The sorry story of the fiasco known as the Russian capitalist economy, thoroughly if at times crassly told by correspondent Freeland.
The Russian economy hasn’t really collapsed, according to Financial Times Moscow bureau chief Freeland, since it has never stood upright to begin with—either before or since the fall of communism. What did take place was a massive redistribution of wealth after communism’s demise—along similarly unequal and unfruitful lines. Sometimes the redistribution was rude and crude—witness the rise of the Russian Mafia—but the grand-scale theft was accomplished with all the slipperiness of an eel. During the latter half of the 1990s, the author explains, while shoot-’em-up mobsters grabbed all the headlines, a small group of businessmen (the oligarchs) have grabbed Russia’s most valuable asset—its natural resources—in exchange for their political muscle. Freeland does an exquisite job of delineating the scheming, convoluted politics that shaped this arrangement—particularly those that swirled around the increasingly pathetic figure of Boris Yeltsin. She admirably sets the disastrous macroeconomic stage: Russia’s lack of civil society, its weak tax-collecting powers, its bent judges, its malleable civil servants, its complete lack of checks and balances, and the inevitability of its Soviet-era business directors staying in power. Then she sketches out the dance of death that ensued between the reformers and the oligarchs, as well as the betrayals and character assassinations and the final collapse of the upstart economy (via an IMF bailout that facilitated the flight of investment capital). Freeland stumbles only when she takes mortifying cracks at being irreverent (as in “an arbitrage trader’s wet dream” or “Wall Street’s Big Swinging Dicks”).
Sharply drawn and deeply depressing, Freeland’s tale is missing only a whining country-and-western soundtrack to complete its doleful atmosphere.