In February 1985, a serious rotation took place in the leadership of the Soviet fuel and energy complex, with even more serious consequences. The root cause of the sharp personnel changes is still unclear. The Minister of the Oil Industry, Hero of Socialist Labor Nikolai Maltsev, who headed the industry for almost 8 years, was unexpectedly dismissed from his job and retired ahead of schedule, at the age of 56 (formally – for failure to meet the annual plan for oil production, in reality – God knows, for what). In place of Maltsev, the oil industry was headed by Vasily Dinkov, the Minister of the Gas Industry (another surprise), who was in turn replaced by his deputy Viktor Chernomyrdin.
It must be said that, contrary to the prevailing image, Victor Stepanovich was not a hardened gas production worker. A native of the Orenburg region, he began his career at the Orsk Oil Refinery (as a mechanic, compressor and pump engineer), then served in the army for 3 years (mechanic of an air regiment stationed in the Far East). After graduating from the Kuibyshev Polytechnic Institute with a degree in process engineering, Chernomyrdin made a quick party career in the Orsk city committee of the CPSU and moved from the post of head of the industrial and transport department of the city committee to the prestigious “general” chair of the director of the Orenburg gas processing plant.
This GPP was by no means an ordinary enterprise. So, in 1978, a unique helium production complex was launched at the plant, until now it is the only one in the country and Europe and one of the largest in the world (production volume is 5 million cubic meters of helium per year). In the wake of this obvious success, another breakthrough took place in Chernomyrdin’s career – he was first appointed an instructor, and then head of the gas sector of the heavy industry department of the Central Committee of the CPSU.
In 1981, Viktor Stepanovich defended his Ph.D. thesis on the topic “Technologies for the purification of natural gas from sulfur compounds”, and the following year he moved to work in the government, to the post of Deputy Minister of the USSR Gas Industry. Soon, in the rank of deputy minister and head of the All-Union industrial association “Tyumengazprom”, Chernomyrdin became the head of the most capital-intensive and dynamically developing segment of the Soviet economy – the West Siberian gas complex.
After working for 4 years as Minister of the Gas Industry, Chernomyrdin put forward a very creative idea that had, I’m not afraid to use the word, historical consequences. Here is what Viktor Stepanovich wrote about this in his memoirs:
The industry has been declared ‘extensive’. The earned currency is all taken away, and the mining and transport systems must be constantly maintained and reconstructed. Funds are needed, and the funds are huge – among the ministries we were one of the largest in terms of capital investments. No one in the country mastered the funds more than us – neither the defense industry, nor even the “citizen”.
We began to look for a way out – what to do next? We had to save the industry. We thought with our colleagues and made a decision – they entered the government with a proposal that we be given the opportunity to leave the state ministerial structure and move into an economic one. The USSR just passed a law on the enterprise, and we decided to use this law in relation to our industry – to transform the ministry into a concern.
In Gosplan, Gossnab, among fellow ministers and with the supervising Deputy Prime Minister, Chernomyrdin did not find understanding. Unexpectedly, Viktor Stepanovich’s plan was supported, although not immediately, by the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Nikolai Ryzhkov, who brought this issue to a meeting of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers.
Let us turn again to Chernomyrdin’s memoirs:
“I reported at the meeting of the presidium for less than an hour. In dead silence. It was wild for everyone: a person voluntarily leaves the union ministers, takes on both the initiative and full responsibility for everything. I finished the speech, all around – whispering, bewilderment. And then Alexandra Pavlovna Biryukova (deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, who oversaw light industry) took the floor and said something like the following:
“Why don’t we try?” All this is in the spirit of restructuring the economic mechanism of the country, what are we afraid of? And what are we risking? Nothing. We all know Chernomyrdin well, there have never been any complaints against him. Let him try. If anything, we will remove his head from him and return everything to its place!
Everything sort of blew up at once. The decision was made – we were released into “free swimming”.
On August 8, 1989, the Council of Ministers of the USSR adopted a resolution “On the formation of the State Gas Concern Gazprom on the basis of the abolished Ministry of the Gas Industry of the USSR”.