One upon a time in Russia

In: Daniel In The News

9 May 2015

My latest book review for the FT was published yesterday.

Russian oligarchs, in the popular imagination, are often seen as exemplifying the worst qualities associated with wealth. They are frequently linked to ostentation, corruption and even outright gangsterism.

The reality, of course, is more complex. Oligarchs emerged in the 1990s alongside the tumultuous transition to a market economy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. That does not excuse all their actions, but it does help put them into context. The more recent generation of wealthy Russians seems anxious to avoid the gross excesses of some of its predecessors.

Once Upon a Time in Russia tells the story of the Russian oligarchs by focusing on two of the leading figures from 1994 onwards. Boris Berezovsky went from a career as a mathematician to making a huge fortune, largely as a result of gaining control over former state assets. He was also a close ally of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian republic, and an early supporter of Vladimir Putin, the current president. However, Berezovsky died in mysterious circumstances at his home in Ascot in the UK in 2013 after a dispute with the Russian authorities and losing much of his fortune.

Roman Abramovich is the other high-profile figure in the tale. The senior school dropout started his career by running a toy company before making his fortune in the trading and transportation of oil. He was an early protégé of Berezovsky before famously falling out with him. Abramovich was the victor when the two tussled in an English court in one of the most expensive legal cases in history.

There are many secondary characters, but in a way, implicitly at least, this is also the story of Putin’s rise to leadership in Russia. First as prime minister and then as president, he succeeded in taming the power of the Russian oligarchs in the early 2000s. They were allowed to keep their wealth on the strict condition they accepted his government’s authority.

Ben Mezrich relates the story in the form of a true-life novel. The bestselling author has used the device before, including in The Accidental Billionaires, which provided the basis for The Social Network, the Hollywood film on the creation of Facebook.

Mezrich uses interviews, first-person sources, court documents and newspaper accounts as the basis for his narrative. In many cases he imagines what the characters would have said to each other, what he calls “recreated dialogue”, while he acknowledges “settings have been changed, and certain descriptions have been altered to protect privacy”. This approach has some advantages as well as considerable disadvantages.

The clearest benefit of the approach is that it makes the story more accessible. It is easier to grasp the main elements of the narrative and get to know the protagonists.

Sometimes it also provides insights that are harder to glean from factual accounts. For example, the willingness of the Russian authorities to sell state assets at such knockdown prices in the 1990s can seem crazy in retrospect. Even the most avid advocate of privatisation is likely to blanche at the memory. But it becomes a little more understandable once the mindset of the Russian authorities at the time is understood. The government was experiencing substantial financial difficulties and, at least according to Mezrich, feared the return of communism.

An important disadvantage of the approach is that inevitably some details are imagined rather than real. Mezrich cannot possibly know for certain what Putin was thinking at a particular time or even some of the dialogue related in the book. Even assuming Mezrich did exemplary research — and no doubt he did an immense amount of work on the project — there is a degree of poetic licence. Indeed, the “Once Upon a Time” part of the book’s title could itself be taken as an acknowledgement of the work’s partly fictional character.

It should also be recognised that easy accessibility has a downside. Fully understanding the transition from the Soviet Union to a market-orientated Russia means examining a host of cultural, economic and social factors. Even if it were possible to insert a microscopic spy drone into President Putin’s private office it would not reveal the whole story. Russia’s unprecedented transition is too complex to be reduced to a straightforward narrative.

Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History, by Ben Mezrich, William Heinemann, 2015, RRP£18.99/$28.00

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