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The Guardian (UK)
April 4, 2003
Valentin Pavlov
Gorbachev's prime minister and figurehead of the 1991 Russian coup

By Isobel Montgomery

Valentin Pavlov, who has died aged 65, appeared to have spent much of his career at the mercy of events rather than in control of them. As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's minister of finance when perestroika was in full swing in the 1980s, he railed against the impossibility of maintaining a grip on the rouble's value while allowing the Soviet economy some small exposure to the free market. When he caused a financial crisis and earned himself a personal measure of unpopularity by withdrawing high-denomination notes from circulation overnight, he blamed a plot by western banks for his decision. Then, as Gorbachev's penultimate prime minister, he became a figurehead for the failed attempt to rein in perestroika and keep the Soviet Union intact. August 1991, when he was a member of the team that carried out an attempted putsch against Moscow's last communist leader, was probably his least distinguished moment; instead of acting as a plausible substitute for the supposedly indisposed president, Pavlov took to his bed, claiming that he too was unwell. His co-conspirators later said that he spent much of the three days of the attempted coup drunk.

Pavlov was born in Moscow. He graduated from the Moscow Financial Institute in 1958 and began work in the lower echelons of the state planning bureaucracy. In 1962 he became a member of the Communist party and by the end of the Leonid Brezhnev era in the early 1980s he had risen to take charge of the finance department of Gosplan, the behemoth that oversaw all aspects of the Soviet Union's planned economy, from setting targets for five-year plans to managing the production of consumer goods and keeping prices under control.

In an earlier era, Pavlov would probably have continued as an anonymous but privileged member of the party and nomenklatura , but when Gorbachev became general secretary of the Com munist party and head of the Soviet Union in 1985, a moribund system was forced to change. In 1986, Pavlov was made chairman of the state price committee, a role that saw put him at the forefront of Gorbachev's efforts to introduce market reforms into the economy. In 1989, he was made minister of finance.

As the reformers' felt themselves in a stronger position, the pace of change quickened and tensions between the reforming wing of the Communist party and conservatives such as Pavlov grew. By 1989, the command economy was beginning to crack. The black market had become more visible and goods were becoming scarcer. Gorbachev was forced to make further concessions to the conservatives and in December 1990, he replaced the prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov with a safe compromise, Pavlov.

In the few months he spent as prime minister, Pavlov witnessed the Soviet economy slide further into disarray. He had to attempt to persuade striking miners back to work, and to push through a series of prices rises that saw the cost of many goods go up by 60%. To a population that had rarely seen prices change in decades, it was a shock. However, Pavlov announced a plan that would see much of the population compensated for the increases and he attempted to curry favour by stating that vodka, a Russian staple, along with petrol, coffee and electricity would be exempt from the rise.

His next move ensured that if Soviet citizens recognised this chubby, bespectacled man, whose one distinguishing feature was a head of spiky, hedgehog-like hair, it was as the man who overnight wiped out their savings. In January 1991, without prior warning, he withdrew 50 and 100 rouble notes from circulation. His justification was the fear that banks in the west were accumulating large amounts of roubles with the intention of dumping it on the market to destabilise the Soviet economy and cause hyperinflation. His claim was met with scepticism and ordinary Soviet citizens, who were happier to stuff their savings under mattresses than in savings accounts that paid virtually no interest, were the victims of Pavlov's crude attempt to prop up the rouble.

The contradictions between Gorbachev's desire to reform the Soviet Union and keep it intact came to a head in August 1991. While the president was holidaying on the Black Sea, conspirators led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, then head of the KGB, formed the emergency state committee and placed Gorbachev under house arrest.

Though he ought, nominally at least, to have been leading the plotters, Pavlov appeared to have been pulled into the conspiracy. He recounted how Kryuchkov had telephoned him late on Sunday evening at his dacha outside Moscow to say that an armed revolt was underway and he should get to the Kremlin as soon as possible. Pavlov asked for a helicopter to fetch him. He joined his fellow plotters that Monday, and appeared on television to announce that Gorbachev was indisposed, but it was soon clear that he had been drinking. Issuing contradictatory orders and repeating himself, he admitted that he had indeed been drinking with his son the day before. By the end of the day, it was decided that Pavlov was too ill to participate in the hastily convened cabinet and he returned to his dacha where his wife claimed he had been taken ill.

Within three days the putsch had been defeated. Despite having bowed out early, Pavlov was arrested along with the rest of the conspirators. He was charged with conspiracy in January 1992, and spent months in jail before being released on bail in January 1993. For a year the conspirators waited to be tried, but in 1994 they were granted an amnesty by parliament.

Although Pavlov's role in the attempted coup had been small and inglorious, when he spoke about it he defended his actions. Though he had fought to preserve the Soviet Union and its economic system, he later worked for several Russian banks and wrote a book about the problems of taxation in post-Soviet Russia.

Valentin Sergeevich Pavlov, politician, born September 26 1937; died March 30 2003

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