‘Once Upon a Time in Russia’

Ben Mezrich’s racy story is sub-titled ‘The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History’*. In very short chapters, it relates the wheeling and dealing of the new capitalists of post-Soviet Russia and their amazing careers, through the eyes of Boris Berezovsky, his protege Roman Abramovich, and their security service ally Alexander Litvinenko.

The action often takes place at Berezovsky’s Logovaz Club, 40 Novokuznetskaya Street, Moscow, but finishes with dramatic, criminal events in London that made headline news around the world.

The system of political patronage and corruption is based on the Russian concept of krysha (literally, roof), originally used in organised crime to denote the person or organisation protecting gangsters. A ‘roof’ might offer physical, economic, political or personal protection, but the threat of violence was often the most effective.

The tabloid narrative fits the subject matter, with assassinations and other violence. The details are presumably drawn from news reports and other sources. The oligarchs reaped massive profits from their business ventures and garnered obscene wealth from the complaisant privatisation of old state enterprises. The excess of their lavish lifestyles has of course become the stuff of modern legends.

The story is also a short explainer of Putin’s rise to power from his humble KGB origins, as ‘Godfather of the Kremlin’ Berezovsky assists him through his support of Boris Yeltsin’s last election campaign, when all their interests overlap for a time. 

Mezrich’s potted history is definitely not great literature, but worth a read if you have a lazy Sunday to fill in, and want a quick glimpse of Russia’s unique, and indeed tragic, blend of Wild East capitalism and neo-czarist melodrama. 

* Anther edition is sub-titled ‘The Rise of the Oligarchs – A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder’.

Boris_Berezovsky Berezovsky


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