MOSCOW (AP) _ For six years, Viktor Chernomyrdin was the quintessential right-hand man _ colorless, reliable, and seemingly content to sit in his boss' shadow.

While President Boris Yeltsin hired, fired and reshuffled scores of Cabinet ministers, Chernomyrdin remained prime minister, apparently immune from Yeltsin's volatile style of leadership.

That ended without warning in March, when Chernomyrdin was unceremoniously dumped, replaced with Sergei Kiriyenko, 25 years his junior. Yeltsin said it was time for a new generation.

But when the new generation failed to stave off economic disaster, Yeltsin turned once again to the old reliable, Chernomyrdin.

Chernomyrdin was born near the industrial southern Urals city of Orenburg in 1938. He attended a technical school, and his first job was as a mechanic in an oil refinery.

He joined the Communist Party and moved up slowly and deliberately until he became minister of natural gas in 1985 and president of the natural gas monopoly Gazprom _ Russia's largest company _ in 1989.

Yeltsin appointed him premier in December 1992. To the surprise of many, Chernomyrdin supported market reforms such as tight budgets and monetary policies to fight inflation, following guidelines set by the International Monetary Fund.

In 1997, after six years of contraction, the Russian economy posted its first growth. Some praised it as a triumph of Chernomyrdin's leadership.

Others said it was his fault the turnaround took so long _ he continued to favor his friends in the energy sector and resisted breaking up state monopolies and closing down money-losing industries.

Analysts said a major reason for Chernomyrdin's ouster was that Yeltsin became concerned that he was accumulating too much power and concentrating on building his presidential campaign for 2000.

Chernomyrdin declared his presidential intentions after he was dismissed, and in recent months has worked full-time on his campaign.

His dour demeanor and technocratic language have done little to inspire voters, however. It was not clear what effect his re-appointment will have on his presidential ambitions.