Vitaly Chernomyrdin: My father used to say that no matter how hard it was, you had to try to do it not just well, but better than anybody else
In memory of Viktor Chernomyrdin’s 75th anniversary
Today in Russia we are giving tribute to Viktor Chernomyrdin; on April 9 he would have turned 75. 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.
The Planet Chernomyrdin will forever remain in the starlit skies of the Russian and global politics.
At the point of his father’s anniversary Vitaly, Viktor Chernomyrdin’s elder son told us about the other side of his father’s life – the life inside his family, which remained off screen for a long time. Vitaly heads the Chernomyrdin Fund and is actively engaged in Viktor Chernomyrdin’s commemoration and heritage preservation. In spite of travelling and numberless business meetings he found some time in his tight schedule to tell us about Chernomyrdin-father. For a whole hour with a smile on his face Vitaly was telling us about his childhood memories, family traditions, numerous friends and how the family together with Viktor Chernomyrdin lived through all of his appointments.
- Vitaly, you have recently returned from Orenburg where preparations are underway for Viktor Chernomyrdin’s anniversary. It is with this city that a long period of Mr. Chernomyrdin’s life is connected. Could you please think of some interesting stories related to this period of your father’s life and career? Are the Chernomyrdin of the Orenburg period and the Chernomyrdin we knew as a Prime Minister and a politician two different people?
I have always thought of Viktor Chernomyrdin as my father irrelevant of which post he held. No matter if he was a factory director, a Prime Minister, an Ambassador... Maybe some will say that the Chernomyrdin – factory director and the Chernomyrdin – Prime Minister are two different people, and they will be right in a way, but for me he always was one and the same person.
From left to right: younger son Andrey, Viktor’s wife Valentina, granddaughter Masha, elder son’s wife Svetlana holding little Andrey and son Vitaly
Father had several job appointments, but the humanness he had in him remained unchanged. For his first job appointment he left Orsk for Orenburg and headed the Gas Processing Plant. I was just a child then, but I took that appointment negatively. I didn’t want to change the school and make new friends. For some people a change of scene is a pleasure, but for me it has always been somewhat difficult. His next appointment (Deputy Minister of the USSR Gas Industry – editor’s note) was followed by another move – this time to Moscow. And everything once again – school, teachers, friends. But those were childish fears.
Viktor Chernomyrdin showing around Orenburg Gas Processing Plant to Vladimir Dolgikh, Member of Political Bureau of CPSU
One of the most vivid impressions of the Orenburg period is my first visit to father’s work. At that time he was Head of the Orenburg GPP, and I was in the seventh grade and came to apply for a summer vacation job as a forger’s apprentice. When I was in his study writing a job application (which I have preserved till now, by the way), I became a happenstance witness of father’s severe dialogue with one of his inferiors. Father must have forgotten about me a bit. I was shocked. At first, I thought that something terrible had happened on the floor – an explosion or something, but now I understand that it was a normal business conversation.
Karachaganakskoye field (with Nikolai Ryzhkov and Nursultan Nazarbaev)
- Viktor Chernomyrdin never took the liberty of using a severe tone at home, did he?
The atmosphere at home was always relaxed. Father never raised his voice at us. But I can’t say he wasn’t strict with us. If you messed something up, he made it clear. In measured tones with a smile on his face father could clearly explain what exactly your fault was.
Quarrelling was against his principles: both at work and at home he adhered to the idea of clearing everything up. But it was uncustomary for us to discuss work problems at home. Father never consulted with us or mother on his business, he used to make decisions himself. And he expected the same from his inferiors. For example, if he offered a position to one of his workers and heard him reply that he had to consult with his wife, father gave up on that person and never went back to that subject again. He couldn’t understand how one could ‘go consult with his wife’ on business.
- What family traditions did Viktor Chernomyrdin set up, what was his contribution to your and your brother’s upbringing?
He was both an excellent father and husband. Of course, his posts often hindered our communication, we always wanted to spend more time together. But we understood that he was working, we saw his work and took it in stride. But I can’t say that father didn’t take part in our upbringing. Rather, he set us an example with his fitness to work. But when he had free time, he spent it with us.
Father loved hunting and fishing. And when he was going out of town with his friends on weekends, he always took my brother and me with him. Such trips were a great joy for us. I treasured this special attitude even when I grew up and I used to bring many interesting stories back with me.
Here’s one that comes to mind. Already being a Prime Minister, father went for an early grouse shooting to the Kaluga Region with his friends when the weather was cold and muddy. At four in the morning when we were about to leave, the security service said: “Mr. Chernomyrdin, are you keen on stamps by any chance?” They couldn’t confess they didn’t want to go out in the mud. The situation was quite funny.
But honestly speaking, I was very happy when father quit his political career. When he wasn’t Prime Minister anymore, we started seeing each other more often, we communicated more. The period of his work as an Ambassador to Ukraine was quite interesting. He often came to us, and we often visited him, too. It was then that we set up a joint agricultural business with him. And though it was alien to our profession, we enjoyed working on land. Father was the one who enjoyed it most – the collective farm we had been restoring was in his native settlement.
Next to his father’s “thirty-hundred-weight lorry” that Viktor bought out from communal farm and afterwards renovated
Father always took interest in the company’s affairs. He used to call there and then give me instructions and advise me what to do, as I was the collective farm Director.
- Vitaly, how did Viktor Chernomyrdin accept the end of his political career? Was he much upset by the fact that several months after he had quit his position as a Prime Minister a default broke out?
I think that father liked it a lot more in Ukraine than in Russia. Well, yes, already being an Ambassador, he closely followed the political life of his native country, commented upon it, saw the flaws, but didn’t regret the end of his political career. Once he told me that he didn’t even want to set eyes on the White House. “Ukraine – that is what is interesting, as for the Government – people work there anyway, everything’s fine,” he told me.
When the default occurred, father and I were in Orenburg. Father and artist Ilya Glazunov participated in some events on August 18 and after that they both had to fly to Moscow immediately. Then I understood that something serious had happened. But father kept his head.
- Your farther went down in Russian history as the Gazprom’s reformer. Tell us, please, how did Viktor Chernomyrdin feel as the Company’s Head after chairing the Soviet Ministry for a long time? What were his thoughts? What did he tell you at home?
At the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s I worked in the North. So, I have no idea what topics were discussed in my family. But I do know that Gazprom has always been a priority for my farther.
Starting his working day, he used to focus on Gazprom, and even after he became a Prime Minister, he still called Mr. Vyakhirev (between 1992 and 2001 Rem Vyakhirev was Chairman of the Gazprom Management Committee – editor’s note) every day and they talked. He felt happy for the Company and had worries about it, he was always in the know and understood what was going on in Gazprom. Even when he moved to Ukraine, his interest for the Company’s life was still high.
- Did Viktor Chernomyrdin have any “superheroes” in mind, an example to follow? In his opinion, who were his friends?
My father had a lot of friends. Vyacheslav Sheremet (First Deputy of Rem Vyakhirev in Gazprom – editor’s note) was always by his side, Rem Vyakhirev, Nikolai Guslisty (another Deputy of Rem Vyakhirev – editor’s note) and Kirill Kuznitsyn. My farther never forgot about his schoolmates and colleagues from Orsk and Orenburg.
As far as I can remember, my father always gathered his friends and organized celebrations. When we moved to Moscow, all our relatives and friends used to stay at our place. Our house was never empty.
Only one person was a “superhero” for my father – Stepan, my father’s farther. In those difficult times after the War he worked as a driver. There was only one “thirty-hundred-weight lorry” in the settlement inhabited mostly by widows. He was ready to get behind the wheel at any time, day or night. People were coming for his help at nights and early mornings, asking him to bring some firewood or to drive someone to the hospital. Stepan Chernomyrdin never refused. My farther inherited my grandfather’s sense of responsibility for his work and the people. No doubt that Stepan Chernomyrdin had an incontestable authority in the family.
Not long before his death, my father told me that for all his life he was guided by two principles. The first one: before doing something he always tried to imagine what his father would do. The second one: as a civil servant, he tried to make only such decisions that would benefit the country.
- Has the example of your father’s life influenced your own life, building up your personality and making your professional choice? Have you inherited any of his personality?
If I inherited any of my father’s personality, I would be really proud of it. But from my point of view, it’s quite difficult for me to judge what exactly I’ve inherited from him. But I can say that my father serves as an example for me. He was a naturally gifted and a very talented man.
He played a decisive role for me in making my professional choice. My thoughts were totally different – at first, I wanted to become a military man. But in my last year in school, on the May Day holidays, my father took me to Novokuibyshevsk to get on the inside of a military base commanded by his friend. My father asked his friend to show me an every-day military routine and particulars of an army life. For 3 or 4 days my father and I lived in barracks of the construction battalion, we were shooting and running. After that my desire to become a military man didn’t fade away, but in the end I abandoned that idea. Now I don’t have any regrets about it.
My father used to say that no matter how hard it was, you had to try to do it not just well, but better than anybody else. He used to say if he had been a driver, he would have been the best one. If he had been a turner – he would have been the best turner. And his workmates would have done their work well and reliably as well. That was his credo. In fact, he was right: doing something right means being followed by everybody.
- Vitaly, do you feel the so-called “burden of the family name”? Did it help you on your way or impede?
As I grew older, left school and entered the institute I felt all my father’s appointments on myself, in particular, through the public attitude to me. I used to believe that people around me treated me not as an ordinary mate, but rather a boss’ son. When I was a teenager, I was shy of being Chernomyrdin’s son, but now I’m proud of that.
I have two stories on this subject. As I was send for the pre-graduation practice to Urengoy, my father asked Kirill Kuznitsyn, his colleague and friend, to meet me at the airport. As the plane landed, he asked the flight passengers loudly: “Which of you is Chernomyrdin?” I turned away and kept silence.
Several years later, when I worked at the Urengoy Gas and Condensate Plant, my father was appointed the USSR Gas Industry Minister. I learned it from the plant director. The first idea that occurred to me at that moment was of changing my last name. Having thought it over a little, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do that immediately, and I decided to wait for some time. But, as you see, it didn’t come to this.
Viktor Chernomyrdin – Deputy Minister of Gas Industry of USSR, Head of All-Union Tyumengazprom Production Association. Novy Urengoy, 1983
- Currently, you do a lot to keep the memory of Viktor Chernomyrdin alive. What events were held or scheduled on occasion of his 75th anniversary?
We thought a lot of the way to perpetuate the memory of Viktor Chernomyrdin. After all, one could invent anything: give a vessel or a plane his name... But what’s the use of it? So, we decided to do something of a particular public benefit. The priority was given to immortalizing the memory of my father in his homeland, i.e. in the Cherny Otrog settlement of the Orenburg Region.
Today we are building the Viktor Chernomyrdin Historic Memorial Museum there. It will have installations dedicated to my father and the settlement history as well as cars and arms that he liked and collected. A large educational center will be located nearby. A kindergarten holding 220 children is to be opened in November, this year we are going to start the construction of a school and later on – a boarding school. The Svetoch Orthodox Christian camp is already functioning in Cherny Otrog.
On April 9, i.e. my father’s birthdate, a memorial plaque of Viktor Chernomyrdin is to be unveiled on a wall of the USSR Gas Industry Ministry building at 8 Stroiteley Street. The ceremonial ribbon will be cut by Alexey Miller, Chairman of the Gazprom Management Committee.
The Viktor Chernomyrdin commemoration gathering will be held at Gazprom the same day’s evening. My father’s friends and former colleagues are going to read aloud some fragments of his book. He worked hard at it, but it was published after his death on the eve of his anniversary.
The commemoration events are to be held in Orenburg, Orsk and Cherny Otrog as well. The commemoration children’s hockey competition will be held in my father’s homeland on April 12. This will be the third there.
- Viktor Chernomyrdin was famous for his aphorisms. What phrase of him do you like best?
My father inherited the gift of speaking figuratively from his mother – my grandmother. She was an artist of witty expressions unlike my grandfather who was taciturn.
I wouldn’t say there is a quotation I like best, but he, indeed, could joke during a small talk at the table in such a way, that forced people to burst with laughter. Then they shared his expressions as funny stories.
One of such stories was told me by my father’s friends as I was seeing him home after dinner. First, my father just asked him how his daughters were getting along. His friend answered they were well. Then my father wondered if they got on with their husbands, if he got on with his sons-in-law and finally asked: “Do they take a lot?” At first, my father’s friend didn’t catch the meaning of the question at all. Later on, he often recollected it in different situations. And, indeed, what a great sense is hidden behind these words!