Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Once Upon a Time in Russia

Review by Gordon McLauchlan

Once Upon a Time in Russia, by American Ben Mezrich (Windmill Heinemann) is, in essence, a biography of Boris Berezovsky, an up-from-nothing entrepreneur who clawed his way to the top of Russian business. It was when the oligarchs were stealing state-owned industries after President Yeltsin decided to change the national economy from state ownership to capitalism. Well, not your traditional social democratic capitalism but a rampant unrestrained variety that made Moscow literally a battleground with assassinations often a daily occurrence.   

          The rise of the Russian oligarchs represented what English novelist and financial journalist, John Lanchester, once described as the greatest act of larceny in history.
This is a riveting book, driven by the thrusting prose style of a thriller writer. It tells how Berezovsky buys a controlling interest in a television network-- using the term “buys” in its loosest sense -- and helps propel Yeltsin back into office after early poll results suggested he had no chance.
          Berezovsky glories in his wealth and power and helps Vladimir Putin to succeed Yeltsin in the belief that the young, undistinguished former KGB spy would be malleable. It didn’t work out that way. Putin proved to be the toughest of them all, took firm control of the country and told the oligarchs they could keep their money as long as they kept out of his way and did not try to corrode his political power.
          After a period in which Berezovsky enhanced his power and fortune by helping one of the most globally famous contemporary oligarchs, Roman Abramovich (he owns Chelsea football club), to steal an oil field and an associated refinery. Then he over-reached in his relations with Putin. Putin stared him down and forced him into exile in Britain where he was never safe from clandestine Russian agents. Ultimately, hubris made him slightly mad and, with his once vast fortune diminished, he committed suicide – or was it suicide? Case closed, anyway.

          What the reader has to keep in mind is that Mezrich reports conversations he could never have heard and describes moods and motivations of the people in the story that he could only have guessed at. We can hope the framework of the story is accurate and the padding true to character. It seems to be accurate in tone. Nothing new about this sort of writing among Americans but you do have to keep thinking about where facts stop and fiction begins. 

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based author & commentator.

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