A cool stroll down the mean streets of Novy Russky’s financial madness, under a rain of cynicism from former journalist Brzezinski.
Working as a stringer for the Wall Street Journal, Brzezinski poked about the backwaters of post-Soviet Russia and the republics before landing a job in the Moscow bureau. Returning to the capital after a five-year absence, he was dazzled by the wealth on display in the city, but he cast a more jaundiced eye on the sources of that wealth, from the big business of humanitarian relief-aid theft to the disastrous privatization of the nation’s resources (natural gas, oil, gold, diamonds, and aluminum are now all under the command of the banking oligarchy). The author tried to rustle up interest in big-money operators in Moscow (grasping bankers both native and foreign, the robber baroness Timoshenilo, the lord of privatization Anatoly Chubais), but the only remarkable thing about most of these characters (many of them former Party apparatchiks) is their wealth—and even Brzezinski’s caustic pokes can’t turn them into a good story. But when he returned to the provinces, he found the kind of natural resources that make for captivating reading, hiply told: a visit to a Russian submarine in Sevastapol, the wasteland of St. Petersburg as it makes a pathetic bid for the 2004 Olympics, the beyond-rough-and-tumble of the Far East energy business, and the dead zone around Chernobyl (where the grass is always greener—literally—thanks to the irradiated soil). And the story of his mugging in his Kiev apartment is riveting in its menace, although his description of its milieu—“the overflowing dumpster that formed the decorative centerpiece of our courtyard”—allows some comic relief.
Russia’s tailspin is by now a tale with some moss on it, but Brzezinski tells it with appealing dash and indispensable black humor.