The rise and fall of a single oligarch as a gaudy microcosm of post-communist Russia.
The prolific Mezrich (Seven Wonders, 2014, etc.), author of Bringing Down the House (2002) and The Accidental Billionaires (2009), takes a sprawling, episodic approach to portraying the brutally absurdist era spanning Boris Yeltsin’s and Vladimir Putin’s regimes, approximately 1994 through 2013. He focuses on Boris Berezovsky as the exemplar of a strange new oligarchic class. Once an obscure mathematician, he began his rise as a car dealer but soon obtained interests in oil, metals, and TV, purchasing a state-owned network that ultimately put him at odds with Putin. Introduced in the midst of an assassination attempt against him (typical of Mezrich’s focus on dramatic incident), Berezovsky seems a vulgar striver yet an oddly sympathetic protagonist, even though many around him came to bad ends. Following his brush with death, Berezovsky initially appeared unstoppable. He became a power within the struggle to keep the unhealthy Yeltsin in office, and he formed a lucrative partnership with Roman Abramovich, a youthful petroleum entrepreneur who initially seemed the ideal protégé. However, the oligarchs went astray in selecting the equally ambitious Putin to succeed Yeltsin: “Berezovsky firmly believed Putin to be [a] perfect cog; a strongman who could be controlled.” But Putin made his intentions clear from his presidency’s outset, “presenting himself as the man who would clean up the chaos and drive the Oligarchs out of politics.” Ultimately, Berezovsky’s resistance to Putin resulted in his exile. As in previous books, Mezrich has a glib, easily comprehensible style, producing an engrossing narrative that stays on the surface of things. The events leading to Berezovsky’s downfall become repetitive and blurry, while interesting side journeys, such as the disastrous 2000 sinking of the Kursk, are only briefly explored. The tale ends abruptly with Berezovsky’s apparent suicide, not really probed despite obvious unanswered questions.
A fast-moving and readable yet unsurprising tale of wealth and power in the new Russia.