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17 December

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Prominent Russians: Sergey Kirienko

Born July 26, 1962
Image from www.primamedia.ru 

He is about to turn 50 but even his age hasn’t helped him to get rid of his diminutive moniker. Sergey Kiriyenko has held a number of high-profile positions but is probably best remembered for his role as prime minister – the youngest in Russian history. He only kept the job for four months but that was enough to earn him the nickname Kinder Surprise - after a chocolate egg with a toy inside that came to encapsulate his youthful appearance and the unexpected nature of his appointment. His other posts – that of presidential envoy to one of Russia’s most important federal districts and as head of the national nuclear agency were no less unexpected. It was under Sergey Kiriyenko that the country’s myriad of nuclear power plants, agencies, institutes and departments were reorganized into a single state company.

A boy from a good family

“I have a good mix. My mother is Russian, my father was Jewish, my surname is Ukrainian and I was born in Abkhazia.” (S. Kiriyenko in an interview to NTV program “Hero of the Day,” 24/03/1998)

Sergey Kiriyenko was born in 1962 in the south of Russia in the Black Sea town of Sukhum (now the capital of independent Abkhazia) into a family of intellectuals and career communists.

Family legend has it that his grandfather Yakov was such a devoted communist that he ran into a burning house to save what he considered his most precious possession - his Party membership card. Allegedly Yakov also personally knew the leader of the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, who is said to have awarded him with an inscribed pistol for his service to the Party.

Kiriyenko’s father Vladilen (a popular Soviet name comprised from “Vladimir Lenin”) also served the Party well. He headed the ideological branch of the Communist Party unit in the city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). Rumors have it that he may have advanced much higher up the party ladder if it hadn’t been for his own last name of Israitel, which manifested his origins all too clearly in the Soviet system of covert discrimination of Jews. It came as little surprise that when Sergey’s parents divorced in the 1970s, Kiriyenko’s mother moved to another city and promptly changed her son’s last name to that of her parents.

The “Little Human Computer”

“I am not ashamed of my work in the Komsomol… it was a good life lesson that taught me a lot…” (Interview with S. Kiriyenko, 12/08/1999)

Like his father, Kiriyenko showed an early knack for Party work. Already in high school, he volunteered to serve as an organizer within the Komsomol – the Communist Party’s youth organization and a stepping-stone for all aspiring bosses in the Soviet Union. His ideological leadership would profess itself in many positions he would hold later – up until the dissolution of the Communist Party in 1991.

In choosing a field of study, Kiriyenko also followed in his father’s footsteps. He applied to the Institute of Sea Engineers where his father was the head of a department. According to one of his classmates, Sergey always sat at the front desk, hung upon his professors’ words and always got straight A’s. He was an activist who spoke well and took part in organizing all sorts of events. As a student Kiriyenko was perceived as a nice, sociable young man, who could be persistent and tough if needed. He never raised his voice though, and in general was on good terms with everyone without getting too close to anyone. In 1984 he graduated magna cum laude. 

For about a year he had a chance to apply his technical knowledge at a submarine factory but very soon left the conveyor belt for the quiet office as the factory’s Komsomol secretary.

His advance along the Party line was swift. He got his first taste of leadership as first secretary of the Communist Youth League in Gorky. By this time, Perestroika and Glasnost were already breaking down the old ideological dogmas, and Kiriyenko made the most of the new opportunities. Soon he was to receive his first nickname - the “Little Human Computer.”

By the time of the USSR’s dissolution, Kiriyenko was serving as the second secretary of the Komsomol unit of the entire region of Gorky – a position that equipped him with the connections and resources necessary to succeed in the upcoming era of capitalism.

Switching gears

“When we had regional elections, I supported Boris Nemtsov for the governor’s position and nearly lost my own job. That was my first experience in politics.” (Interview with S. Kiriyenko, 12/08/1999)

Image from www.pokazuha.ru Image from www.pokazuha.ru

A committed communist, in a matter of months Kiriyenko became an eager proponent of the market economy. Gorky was restored its historical name of Nizhny Novgorod and the region quickly became a main center of economic reform.

Together with his Komsomol comrades, Kiriyenko set up a firm called AMK, which stood for Shareholding Youth Concern.  For a couple of years they traded in cornflakes, shoes and other staples that, in an anemic post-Soviet economy, sold like hot cakes.

A few years later, Kiriyeko got into banking and oil trading. Under the tutelage of Boris Nemtsov, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod at the time, Sergey Kiriyenko founded his own bank. Later he became chairman of a small oil company in Nizhny.

As his sphere of interests expanded, so did his connections. In 1994, he became a member of the Presidential Council for Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship. His transition into Moscow political circles was greatly helped by Nemtsov, who at the time was a protégé of then-President Boris Yeltsin. Less than two months after Nemtsov was made first deputy prime minister in March 1997, he brought Kiriyenko to the capital to become the first deputy energy minister, with Nemtsov taking the head of the ministry. In November 1997, as Nemtsov was too busy as deputy Prime Minister, Kiriyenko became the energy minister.

In just a few months, Sergey Kiriyenko, then 35, would become Russia’s youngest prime minister.

Prime time

“The President told me, ‘the prime minister doesn’t have to be a politician. The president will take care of all the political issues.’ I believed him and that was my mistake.” (Interview with S. Kiriyenko, 12/08/1999)


By spring 1998, the relationship between President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin took a dip. The ailing president looked increasingly vulnerable compared to the energetic and charismatic Chernomyrdin. The mammoth state debt and growing budget deficit gave Yeltsin a pretext to sack Chernomyrdin together with the rest of the government. His replacement was even more astonishing than the dismissal itself.

AFP Photo / Pool AFP Photo / Pool

Yeltsin’s choice fell upon Sergey Kiriyenko, who by then had been in national politics for less than a year and was seen as someone with little experience in high office. Nevertheless he was confirmed as prime minister on 24 April 1998. However Kiriyenko only won the approval of the State Duma (Russia’s lower house of parliament) at the third and final opportunity - after Yeltsin threatened to dissolve the parliament if it rejected the appointment. Yeltsin wanted Kiriyenko to lead a fresh team of reformers, hoping they would find a way to give a boost to the crumbling economy. Despite skepticism towards the young prime minister at home, many Western financial institutions saw the appointment as a symbol of a will to reform.

Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Yumasheva, later said that Yeltsin chose Kiriyenko for his confident demeanor and principled position. “Kiriyenko controlled one of the most difficult sectors – oil and gas… An area with a lot of conflicting interests… Yet, he was able to remain absolutely non-partisan… Nobody could influence him, no political or financial group… And that was one of the reasons why dad chose Kiriyenko,” Yumasheva wrote in her blog. She added that Yeltsin believed that Kiriyenko as prime minister would last at least “until summer of 2000” but that was not how things would come to pass.

15 minutes of fame

“I totally understood on the 23rd of March – the day I was appointed acting prime minister – that I’d become a scapegoat. By the way, the 23rd is a fatal date for me – on the 23rd my wife, my daughter and my grandmother were born. I was made prime pinister on the 23rd of March and my candidacy was approved by the State Duma on the 23rd of April. The 23rd of May saw the financial crisis start, the anti-crisis program was put on my table on June 23rd, and on August 23rd I had to resign.” (Interview with S. Kiriyenko, 12/08/1999)

AFP Photo / AP Pool AFP Photo / AP Pool

Along with Deputy Prime Ministers Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais, Kiriyenko, - the First Deputy Prime Minister until 23 March 1998,  and the President’s special representative for relations with international financial organizations  from 17 June - 28 August 1998 -  Kiriyenko became known as one of the "young reformists" who used the International Monetary Fund credits to revitalize the economy. They ended up elevating the national debt to $22.6 billion in the summer of 1998. Specifically, in August 1998, as Russia spiraled into financial meltdown, Kiriyenko's cabinet defaulted the government bond coupons. The move led to the devaluation of the Russian rouble - a severe blow to the country's financial system with millions of people losing their savings in no time. Within days Prime Minister Kiriyenko became the man that most Russians held responsible for the crisis. “Kinder Surprise” turned into “Kinder Surprise worth 10 billion dollars” – roughly the sum that Russia added to its already existing national debt.

Just four months into the job, on 23 August, Russia’s youngest prime minister was sacked. Some believed he lost his job not because of who he was but because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Having just learnt of his dismissal from the government, Sergey Kiriyenko and Boris Nemtsov decided to have a man-to-man talk with the people. At the time a group of striking miners had set up a round-the-clock protest near the White House, where the Russian government resides. Some of them had not been paid for over ten months and they vowed to stay until they were paid and Boris Yeltsin stepped down. Operating in shifts the miners spent the summer sleeping in self-made tents on the nearby Gorbaty Bridge, talking with other disgruntled workers, marching and protesting. By the end of August their numbers had dwindled to approximately 200 defiant but resigned men.

It was those most determined ones that the ex-premier and the ex-vice premier decided to come out to. Rumor has it that Boris Nemtsov was so upset that, according to the miners, he assured them that he himself was prepared to sit alongside them and bang a helmet. Sergey Kiriyenko allegedly cursed the oligarchs, trying to explain to the miners that “all the bad things in Russia’s economy stemmed from the magnates and he himself was to blame neither for crises nor for the devaluation.” The two former government officials offered the miners a bottle of vodka as a sign of professional solidarity. However, the miners refused to drink with them – they say the bottle was never opened.

Second coming

A plenipotentiary’s work can’t be popular. Have you ever tried to elect a bus controller by passenger vote? Controllers are never in favor.” (S. Kiriyenko, Sept. 2002.)

But the total failure did not turn Kiriyenko off a political career - most surprisingly, he survived as a politician. In 1999 he ran for the Moscow Mayor’s office (coming in second with 11.2% of the votes). That same year he led the liberal reformist Union of Right Wing Forces to parliamentary elections. Their success was modest but it secured Kiriyenko a seat in the lower house of Russia’s parliament – the State Duma.

However his true political second coming was initiated by then President Vladimir Putin. In May 2000 he appointed Kiriyenko as presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District, which includes several key regions.

Apart from Nizhny Novgorod – Kiriyenko’s political launching pad – the district comprises several important republics, including the predominantly Muslim Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Volga district also houses the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, which is responsible for designing nuclear weapons.

The appointment of “Kinder Surprise” was indeed a surprise to many: all other federal districts at the time had generals as presidential envoys. According to Kiriyenko, Putin gave him a task – to work out a management model for the district that could be later used all over Russia. Media reports claimed Kiriyenko’s model was simple: he sorted out the “verticality of power” and managed to make all heads of his regions loyal to the federal center.

Rumor has it that Vladimir Putin’s decision to make presidential envoys answer to the head of presidential administration (rather than the president himself – as it used to be) had to do with the abundance of Kiriyenko’s reformatory proposals. For example, Kiriyenko started a campaign to move Parliament, the Central Bank and several other institutions from the capital to Nizhny Novgorod. He also suggested making the envoys responsible for overseeing the money coming to the regions from Moscow and even worked out a program for the efficient spending of those funds. However, none of those initiatives were supported in the capital.

Image from www.old.rosatom.ru Image from www.old.rosatom.ru

At the same time, in May 2001, Kiriyenko was also entrusted to head the State Commission for Chemical Disarmament, responsible for the destruction of the Soviet chemical arsenal. The Russian newspaper Kommersant immediately reacted by renaming Kiriyenko “Nuke Surprise.” In April 2003 Kiriyenko reported that the first stage of the program had been completed – with 1% of the weapons destroyed. Nevertheless, environmentalists criticized the work of the commission and its head. In June 2004 they presented a report about the “unsatisfactory work of the State Commission for Chemical disarmament under Sergey Kiriyenko.” Kiriyenko was accused of inefficient and inexpedient expenditures as well as the annihilation of the financial documentation of the commission. Despite the fact that in 2005 the country was admitted to have made considerable progress in implementing its chemical weapons destruction program – the scandal loomed in the background, casting a slur on Kiriyenko’s career. It was just one of the scandals connected to Sergey Kiriyenko’s name.

Big scandals of the “Little Computer”

“I’ve never had anything to do neither with Scientology nor with Hubbard College.” (Interview with S. Kiriyenko, 12/08/1999)

The first scandal broke when Kiriyenko first came into the spotlight as prime minister: media reports linked him to Scientology – a church that is often perceived as a sect and is outlawed in several countries, including Russia. There were rumors that Kiriyenko may have attended seminars at the Scientologist Hubbard College in his home town of Nizhny Novgorod, which Kiriyenko denied.

Later in his career, when he served as an envoy, there appeared other reports accusing him of allegedly abusing state funds and excessive spending on his staff, including numerous bodyguards and armored limousines. He was even ascribed a personal jet.

Surprisingly, nothing ever seriously harmed Kiriyenko’s reputation. As a politician, he appeared immune to scandals until summer 2004 when things seemed to turn serious.

Image from www.rus.ruvr.ru Image from www.rus.ruvr.ru

The liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a series of articles accusing Kiriyenko of embezzling 4.8 billion US dollars of IMF funds in 1998 (during his time as prime minister). The newspaper based the accusations on a letter that had allegedly been written to the US Secretary of State Colin Powell by five US Congressmen and posted on the website of the American Defense Council. The newspaper went on to claim that Kiriyenko had used some of the embezzled funds to purchase real estate in the United States in an attempt to gain US citizenship. Two days later the congressmen stated their signatures had been forged and the letter was a prank. Kiriyenko sued the newspaper and the author of the articles for libel. He won the case and the court ordered Novaya Gazeta to retract all publications relating to the accusations, noting that “Novaya Gazeta’s content on the missing IMF funds includes a great deal of unproven information" – something the newspaper’s editor-in-chief never agreed with.  

Mega job

“Joint stock companies in the nuclear sector can and have to exist, but they have to be fully controlled by the state. Only such an integrated structure can compete with world names like Areva, Westinghouse, Toshiba. It has to be a public company with 100% state ownership.” (S. Kiriyenko in an interview to Rossiyskaya Gazeta 20/07/2006)

A whole new chapter in Sergey Kiriyenko’s life started in November 2005 with the top job at the Russian Atomic Energy Agency - Rosatom. Vladimir Putin said the new head of the Agency was expected to totally reorganize Russia’s nuclear sector so that the country could keep its leadership in the field.

Image from www.oko-planet.su Image from www.oko-planet.su

Soon after, Kiriyenko announced an ambitious program at an estimated cost of $60 billion - to expand nuclear power and build dozens of new reactors in Russia and abroad. Another statement that created headlines was made at an international conference on energy security in March 2006. Back then, while still fresh in his post, the new head of Russia’s nuclear sector called on the G8 not to stand in the way of Iran and of other states in using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Kiriyenko also became the man in charge of a sensitive mission - to negotiate with Tehran the possibility of building a uranium-enrichment facility in Russia.

Eventually Kiriyenko suggested integrating all Russian nuclear centers, research and production facilities into a single state corporation. Obviously he was to take the post of the head of the new state mega-corporation that controls the entire nuclear sector, both civilian and military.

Love, hunting and aikido

“Sergey Kiriyenko’s hobbies include: hunting, fishing, diving and aikido.” (Rosatom website)

It would have been wrong though to believe that Sergey Kiriyenko’s life was limited to climbing the career ladder. He’s also a family man with a many hobbies.

Image from www.fishband.ru Image from www.fishband.ru

It was at school - in his ninth grade - that Sergey fell in love at the first sight and for the rest of his life. In September 1977 his class welcomed a new girl with grey-blue eyes and a graceful figure. Her name was Masha (Maria) Aistova. Sergey immediately began to court her. A year later they were already inseparable: they visited the library together and copied notes from each other. When they quarreled, the whole class would worry for them as Sergey became irritated and angry. Hardly anyone doubted they would be married. Today, Maria claims he won her over with his wit and charm, while Sergey says it was purely due to his persistence. Whatever it was, the marriage stands strong and they have three children together – a son and two daughters.

When their first son Vladimir grew up a little, his father started taking him out hunting. This was one of Sergey Kiriyenko’s favorite pastimes before he climbed too high up the career ladder and became a man who comes home well past midnight. A family album contains a photo where Vladimir holds a huge wood grouse, with the table next to him covered by smaller game. They say Kiriyenko hunted wild boar and elk and once even killed a bear. Today he hardly finds time for hunting – but according to his wife, he still likes getting hunter’s gadgets as presents: knives, torches, rubber boots or anything that shoots.

Image from www.aikikai-russia.org Image from www.aikikai-russia.org

Kiriyenko is also a big fan of aikido, in which he holds a black belt. At school and in his student years he was more into karate but soon he didn’t have time for it. However in 1996 he met his old friends who used to be his karate partners and learned they had taken up aikido. “As for the black belt – it’s an interesting story. In 1999 I had already done three years but wasn’t taking my test for the belt – I didn’t have time to go to Japan for that. And in one of our Union of Right Forces election campaign booklets some ‘smart PR guys’ announced that the number one (Kiriyenko) in the lists had a black belt in aikido. To re-call all those booklets from all over the country was impossible, while I felt ashamed in front of my aikido partners – I couldn’t just tell everyone that information was published without my knowledge. The only way to correct the situation was to pass the exam…”

In June 2005 Kiriyenko, together with the Natural Resources and Ecology Minister Yury Trutnev, created the Russian Union of Martial Arts and became its co-chair. A month later he was elected head of Russian National Council of Aikido.

Written by Oksana Boyko and Darya Pushkova, RT

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