NPJ Book Review: Once Upon a Time in Russia – Rise of the Oligarchs by Ben Mezrich

Review by Charles Ostman


No effort was spared during this game of political 3D chess, in which anything and everything goes.  Murder, even open gun battles between members of rival government agencies (using that term lightly here) and outright private militias was the norm.  Anyone engaged in any of this oligarch competition was constantly protected by personal body guards, militias or various enforcement agencies being paid for such protection services.  Business was conducted under a perpetual shroud of secrecy and competitive espionage in this “take no prisoners” environment.

In this tumultuous political ecosystem, the two primary characters who are followed through this saga are Boris Berezovsky, world renowned former mathematician, and the young, very ambitious Roman Abramovich, who eventually became a billionaire many times over with his evolving oil company and related enterprises.  Berezovsky ultimately met his own untimely passing from this world (declared a “suicide” by the authorities of the moment), but the trail of bodies and mayhem rendered along the way gives a very vivid account of what this type of intrigue had been like for many of the competing oligarchs of the time.

Interestingly, close to the end of his life, former Russian president Yeltsin had confided to former US president Bill Clinton that his selection of Vladmir Putin as his successor may have been a mistake.  His original motivation had been, among other influences, that Putin (then mayor of St. Petersburg) had become very effective at introducing western businesses into the Russian economic ecosystem, promising stability and future profitable ventures for everyone participating in these ventures.   This is what Yeltsin, understandably had wanted to see, but had vastly underestimated the intense nationalism and personal ambition that Putin had been quietly masking for the moment.

That’s a discussion for another time perhaps, as the book leaves off just when this transition to the Putin era was beginning to take place, but to get a clear and intriguing picture of what had it had been like, leading up to that next increment of Russian history in the making, this book gives a front row seat to that theater, as the plots and intrigues are played out.