Passport

Russia’s Yogi Berra

Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin passed away on Wednesday morning at the age of 72. Best known in the West for co-chairing the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission on nuclear safety, which largely failed in its goal of promoting bilateral cooperation between Washington and Moscow, Chernomyrdin presided over an extremely turbulent period of Russian history, including the ...

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Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin passed away on Wednesday morning at the age of 72. Best known in the West for co-chairing the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission on nuclear safety, which largely failed in its goal of promoting bilateral cooperation between Washington and Moscow, Chernomyrdin presided over an extremely turbulent period of Russian history, including the controversial privatizations of the mid-1990s and the First Chechen War.

His career highlights included keeping the Russian government functioning during the failed coup of 1993 and negotiating with Chechen rebels to end a hostage crisis in 1995, but Chernomyrdin also took much of the blame for unpopular economic reforms and an era of rampant political corruption. He was also the first chairman of GazProm, the powerful gas monopoly that launched the career of current president Dmitry Medvedev. From 2001 to 2009, he served as ambassador to Ukraine.

But in Russia, Chernomyrdin may be best remembered for his frequent malapropisms and gaffes, many of which have become popular catchphrases. Chernomyrdinisms became, for many, an expression of the confusion and contradictions of the turbulent post-Soviet period, particularly his most famous line describing one of the era’s many botched privatization schemes, "We wanted better, but it turned out as always." Remembering Chernomyrdin in a eulogy this week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said of his predecessor, "Behind his seeming simplicity, his jokes, his playing on his own aphorisms … was in fact hidden a subtle, wise and decent man."

Chernomyrdin is survived by ("approximately") two sons and a wealth of unforgettable lines. Here are a few of the best:

On economic reform: "We wanted better, but it turned out as always."

On his background on energy minister: "I have grown up in the atmosphere of oil and gas."

On dealing with the frequently uncooperative Duma: "Government is not the organ in which one uses his tongue only."

On Russia’s unstable party system: "Whatever party we establish, it always turns out to be the Soviet Communist Party."

On his critics: "If your hands are itchy, scratch yourselves in other spots."

On the future: "We will live so well that our children and grandchildren will envy us!"

On Ukraine’s Orange Revolution:  "American ears are sticking out everywhere."

On his family: "I have approximately two sons."

On political efficiency: "We accomplished all items: from A to B."

On women: "You can’t scare a woman with high-heeled shoes."

On language: I can talk to anyone in any language, but I try not to use that instrument."

On the life of the mind: "I am far from thought."

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/04/world/europe/04chernomyrdin.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/03/former-russian-prime-minister-dies

http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20101103/161203286.html

http://www.denverpost.com/nationworld/ci_16508273

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704462704575591602315511546.html

Special thanks to Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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