Friday, 19 June 2015

Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs by Ben Mezrich Review


The fall of the USSR led to a rush to capitalise on the new state system as it rapidly became privatised. One such man, Boris Berezovsky, a former mathematician, became a billionaire buying state television on top of his car empire. He used the media to get Boris Yeltsin re-elected, giving him political leverage in the process. He took on an eager young protégé, Roman Abramovich, and together became even richer by controlling Russia’s oil and aluminium markets. They were part of a small group called oligarchs, business magnates of enormous wealth, who also had political power. And they were responsible for giving the world the ruthless Vladimir Putin, a man they made president, believing they could control him and discovered too late that they couldn’t.

Ben Mezrich’s book tells the interesting true story of the rise and fall of Berezovsky which in turn highlights the corrupt nature of Russian business and politics. Berezovsky was smart enough to make a fortune off of the new opportunities in Russia after it shook off decades of communist rule, but how he acquired and kept it is almost like reading The Godfather! Assassinations, small armies of balaclava-wearing, gun-wielding thugs, massive bribes, car bombings, street executions and intimidation seems to be de rigueur for how Russian business is conducted! 

Mezrich explains the concept of “krysha” (roof, or protector), an almost medieval-type system of political patrimony, ie. you only get ahead if you have someone looking out for you. Such was the relationship between Berezovsky and Abramovich as Berezovsky became Abramovich’s krysha, ensuring the young man’s rise through his political connections, while pocketing vast sums of cash (allegedly on one occasion nearly half a billion dollars in a year!), all delivered from Abramovich in stuffed suitcases.

It’s a fascinating story particularly as Berezovsky’s out-of-control ego, that took him so far, became his downfall. Angry that Putin was elected by the oligarchs whom he then turned on once he was in office, Berezovsky used the Kursk incident in August 2000 to take multiple shots at Putin via his media empire. This in turn would lead to Berezovsky having to flee Russia for exile in the UK, an almost Bond-villain-style assassination of his employee, ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 (Polonium poisoning!), and Berezovsky’s supposed suicide in 2013.

While it is eye-opening stuff – made all the more incredible by being real-life – I really disliked Mezrich’s thriller-style approach. This is a non-fiction book that reads like fiction. For example, during the chapter on the Barents Sea disaster in August 2000, Mezrich takes the perspective of Lieutenant Captain Dmitri Kolesnikov aboard the nuclear submarine, the Kursk, closing out the chapter by describing Kolesnikov’s actions:

“The last thing he did, before he closed his eyes, was whisper, one last time. “

Um… how did Mezrich know that this was the last thing he did? How did he know Kolesnikov didn’t go out screaming as he drowned? He wasn’t there and Kolesnikov didn’t survive – all hands went down with the sub – so how does he know? Later on he writes:

“Boris crouched low in the backseat of the armored limousine, his face inches from the bulletproof side window, to stare up at the gunmetal canopy of clouds. He couldn’t be sure how long the car had been parked in that spot; he had spent the first few minutes simply gazing at the crown of mountains that surrounded them, his thoughts lost in the swirl of snow that seemed to be blowing through the heliport from every conceivable angle.”

How does he know “Boris crouched low” to look up at the clouds? How does he know he spent the “first few minutes” looking at the mountains? How does he know “his thoughts were lost in the swirl of snow”? 

Another example, this time the fatal meeting between Litvinenko and a colleague:

“’If you came to London to warn me about my former agency’ Litvinenko said, stabbing at the piece of sushi on the table in front of him with a chopstick, ‘you could’ve put it in a postcard’.”

How does Mezrich know Litvinenko said these exact words while “stabbing at the piece of sushi on the table”?

In non-fiction, you just can’t make these suppositions – you can’t take real people and turn them into characters in a novel. It’s easier to read but it’s wholly inappropriate, disrespectful and false. Mezrich’s choice to do this (and while I quoted a few sections, he writes this way for the entire book) not only took me out of the history but it annoyed me that the author was taking so many liberties with his material.

The writing style and the short length makes for a quick read though it does feel like Mezrich doesn’t delve very deeply into his subjects. We get a surface-level understanding of everything and that’s basically it. It feels like it’s designed to appeal to the largest possible audience by presenting itself as an exciting, fast-moving thriller rather than attempting to be a definitive, in-depth and serious work on the subject.

Once Upon a Time in Russia provides a compelling look at the life of Boris Berezovsky and an overview of the Russian business world but Mezrich’s cavalier approach to non-fiction cheapens its impact. Truth is stranger than fiction but truth should never take the form of fiction.

Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs

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