an influential player in Russian politics. This is already more than most people achieve in a lifetime. But this was only the prologue in his storied career.
Chernomyrdin first met Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia from 1991 to 1999, in the 1980s. Yeltsin was then a regional Communist Party chairman. In 1992 Yeltsin appointed Chernomyrdin as Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for fuel and energy. When he was appointed deputy prime minister of the Russian government responsible for the fuel and energy sector, many thought it was his epilogue. Chernomyrdin was seen as a Soviet-style economic manager appointed to the cabinet simply as a counterweight to Yegor Gaidar's young reformers.
In 1992 Boris Yeltsin, then President of Russia, nominated the economic reformist Yegor Gaidar as Prime Minster, but the Congress of People’s Deputies, the supreme governing body, eventually refused to approve the nomination. Chernomyrdin was selected as a compromise candidate. As Chernomyrdin preferred more gradual reforms, he was more favorable to the conservative Congress.
When the parliament approved Chernomyrdin as prime minister by a solid majority in 1992, he was seen as a temporary compromise by analysts, political scientists and even the deputies who voted for him. Moreover, they thought that Chernomyrdin, a member of the bureaucratic elite, would side with them in the growing conflict with President Boris Yeltsin.
They were wrong. Chernomyrdin, the first true prime minister of an independent Russia (his predecessors were only acting premiers), kept the job for six years, longer than any other prime minister during Yeltsin's rule. And he supported Yeltsin in the conflict between the Kremlin and parliament. Chernomyrdin reached his full potential in this second stage of his political career, when his many talents flourished.
When he was appointed prime minister, pro-democracy Russians feared he would derail reforms. But Chernomyrdin was not that kind of man. He was entrusted to carry out reforms, not curtail them, and he did his job the best he could.
He showed personal initiative only once, when he negotiated with terrorist leader Shamil Basayev in June 1995 to secure the release of hostages. Chernomyrdin wanted the best, but the result was controversial. The terrorists escaped, but nearly 2,000 hostages, mostly women and children, were saved. Chernomyrdin could not refuse to negotiate with terrorists when peoples' lives were at stake, and this decision revealed his humanity.
US Vice-President Al Gore and Chernomyrdin agreed to co-operate in building the International Space Station, symbolically ending the half-century long “space race.” American astronauts were invited onto the Mir Space Station, while Russian cosmonauts boarded Shuttle missions in preparation for the joint venture. A series of committees known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission were set up to promote co-operation between the two countries. The Commission outlived Chernomyrdin’s term as Prime Minister. Bill Clinton in 1997 credited the Commission for greatly improving US-Russian relations.
Prime Minister Chernomyrdin earned popular support for securing the release of some 1500 hostages held by Chechen terrorists in January 1996. The negotiations were a turning point in the First Chechen War.
While Boris Yeltsin underwent a heart operation in November 1996, Chernomyrdin was acting president by special decree for 23 hours.
Chernomyrdin was criticized for dragging his heels on economic reforms. In a surprise move in March 1998 he was dismissed by Yeltsin, along with much of the government administration.
In August 1998, when Russia was battered by an economic crisis, his replacement as Prime Minister, Sergey Kiriyenko was widely considered not up to the job. Yeltsin tried to bring back Chernomyrdin, even hinting that he might support his bid for President, but the attempt was blocked by the Duma (parliament).
In 1999, at the age of 71, Chernomyrdin became a special advisor to the Russian president in the area of economic co-operation with the CIS, the organization of former Soviet Union states.
When the Kosovo Conflict flared in 1999, Yeltsin sent Chernomyrdin as a special envoy to the former Yugoslavia. He remained there until 2001 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to solve the crisis. Chernomyrdin, was sent to Serbia to persuade [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic to capitulate, which led to his arrest. The feeling that Russia didn't stand by family, by its little brother."
Upon his return to Russia, Chernomyrdin again took the reins of energy giant Gazprom. Chernomyrdin was elected as a Duma member in December 1999, as leader of the “Our home is Russia” political bloc, which he had set up in 1995. The bloc later merged into the United Russia Party.
For eight years (2001-2009), in exception to the usual rotation system for diplomats, Chernomyrdin served as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. He was critical of the Kiev government, and loudly voiced Russia’s concerns during the “Orange Revolution” and its aftermath. On more than one occasion, his comments, such as “they fight like cats and dogs,” referring to the President and Prime Minster of Ukraine, earned him official rebukes from Kiev.
Chernomyrdin was highly decorated with state honors for his work in the Communist Party as well as for his role as Prime Minister and various governmental and diplomatic posts in the Russian Federation. In 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev presented him with the highest level Order of Merit for the Fatherland.
Viktor Chernomyrdin died at the age of 73. Viktor Chernomyrdin was married to Valentina. The couple had two sons, both of whom have business interests in the oil and gas industry.
Most Russians remember Chernomyrdin for his tongue-in-cheek expressions during some of Russia's toughest economic times, such as, "Better than Vodka, there is nothing worse." Many of his idioms were adopted into popular Russian lexicon. Despite his long term as Ambassador, Chernomyrdin is famous for his colorful language, and decidedly un-diplomatic style of speech. A phrase used by Chernomyrdin to describe Russia’s efforts to manage economic reforms became a popular aphorism “We wanted the best, but it turned out the same as always.” “We wanted the Best” is also the title of a biography of the former Prime published in 2008.
He once said: "Government isn't a body operated by the tongue alone." Chernomyrdin's tongue may not have been silver exactly, but it was no less precious, coining quite a few catching phrases. His most memorable lines were not prepared in advance. They came naturally and spontaneously, not unlike how proverbs and sayings are coined. Chernomyrdin did not try to make people laugh or aim for maximum dramatic effect. He spoke his mind. Even in his less than eloquent moments, his words still carried a deeper meaning.
Here are a few of Chernomyrdin's quotes.
"We wanted the best, but it turned out as always."
"Our trouble is not lack of unity, but who's in charge."
"We've learned how to speak, now we must learn how to count money."
"Whatever party we establish, it always turns out to be the Soviet Communist Party."
And finally, "You can't scare a woman with high-heeled shoes."
Chernomyrdin uttered this last classic line when he was the Russian ambassador to Ukraine after being asked if he was afraid that he may be declared persona non grata in Ukraine.
Chernomyrdin was a man of words, but when it came to politics, he was a man of action. He was meticulous and responsible. He never strove for independence, and he showed initiative only when he was ordered to.
Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom colleagues and media were calling simply ChVS, went down in history as a man of many trades – as the Minister who reorganized the Gas Industry Ministry into Gazprom State Concern, as the Prime Minister whose cabinet saw a real economic revival and ruble stabilization, as the first high-ranking politician who sat down to the negotiating table with Chechen militants who seized the hospital in Budyonnovsk, as the Ambassador to Ukraine in the times of the Orange Revolution and the exacerbation of relations with Russia, as the author of unique sayings gone viral. Some scolded Chernomyrdin for his actions neglecting the fact that he had to work in hard times, some admired him. But everyone agreed on one point: Chernomyrdin was a great statesman, an outstanding political and social leader, an original and unique man committed to his work.
He did many things in his career. He chaired a political party, helped make peace in the former Yugoslavia and represented Russia's interests in Ukraine. He faithfully carried out all those missions. This is probably why he was loved even though he carried out unpopular reforms whose authors were hated. People remember him fondly, which is unusual for high-ranking comrades and bosses.
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