They were the broom that was going to sweep Russia into the modern era of capitalism and democracy. Young, liberal, Western-oriented, and schooled in market economics, they were the antithesis of dogmatic Communist apparatchiks.
Promoted by President Boris Yeltsin to the highest levels of government through the post-Soviet years, their presence was seen in the West as the best guarantee that Russia's transition was on track.
Then came the financial crash of 1998, and the youthful champions of fast-track market reform started to look more like con artists than saviors to a long-suffering Russian public.
Today, as campaigning for the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections gets under way in earnest, they are fighting what many experts say is a hopeless battle to stave off political oblivion.
"Our main aim is to preserve the ideas of democracy and the market for eight years or so, until a new generation of politicians can make it reality," says Irina Khakamada, a leader of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, an alliance formed late last month in Moscow.
Most of the Kremlin's most famous champions of reform are standing together on a single electoral ticket, which experts say Russians will probably savage at the polls.
Even Ms. Khakamada agrees. "We are ready to be an aggressive voice in the wilderness," she says.
The new movement's list of founders reads like a Who's Who of past Yeltsin governments. It includes two former prime ministers: Yegor Gaidar, who launched Russia's reforms in 1992 with price liberalization and privatization, and Sergei Kiriyenko, who steered them onto the rocks of last year's financial collapse.
There are also ex-deputy premiers, such as Boris Nemtsov, once regarded as the Kremlin's heir apparent. Anatoly Chubais, a veteran of several post-Soviet governments who engineered Mr. Yeltsin's narrow 1996 electoral victory, is the group's chairman.
Trusted by the West
"They were the ones who staked everything on making Russia a Western type of society. And for years the West trusted them, more than Yeltsin, to make the necessary changes," says Alexei Zudin, an analyst with the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow.
"Whenever Yeltsin included Chubais in a government, they said in the West that things are going well in Russia. Whenever Chubais was fired, they said the antireformers must be winning," he says.
All were fired in the wake of last year's economic crisis, and a floundering Yeltsin has gone through three more governments since.
Though it is still early, virtually all projections for the next Duma, or lower house of parliament, indicate it will be divided between Communists and a new centrist bloc led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
That could mean a shift toward more state intervention in the economy, protectionism, anti-Western foreign policy, and, some say, a crackdown on independent institutions and the free press.
Perhaps sensing doom in the air, other long-time Kremlin loyalists have shunned the new Right Wing Union.
Former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, fired by Yeltsin in August after just three months in office, has made an electoral pact with Russia's other liberal group, Yabloko.
Former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who heads the Our Home is Russia parliamentary group, also declined to join. Mr. Chernomyrdin will team up with former Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, an outspoken reformer, to form a separate coalition, his office said.
Reforms bring good and bad
Khakamada, a professional economist who served for a year as minister for small business, is third on the Right Wing Union's ticket. She refuses to entertain any suggestion that Russia's post-Soviet road might have been misguided.
"People have many negative myths of reform," she says. "But in fact we accomplished historic modernization in Russia against terrible odds. This is not appreciated today."
Price liberalization in 1992 ignited inflation and ruined the savings of millions, but it also ended the Soviet economy of shortages and created real market dynamics in Russia, she says.
Privatization led to the concentration of national wealth into the hands of a tiny few, but it also led to mass ownership of property, such as personal apartments and country cottages, for the first time in history.
"We have created a society of 100 million property owners," Khakamada says. "That is what will define Russia's long-term future, even if we aren't around to see it."
It is precisely this attitude that analysts say ensures electoral oblivion for the Right-Wing Forces ticket.
"They will be very lucky to get 2 percent of the vote," says Boris Grushin, director of the private Vox Populi public opinion agency in Moscow. "They are badly hampered by the general feeling that they are to blame for all the problems, the corruption, the economic failures of the past several years.
"But the main drawback is that they are incapable of self-criticism. They are too sure of themselves, too categorical, and they cannot adjust to the changing times," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society