Big Money in the New Russia

Say what you like about Russia in the 1990s, at least it was never boring. Anything was possible, and, indeed, most things happened. Laws and institutions crumbled before an onrush of greed and desperation. As David Hoffman and Stephen Kotkin recount, the events of the period included hyperinflation, a financial boom, a catastrophic bust, the looting of national wealth through privatization, a civil war, the unseating of four prime ministers in eighteen months, a president at death’s door, and the shelling of a parliament.

It all got rather wearying toward the end, whether you were winning or losing. By the close of the decade even the winners were ready to call a truce, so they could have some relative peace in which to consolidate their gains. They welcomed Vladimir Putin to power and let him calm things down. The federal parliament, the regional governments, even the business tycoons accepted a new and more restrictive regime in which the Kremlin set the rules. Two tycoons who could not or would not adjust to the new order, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, were hounded out of the country.

For David Hoffman, the emergence of such tycoons at the start of the 1990s was one sign of a transformation sweeping Russia, when it became in many respects a new country and the ways to power and wealth were opened suddenly to new people. Stephen Kotkin places his emphasis differently. He believes the new Russia can best be understood by recognizing the extent to which its determining characteristics have been those inherited from the old Soviet Union—essentially, obsolete industry and thieving government. This calls for treating the period from 1970 to 2000 as “an integrated whole,” he says, during which the “death agony of an entire world comprising non-market economics and anti-liberal institutions” was played out.

These two approaches may be more complementary than contradictory. They both support the proposition that little changed for most people when Russia staggered free of the Soviet Union. Most remained the victims of a long-term national decline. But for a relatively few people, everything changed. If you had strong nerves, quick wits, and good connections, then bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

Hoffman tracks six Russians as they rise, through the perestroika and the Yeltsin years, toward the heights of financial and political power. One of them, it cannot be otherwise, is Boris Berezovsky, the most daring, extravagant, and outspoken of all the new Russian tycoons. “He is one of those people,” a Berezovsky associate accurately tells Hoffman, “who can exist calmly and comfortably only in extreme situations, in which not a single other person would feel comfortable.”
Berezovsky was a relatively obscure figure, even in Russia, until the middle of 1996, when he announced himself as leader of a team of tycoons backing Boris Yeltsin’s reelection campaign. Intoxicated by Yeltsin’s victory, the tycoons began publicly claiming state power as their reward.

They were called “oligarchs” first by their critics, but …

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