to go local and make Moscow, not the national government, an engine for real change.
When I arrived in Russia as a young missionary, my first month was full of the other, more experienced missionaries telling me of the infamous ruble crash of 1998. I honestly couldn’t fathom what it meant. By summer of 1999, things seemed somewhat stable to a 19-year-old missionary from Utah who had never traveled outside the United States before. I remember that the first time I heard about the crash was as I looked out over a sea of high-rise apartment buildings — the Russians refer to them as “anthills” — from the balcony window of a missionary apartment, also in a high-rise building, in the Vesyoly Posyolok area of St. Petersburg. It was sunny, warm, and a bit of a sleepy afternoon with a streetcar rumbling by down below. I was regaled with stories of runs on ATMs, stores, and bakeries. It all seemed so foreign and so far away.
The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (ISBN: 1-58648-001-4) by David E. Hoffman starts long before the ruble crash and financial crisis, telling the story of how Russia came to that point after the fall of Communism. The story is told in a very personal way, relying heavily on the author’s many personal interviews with the major players in industry and politics, as well as his and other journalists’ first-hand experiences during the “wild ’90s” in Russia. The book provides short biographies of the major players, household names in Russia and sometimes beyond well into the early 2000s: Aleksandr Smolensky, Yuri Luzhkov, Anatoly Chubais, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Vladimir Gusinsky. The book chronicles these men’s rise to power. They were entrepreneurs, opportunists, risk takers, visionaries, and criminals all rolled into one. The book also provides a lot of information on Boris Yeltsin since the story of the oligarchs is inseparably woven into Yeltsin’s story. From the dying throes of Communism to the dawn of Putinism, the book tracks the actions of the oligarchs and politicians they worked closely with and what the consequences were for Russia, Russians, and the West. The oligarchs were an interesting group because of the they were at the forefront of a entrepreneurial movement that helped move the country forward, but they were wholly unprepared to play by rules foreign to them. They cut a lot of back-room deals during Soviet times and continued using that same playbook the farther in the rear-view mirror the Soviet Union got. To compensate for the changing financial and economic landscape, the oligarchs joined up with Yeltsin, going against he sentiment they had in the quotation above and helping him win a second term in the presidency because it kept the oligarchs in power. A case is made for the necessity of that maneuver. Finally, the book presents a few notes about how that move, keeping Yeltsin in power, ended up hurting the oligarchs because Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, has worked hard against them.
The book is rather old, written in 2001. It is still relevant today, though. It ends with a discussion of Putin and his rise to power and the early signs that his time in power was going to be different. The book provides some warnings to the West (mega-rich bazillionaire George Soros is quoted in the book saying that some of his early investments in Russia were his worst investments ever) should Russia ever recover from Putinism and thaw like it did after the Cold War. Hoffman spared no punches, and Western darling Khodorkovsky was shown to be a bit of a slimy rat. (In fairness, all the other Russian oligarchs were portrayed that way, too, but Khodorkovsky seemed to be the leader of the pack.) Khodorkovsky took it on the chin from Putin, but he was no angel and likely doesn’t deserve quite the level of adulation he gets from the Western press. I enjoyed reading the stories from the ’90s and thinking back on the crazy Russia that I knew as a missionary and wishing it could’ve worked out a little better for Russia after the Cold War. The oligarchs were likely a help and a hindrance.
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