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Book Review December 25, 2007
Naomi Klein Takes Down The Shock Therapy Quacks
By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
Page 4 of 4

But Sachs was there at the creation, and there’s no getting around his central role in the story of Russia in the 90s. He was literally in the room when Yeltsin dissolved the USSR. As Sachs tells it, what followed was a case of good intentions and advice on his part unmatched by political will in Washington to help Russia. Yeltsin acceded to shock therapy on the assumption that Sachs would get the aid taps flowing fast and heavy, as he did in Poland. But it never happened, a fact Sachs blames for everything bad that followed. Still, as Klein points out, its hard to see how aid would have effected the criminal stripping in broad daylight of Russian industry that happened under his watch and advice. In their discussions of Russia, writes Klein, Sachs repeatedly made it sound as if he were “a Boy Scout who stumbled into an episode of The Sopranos.” 

Sachs scripted Russia’s shock-therapy program and stood by Yeltsin’s side throughout his assault on the country’s nascent democracy in the name of the reform agenda. Even before the massacre of 1993, Yeltsin had suspended democracy during his “year of special powers.” Klein reviews the story of how, starting in late ’91, Yeltsin gathered a team of Russian reformers led by Yegor Gaidar known as Russia’s Chicago Boys. Together with Sachs, they crafted a Friedmanite blueprint of radical privatization, price liberalization, and free-trade policies. These shocks were to be administered as quickly as possible on an already dazed public.

When the daze started to wear off, the vast majority of Russians weren’t happy to find they were wearing the electrode hat. When parliament voted to repeal Yeltsin’s special powers and end the experiment (as happened in Poland), Yeltsin’s response was to abolish the constitution and dissolve parliament, moves that started the crisis culminating in his bloody shelling of the White House. The western media duly fell in line behind Yeltsin “the reformer”. Klein describes the ease with which the major papers dismissed elected Duma members as suffering from “a Soviet mentality” (The New York Times) and even of representing “antigovernment” forces (The Washington Post)

Western editorialists had called for a Russian Pinochet, and they got one, although in reverse order. In Klein’s words: “Pinochet staged a coup, dissolved the institutions of democracy and then imposed shock therapy; Yeltsin imposed shock therapy in a democracy, then could defend it only by dissolving democracy and staging a coup. Both scenarios earned enthusiastic support from the West.”

And both scenarios buttress the thesis of Klein’s fascinating book: That sweeping neoliberal reforms are generally not possible in democracies. Which is why powerful boosters of such economics rarely have much use for democracy in any meaningful sense of the word.

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Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at

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