An American investment adviser, on a mission to counsel businesswomen in post-glasnost Russia, encounters corruption, organized crime, and extreme sexism.
In 1993, the Russian economy is reeling under the extreme measures introduced by Boris Yeltsin to shock the country into capitalism. Brooke Fielding, on furlough from a Manhattan investment firm, accepts an invitation from Sidorov, head of an official-sounding “Economic Authority,” to join a team of experts mentoring female Russian entrepreneurs. When she's shaken down by customs agents at the airport, Brooke realizes that being American is no protection against a civilization in free fall. In the seedy, bug-infested Hotel Moscow, where Brooke’s group is housed, service and meals are grudging and skimpy, respectively. The only child of Russian Jews who survived the Holocaust, Brooke is also shocked by the unapologetic anti-Semitism she observes. When their tour bus takes them to a woman-owned factory, Brooke and the other visitors witness an attack by gangsters who stab the company’s controller and beat up managers including Svetlana, one of Brooke’s guides. Svetlana and Olga, a prominent sociologist, take up the story, illustrating the harsh conditions they endure now that the social safety net conferred by communism has unraveled. Olga, elderly at 48, has her car capriciously confiscated by her boss and is mugged on the street by thugs who steal her hard-won groceries. Olga’s best friend, Vera, owner of a cookware factory, has been tortured by gangsters. Svetlana, struggling to raise her daughter in a cramped communal apartment, is raped by Sidorov. After rejecting the help of a handsome fellow American whose motives she distrusts, Brooke embarks on an audacious plan to find out who—among many possible miscreants—is targeting the women, even though a long-ago indiscretion has rendered her vulnerable to blackmail. Generalized commentary, not to mention some PowerPoint-worthy business lectures, occasionally interrupts the far more compelling narrative of lives lived in dystopia.
Still, the novel sheds much-needed light on this turbulent period in Russian history.