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David Hoffman, former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, sheds light onto the hidden lives of Russia's most feared power brokers: the oligarchs. Focusing on six of these ruthless men Hoffman reveals how a few players managed to take over Russia's cash-strapped economy and then divvy it up in loans-for-shares deals. Before perestroika, these men were normal Sovie David Hoffman, former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, sheds light onto the hidden lives of Russia's most feared power brokers: the oligarchs. Focusing on six of these ruthless men Hoffman reveals how a few players managed to take over Russia's cash-strapped economy and then divvy it up in loans-for-shares deals. Before perestroika, these men were normal Soviet citizens, stuck in a dead-end system, claustrophobic apartments, and long bread lines. But as Communism loosened, they found gaps in the economy and reaped huge fortunes by getting their hands on fast money. They were entrepreneurs. As the government weakened and their businesses flourished, they grew greedier. Now the stakes were higher. The state was auctioning off its own assets to the highest bidder. The tycoons go on wild borrowing sprees, taking billions of dollars from gullible western lenders. Meanwhile, Russia is building up a debt bomb. When the ruble finally collapses and Russia defaults, the tycoons try to save themselves by hiding their assets and running for cover. They turn against each other as each one faces a stark choice--annihilate or be annihilated. The story of the old Russia was spies, dissidents, and missiles. This is the new Russia, where civil society and the rule of law have little or no meaning.


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David Hoffman, former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, sheds light onto the hidden lives of Russia's most feared power brokers: the oligarchs. Focusing on six of these ruthless men Hoffman reveals how a few players managed to take over Russia's cash-strapped economy and then divvy it up in loans-for-shares deals. Before perestroika, these men were normal Sovie David Hoffman, former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, sheds light onto the hidden lives of Russia's most feared power brokers: the oligarchs. Focusing on six of these ruthless men Hoffman reveals how a few players managed to take over Russia's cash-strapped economy and then divvy it up in loans-for-shares deals. Before perestroika, these men were normal Soviet citizens, stuck in a dead-end system, claustrophobic apartments, and long bread lines. But as Communism loosened, they found gaps in the economy and reaped huge fortunes by getting their hands on fast money. They were entrepreneurs. As the government weakened and their businesses flourished, they grew greedier. Now the stakes were higher. The state was auctioning off its own assets to the highest bidder. The tycoons go on wild borrowing sprees, taking billions of dollars from gullible western lenders. Meanwhile, Russia is building up a debt bomb. When the ruble finally collapses and Russia defaults, the tycoons try to save themselves by hiding their assets and running for cover. They turn against each other as each one faces a stark choice--annihilate or be annihilated. The story of the old Russia was spies, dissidents, and missiles. This is the new Russia, where civil society and the rule of law have little or no meaning.

30 review for The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia

  1. 5 out of 5

    Maru Kun

    This fascinating graph from Thomas Pikkety's blog showing the change in share of wealth for the richest ten percent of the population in Russia, France and the US tells us in one picture the same story outlined in this book. The graph also has something interesting to say about the US. One thing common to the rise of each of the Russian Oligarchs discussed in this book is that they exploited a lack of any understood or enforced law or regulations around the ownership of state property post the col This fascinating graph from Thomas Pikkety's blog showing the change in share of wealth for the richest ten percent of the population in Russia, France and the US tells us in one picture the same story outlined in this book. The graph also has something interesting to say about the US. One thing common to the rise of each of the Russian Oligarchs discussed in this book is that they exploited a lack of any understood or enforced law or regulations around the ownership of state property post the collapse of communism. An Oligarch might, for example, set up their own organisations within a state company to buy coal, gas, nickel or whatever at state prices and then export these goods overseas at world market prices and pocket the difference. This would normally require them to have overseas contacts, which might well have come through the KGB. In this respect the position of a Russian Oligarch, who knows no law, can be contrasted with that of some American businessmen who are bound by law, but who simply pay lobbyists to change it for them, or with others, like Trump and his pals, who simply think they are above the law. Overall this book is a great guide to stealing anything that isn't nailed down if you are in a position of political influence. We can be sure the Oligarchs in it who haven't yet been imprisoned or murdered will be passing on its lessons to their friends in the GOP.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Like Hoffman's book The Dead Hand which concerns the Cold War and the Soviet's efforts at biological and nuclear weapons, The Oligarchs both boasts and suffers from Hoffman's skills and lack thereof in certain areas. There is no question that Hoffman is an astute researcher: in both books, he has dug up information that perhaps no other author writing in English has ever taken into account and there is probably no better, more-detailed, a book on the rise of the core group of oligarchs in Yeltsi Like Hoffman's book The Dead Hand which concerns the Cold War and the Soviet's efforts at biological and nuclear weapons, The Oligarchs both boasts and suffers from Hoffman's skills and lack thereof in certain areas. There is no question that Hoffman is an astute researcher: in both books, he has dug up information that perhaps no other author writing in English has ever taken into account and there is probably no better, more-detailed, a book on the rise of the core group of oligarchs in Yeltsin's new Russia in any language, Russian included. Hoffman's narrative of these new scions of industry and their rise to power and wealth spares no details and provides nuanced, pithy, descriptions of all the players involved. You feel like you get to know these guys over the course of the book. Hoffman, as he has lived in Moscow for years apparently and also wrote the aforementioned book on the later years of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union, is also able to place the decade of the oligarchs becoming some of the world's richest men and the turn towards a relentless free market in Russia in greater context in the scope of Russian/Soviet history. So what's not to like? Well, where Hoffman suffers in both books is a bad habit of restating things over and again and also in some cases not going into enough detail on something interesting while instead wasting print going into something not so interesting, even if he's already touched on it once or twice already. A good example is how early into the book he explains what Gosplan was about three times in the spane of around 50 pages. Granted, I know a good amount about Russian history myself and read fluent Russian, but still there are places where you have to question what gets great attention and what doesn't. In the case of The Dead Hand Hoffman made some minor factual errors too and my background in Russian economics isn't that great so I can't say I spotted anything in this book, but there could be similar errors. The ones he made on the Cold War were small and fairly unimportant, but still things he could have fact-checked before the book went to press (an example being how he describes Chequers Court as Margaret Thatcher's country estate when in fact it's a retreat for the prime minister and owned by the government, much as is Camp David in the USA). Small things, but in books so deep you have to wonder how many errors of this sort lurk about. This is, therefore, really more of a three-star book than a four-star one, but I will be kind today: it's the best work in English of its kind and probably overall the least biased, when you factor in Russian works on the same topic. It's necessary reading for anyone interested in how the current Russian economy developed under Putin and why things evolved as they did under Yeltsin. So I have to recommend this book—and I recommend the one on the Cold War, too—but wish Hoffman was just a bit better a writer than he is: he's established himself as the core writer in English on these topics in any depth so it would be nice to have someone of the caliber of, say, Stephen S. Hall (science journalist who wrote A Commotion in the Blood) in that position.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Watching Vladimir Putin preside over the opening of the Sochi Olympics, a glorious spectacle that pointedly included the hammer-and-sickle era, it was difficult to recall just what kind of chaos had descended on Russia during the nineties, a bare decade-and-a half before. David E. Hoffman's "The Oligarchs" is a pertinent reminder of just what it took for Russia to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet empire. He focuses here on the emergence, seemingly overnight, of immense fortunes in banking, Watching Vladimir Putin preside over the opening of the Sochi Olympics, a glorious spectacle that pointedly included the hammer-and-sickle era, it was difficult to recall just what kind of chaos had descended on Russia during the nineties, a bare decade-and-a half before. David E. Hoffman's "The Oligarchs" is a pertinent reminder of just what it took for Russia to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet empire. He focuses here on the emergence, seemingly overnight, of immense fortunes in banking, mining (especially oil), and media. Many of these fortunes were created through the privatization of state resources through rigged auctions in which the bidder actually borrowed much of the capital he was pledging. The holders of these fortunes in turn gathered with members of the press and of the Yeltsin to save his Presidency from the man himself. At the moment they organized, he was polling in single digits and the resurgent Communist Party looked like the next regime. If the financial sleight-of-hand that Hoffman details can at times challenge the reader, the account of the campaign to save Yeltsin's presidency is gripping. Yeltsin, with the help of his oligarchs, won the election, and they thought they had won the future. The late Boris Berezovsky crowed that the oligarchs would run the country as a board of directors, a sort of new Politburo, one assumes. And then it all came apart, first when one of the auctions, the privatization of a telephone and communications company, was unexpectedly awarded to the highest bidder rather than the oligarch who felt it was his turn (Vladimir Gusinsky, in alliance with Berezovsky). The young reformers who were trying to transform Russia's economy into a modern ones, Anatoly Chubais and his deputy, Boris Nemstov, were dismissed. Yeltsin overlooked all the regular candidates and elevated a members of the security service, Putin, to Prime Minister. We all know how that turned out. All these years later, those oligarchs who made nice with the new regime or at least kept quiet, were allowed to stay and sometimes prosper. Berezovsky died in exile; it was his security man who was famously poisoned with plutonium. Gusinsky also went into exile. Chubais has been low-key although there was a recent article indicating increasing official interest in his business activity; Nemtsov turned to protest and was assassinated this year. Of the other politicians and businessman treated in detail by Hoffman, Yuri Luzhkov, once thought the successor to Yeltsin, was allowed to remain as Mayor of Moscow for many years after he joined the winning side. Alexander Smolensky's bank folded and his billions melted into mere millions. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil magnate, began to move toward organizing an opposition and found himself in jail for a number of years on tax charges while his company was disassembled. He is free now, living in Switzerland. Hoffman's account of the assembling of Kohodrokovsky's company makes clear that among the key components were inventive accounting and sheer gall. From time to time I run into people who went from the West to Russia in the nineties to help it navigate toward capitalism. I do not think that those people thought they would be helping to create a capitalism like the robber baron era of the post-Civil War United States. Or that the result would include things that I think would even have caused Gould and Frick to pause.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    This book is a fascinating, if overlong, look at the corrupt billionaires that emerged unexpectedly out of the collapse of the Soviet state. Although the sprawling cast of secondary figures in the book summons the inevitable comparison to a Russian novel, David Hoffman focuses on just a handful of major characters, all of whom seemed destined for anonymity when Gorbachev began his "perestroika" campaign in 1985. Vladimir Gusinsky was a failed theater director driving a taxi when he decided to st This book is a fascinating, if overlong, look at the corrupt billionaires that emerged unexpectedly out of the collapse of the Soviet state. Although the sprawling cast of secondary figures in the book summons the inevitable comparison to a Russian novel, David Hoffman focuses on just a handful of major characters, all of whom seemed destined for anonymity when Gorbachev began his "perestroika" campaign in 1985. Vladimir Gusinsky was a failed theater director driving a taxi when he decided to start a "cooperative" (or private company) to sell copper bracelets, which he then parlayed into a banking and media empire centered around Russia's one independent television station, NTV. Alexander Smolensky was a former soldier and periodic anti-Soviet rebel (he printed his own Bibles for sale, although he was Jewish) who began some construction work for the Moscow government on the side, which he soon transformed into an industrial and especially banking empire. Boris Berezovsky was a hyperkinetic scientist at the Institute for Control Sciences when he began importing some Fiats for a state company and then started assembling an automobile empire. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a "komosomol" or youth group, leader in the Mendeleev research institute, when he was allowed to create his own bank from which he got the funds to assemble the oil empire of Yukos. Hoffman also describes how Yuri Luzhkov, later Moscow mayor, and Anatoly Chubais, the economist and reformer, helped create the kind of government where these billionaires could flourish, often at the expense of the rest of the country. The oligarchs themselves had many similarities. Most were Jewish, and thus had been restricted from many careers and honors in the Soviet Union. Most were outraged at state control of their early cooperatives and thus created their own mini-banks to control their earnings, and it was from these banks that most of their profits emerged. Most relied on connections with early Communist leaders to attract government funds to their banks, or to give them control of state assets, and then earned a mint gambling on ruble fluctuations or exchanging underpriced Soviet commodities abroad. Most relied not so much on ownership of vital properties as extracting the profits and sending them to secret accounts. Finally, most of their banks were devastated in the 1998 Russian default, and then most were hounded by one of their own creations, Vladimir Putin, once he assumed power in 2000. Although Hoffman portrays the oligarchs with an understanding eye, he knows that much of what they did was detrimental to Russia. Tragically, however, they were often the only ones willing to resist the still powerful Communists or, later and too late, Putin. The book ends with Putin stealing NTV and driving Gusinsky from the country, but since it was published in 2002, it does not describe how Khodorkovsky was jailed on flimsy charges for over a decade by Putin, or how Berezovsky was driven from the country and possibly killed by Putin's agents. Whatever one thinks of the oligarchs, they reshaped one of the most powerful countries on Earth for almost a decade, and then were driven out by one of their own creations. It's a majestic and tragic story, well told here.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Petr Zajac

    This book attracted me because I am from a post communistic country influenced by Rusia. David E. Hoffman very well described the transformation from Gorbacov’s perestroika to Yelcin’s privatisation till Putin’s post Oligarchs era. The transformation was driven by corruption and clientelism like in other post communistic countries. Autor mainly focused on six Russia tycoons. How they from nothing took ownership of Russia. How they influenced government. Live of actors in the book mainly ends wit This book attracted me because I am from a post communistic country influenced by Rusia. David E. Hoffman very well described the transformation from Gorbacov’s perestroika to Yelcin’s privatisation till Putin’s post Oligarchs era. The transformation was driven by corruption and clientelism like in other post communistic countries. Autor mainly focused on six Russia tycoons. How they from nothing took ownership of Russia. How they influenced government. Live of actors in the book mainly ends with exile or death.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mubeen Irfan

    USSR was all but gone when I was a child and when I was able to decipher the conversations around me, Boris Yeltsin was the name that I heard the most. However, there was a very limited interest in Russian politics in Pakistan because the general population felt we have achieved our purpose of dismantling USSR and thus whatever turmoil is happening now in Russia, we can just sit back and let it slide by. It also did not affect us because we were a pro-American country and looked up to the US for USSR was all but gone when I was a child and when I was able to decipher the conversations around me, Boris Yeltsin was the name that I heard the most. However, there was a very limited interest in Russian politics in Pakistan because the general population felt we have achieved our purpose of dismantling USSR and thus whatever turmoil is happening now in Russia, we can just sit back and let it slide by. It also did not affect us because we were a pro-American country and looked up to the US for everything, be it pop-culture or politics. Impact of all this was that I knew next to nothing about this huge country undergoing a massive change from communism to capitalism. The only Russia I knew was through Val Kilmer's amazing movie 'The Saint' where I got my flavor of Russian nationalism through the opening lines of a speech where speaker calls to the crowd in a play of words from a Shakespear's play, 'Friends, Countrymen, Russians!' and a deafening roar of the crowd which followed these lines... A lot of current interest in Russia is due to Putin and the rise of Russian nationalism through his efforts to bring Russia back to the center stage of world politics. But if you want to understand how Putin got where he is right now, you can find clues here in this book. The age of Russian Oligarchs which is roughly the 9-10 years starting from 1991 onwards, brought back that nationalism in their country which was discarded when USSR broke up. This book is a story of those Oligarchs and their grasp of wealth and power in the new Russia. This is an up close of the shock therapy of Chicago school of economists and how it ruined an entire country. A small group of Russians rigged everything in their favor and accumulated unseen wealth amongst themselves. These oligarchs are interesting characters who are sometimes colluding with each other to maximize their gains and other times at each other's throats, again for the same reason: to maximize their gains. Russian government affairs of 1990s are clouded in secrecy just like the entire history of USSR governance. This makes it very difficult to understand how actually these Oilgarchs accumulated this much wealth (the modalities) and a lot of sources & information is left desired in this book. The author has also acknowledged this fact too. It is a smooth read but I personally found very hard to keep track of all the Russian characters and their names.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Overall solid history of the rise of Russian oligarchy and their effect on (and eventual entanglement with) politics from the fall of the Union to the rise of Putin in the early 90s. Hoffman is a sharp writer with a good eye for color detail. The first half holds short introductory blurbs for each oligarch, establishing how they got started. The second half is a unified narrative bringing these characters through the tumult of the 90s. This format makes the book feel shorter than it actually is a Overall solid history of the rise of Russian oligarchy and their effect on (and eventual entanglement with) politics from the fall of the Union to the rise of Putin in the early 90s. Hoffman is a sharp writer with a good eye for color detail. The first half holds short introductory blurbs for each oligarch, establishing how they got started. The second half is a unified narrative bringing these characters through the tumult of the 90s. This format makes the book feel shorter than it actually is and condenses most of the tension in the second half. The section on Putin is short and effective. It the book's narrative threads and themes together. ‘Oligarchs’ never feels like a slog, which is a feat for a 400 page book -- even the insider-baseball minutiae of the oligarch’s privatization schemes, relying as they did on the obscurantism of complex financial structures, is pretty fascinating. It’s worth noting that the success of several of the oligarchs was contingent on murky high-level protection (Khodorkovsky being the prime example) – from security services? Yeltsin inner circle? Somewhere else? Who knows. This is an unavoidable blind spot in the book – Hoffman says so himself early on - so I don’t think it necessarily suffers from it. Minor nitpick: book treats rise of capitalism in Russia as foregone conclusion, phrasing it as if they’d been resisting natural law, sort of an ‘end of history’ type thing. Mentions lack of ‘mature business culture’ alongside lack of rule of law / finreg as contributing to wild-west style of Russian capitalism in 90s. Seems a pre-2008 idea. I don’t think ‘mature business culture’ exists in West either, or at least hasn’t since the rise of Friedman’s shareholder theory.

  8. 5 out of 5

    catinca.ciornei

    Riveting detailed story about the main Russian oligarchs, retold by a master journalist storyteller. Captivating in many ways - historically, economically, politically; larger than life figures in an unique historical moment, that of the fall of the Soviet Union. Also a great story about really unbridled capitalism, and power of 'fake' news. Interesting read especially given today's major political (USA) and social topics.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alex Snyatkov

    Well researched and well written history of six Moscow oligarchs, how they came to exorbitant money, power and eventually fell. It was very interesting to learn about what was happening backstage when I watched events of crazy "Democracy and Capitalism Now!" play staged on the streets of Moscow. However, I think this book will look boring for anybody who wasn't present in Russia during 90s.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Anya

    A very informative book regarding Russia's richest businessmen in modern Russia. A lot to remember, but revealing of what makes the Russian economy including political webs, Soviet values, and big personalities. Impressive journalism.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jak60

    The Oligarchs attracted my attention because the period it covered (essentially the decade which transitioned the old Soviet Union to the contemporary Russia) was something I was very interested in and of which I had only a rather superficial knowledge. So The Oligarchs presented itself as the perfect match... In many ways, it was so, and if in the end it failed it was for excess: excess of information and details, which make the book unnecessarily too long and heavy reading. In fact I was shocked The Oligarchs attracted my attention because the period it covered (essentially the decade which transitioned the old Soviet Union to the contemporary Russia) was something I was very interested in and of which I had only a rather superficial knowledge. So The Oligarchs presented itself as the perfect match... In many ways, it was so, and if in the end it failed it was for excess: excess of information and details, which make the book unnecessarily too long and heavy reading. In fact I was shocked when, after a few days of avid reading, I realised I was only one third into the book....I had learnt so much in that third that I asked myself what would come in the remainder of the book. Well, that's the problem, what comes after is mainly a mountain of information, details, anecdotes providing supporting evidence to points put forward earlier on and already sufficiently supported. So I confess I started skimming through the chapters, not jumping completely because you can still find some good complementary facts in that plethora of repetitions. In the end, the last couple of chapters, the books picks up again its pace when it describes the final transition from the crazy 90's of wild capitalism and oligarchs into Putin's Russia. All in all, I want to give the book credit for being so incredibly instructive (at least for me), and I will punish the lengthiness and wordiness of the central part only with one star less.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Albertas Agejevas

    The book explains very clearly and vividly the problems of the Soviet economy in the 80's, what whas being done in the late 80's to address them, what consequences it had, and how, decision by decision, the current political-economical system of the Russian Federation was formed. Parts of it read like an engaging thriller. The sequence of events sometimes even feels too logical, I would not expect that much cohesion and so little randomness in the real life. I've lived through perestroika and the The book explains very clearly and vividly the problems of the Soviet economy in the 80's, what whas being done in the late 80's to address them, what consequences it had, and how, decision by decision, the current political-economical system of the Russian Federation was formed. Parts of it read like an engaging thriller. The sequence of events sometimes even feels too logical, I would not expect that much cohesion and so little randomness in the real life. I've lived through perestroika and the downfall of the Soviet Union, I've witnessed the events described in this book in the Russian media. This book put all that into an overarching story.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Brendan James

    Rich story of the huge pieces of shit that bought and sold Russia after the Soviet collapse. The author's persistent wish that Russia had instead gotten the "good" version of capitalism is puzzling given how his own story reveals this to have been a total illusion. Still, well-reported and worth reading for a look at how to destroy a country in under ten years, with understated but clear evidence of US meddling in Russia's affairs.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nic Rad

    A whirlwind of a book that goes through the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and touches on the beginning of Putin’s rise) - well researched and written to understand the mentality and foundation of the pseudo-democratic and pseudo-capitalist system that exists today. It is odd to read this, understanding that nearly all the main characters/figures of the book are now either exiled or dead.

  15. 4 out of 5

    George Nalbandian

    I started this book for a class a while ago and only recently finished it. It's one of the most comprehensive studies of a very unique, complex, and understudied time period in world history. If you are remotely interested in the story of the reprivatization of the Russian economy, this is a great book to read. However, it can be a bit dense.

  16. 4 out of 5

    John Martin Ladrido

    After 2 years I'm done! The Oligarchs gives you the knowledge how to exploit a weak and corrupt government or state. If you are cheeky, daring, and resolute you will get everything. If you are not very cheeky and not very daring, just sit quietly.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lexi

    Dense, thorough and very well written. A lot about the changing systems during after perestroika and the Yeltsin era which could have been dry, but the author kept it interesting.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    Highly informative on the rise of Russian oligarchs during 1990s and early 2000s.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Teodor Spæren

    This was a nice book, but at the end it became a bit too wide for my taste. I couldn't keep up with all the characters and cross interactions so I just let the book lead me along.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ri Or

    send author to white house

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Really outstanding for understanding how today's Russia came about.

  22. 4 out of 5

    A.M. Pfeffer

    A good friend once summarized it best (we read it at same time), when he said..."it's like trying to swim through cement."

  23. 4 out of 5

    Bradplumer

    In 1991, after the Soviet Union dissolved, a band of Russian officials were debating how best to privatize all the industries that had been state-owned for 70 years. Economists said “Auction them off!" But who would buy the factories? Who even had the cash? Others suggested bequeathing the companies to their managers and workers. But the man in charge of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, worried that would just perpetuate the old Soviet system. And he needed to smash that system, quickly and perma In 1991, after the Soviet Union dissolved, a band of Russian officials were debating how best to privatize all the industries that had been state-owned for 70 years. Economists said “Auction them off!" But who would buy the factories? Who even had the cash? Others suggested bequeathing the companies to their managers and workers. But the man in charge of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, worried that would just perpetuate the old Soviet system. And he needed to smash that system, quickly and permanently. So Chubais’s office came up with a hybrid scheme. Auctions, yes, but the public would get vouchers they could use to invest in the companies of their choice. It was a total fiasco. After 70 years of Communism, most Russians had no idea how to play the market. Many sold their vouchers cheaply, for a quick buck. Others got swindled, seduced by slick new advertising, investing in phony shell companies or Ponzi schemes. The few—very few—people who took advantage of this chaos ended up making a killing. Boris Berezovsky figured out how to siphon money from “small investors" in order to buy himself a massive auto factory. Mikhail Khodorkovsky gamed the auctions to grab Russia’s oil wealth for virtually nothing. Alexander Smolensy worked his connections to win government deposits and build the country’s largest retail bank—and later helped millions of Russians lose their life savings when the bank imploded during the crash of 1998. As the title says, this terrific book is all about the rise of the men who vacuumed up much of Russia’s wealth and became fast billionaires in the early post-Soviet yars. Hoffman doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the victims of this feeding frenzy—say, the pensioners who didn’t get paid because the Russian government was being drained of funds—but it’s an outrageous story all the same. The most interesting chapters are about Yuri Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow who refused to privatize the city’s assets all at once, the way everyone else did. Instead, he hung onto them, selling off real estate only slowly—with conditions. A developer might get some land for cheap if he promised to construct new housing for the city, or donate to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Luzhkov’s approach was ripe for corruption, but Moscow also fared far better than the rest of Russia during this time. The rapid privatization of the Yeltsin era looks like a total disaster in retrospect, but Hoffman does a good job explaining why reformers like Chubais felt they had to move so quickly and recklessly. There was a real fear that the Communists could retake the country at any moment—particularly in the 1996 election—and they wanted to sell off as much as possible to make the new, free market irreversible. The chaos in the first half of the book is almost enough to make you long for a little Putin-style stability. Until, that is, Putin actually makes an appearance. Ironically, it was the oligarchs, especially Berezovsky, who helped catapult Putin to power. But after Putin had that power, he turned on the oligarchs. Khodorkovsky was put in prison. Berezovsky was hounded out of Russia, stripped of his wealth, and eventually hung himself in a locked bathroom in London. It turned out that the cheetah-eyed Putin, who might well be the richest man in the world today, was a more effective robber baron than any of them. As a side note, the book is a nice monument to a bygone era in newspaper reporting. Hoffman was a Washington Post reporter who was given the sort of time and space to explore Russia that would be unimaginable today. The footnotes reveal that a vast number of U.S. newspapers—the Miami Herald!—were doing in-depth investigative journalism in Russia during the 1990s. The end result was a book that’s fantastically well-reported. I wonder if something like it would still be possible today.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Haur Bin

    Very interestingly put together stories of a bunch of opportunistic oligarchs who rushed through the door during the collapse of Communism in Soviet Union to grab as much as possible for themselves with the help of Yeltsin's government (Luzhkov and Chubais) and ultimately propelled themselves into positions of unimaginable wealth & power. The author chronicled clearly starting from the mass discontent and shortages during Communist Soviet Union. The failed system led to the rise of Yeltsin's Rus Very interestingly put together stories of a bunch of opportunistic oligarchs who rushed through the door during the collapse of Communism in Soviet Union to grab as much as possible for themselves with the help of Yeltsin's government (Luzhkov and Chubais) and ultimately propelled themselves into positions of unimaginable wealth & power. The author chronicled clearly starting from the mass discontent and shortages during Communist Soviet Union. The failed system led to the rise of Yeltsin's Russia & Capitalism. However the previous regime also left behind shady economy and weak enforcement of law which were catalyst for the rise of oligarchs who saw opportunities faster than anyone else and had the guts to dive headlong into the new economy. Oligarchs like Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Smolensky first achieved tremendous wealth through easy money from siphoning State subsidies and manipulated exchange rates. Most of them controlled these easy money through commercial banking activities and then use them as leverage to take over newly privatised companies at a fraction of their true value & eventually dominating various profitable & politically powerful spheres; Berezovsky car industry, Gusinsky media, Smolensky banking and Khodorkovsky energy. Supporting their rise were politicians like Chubais, the chief of privatisation and Luzhkov, the eventual Mayor of Moscow who were ideological proponents of capitalist market albeit having fundamental differences in interpretation; Chubais believed in allowing free market to choose winners from losers while Luzhkov believed in controlled capitalism where he decides the winner. Oligarchs despite their differences banded together behind Yeltsin and in 1996 election established a symbiotic relationship between wealth and power. Chubais & Yeltsin, under pressure from an election slipping away from their grasps, endorsed the loan for share deal where oligarchs were able to attain majority control over key State companies. It was also the first demonstration of how much influence and power the oligarchs possess to help Yeltsin overturn a significant gap - uniting under their mutual hatred and fear of a resurgent Communist Party. Things started going downhill from there as Chubais decided to go back to his ideological position for free market to determine winners which set oligarchs against one another. Berezovsky went further to position himself as the king maker who will choose Yeltsin's successor. Furthermore, cracks in the unsustainable Russian economic structure began to surface as unpaid government loans and currency depreciation sent the economy crashing back down to reality. Through the gaps amongst the oligarchs and politicians rose an unknown former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin into the Prime Minister position - de facto number 2 after Yeltsin. His popularity rose with his handling of Chechen War and eventually succeeded Yeltsin as Russian President. With Putin in power, his new take on capitalism is also different from that of his predecessor. He once again strengthened State power, however allowed oligarchs to keep their riches as long as they keep themselves out of his way. Understanding the importance of controlling the media, Putin did nudged Gusinsky out of the way as collateral damage and Berezovsky for his attempt to maintain his political influence. Khodorkovsky remained wealthy from his oil and gas company Yukos until him crossing paths with Putin who eventually put Khodorkovsky in prison for tax evasion. Overall, very well researched book and the author did a splendid job in intertwining the characters' stories against the backdrop of an extremely messy transition from Communist Soviet Union to Capitalist Russia.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Shinabhat Maneerin

    A comprehensive history of the Russian infamous oligarchs, their origin and rises to power which stretches the influences across Russia, even the Kremlin itself. Even though most of the oligarchs mentioned in this book are perished, either literally or by being stripped from their influences and forced to lay low and disappear from Russian politics, or being brought under Putin's circle during his first term of president right after the resignation of Yeltsin, such despicable characteristics of t A comprehensive history of the Russian infamous oligarchs, their origin and rises to power which stretches the influences across Russia, even the Kremlin itself. Even though most of the oligarchs mentioned in this book are perished, either literally or by being stripped from their influences and forced to lay low and disappear from Russian politics, or being brought under Putin's circle during his first term of president right after the resignation of Yeltsin, such despicable characteristics of these 'old' oligarchs are shared and are similar with the emergence of the new waves of Russian oligarchs. Therefore, the study of such features of the oligarchs is still essential for a more inclusive understanding of Russian contemporary politics; if one wishes to understand Russian politics, one should as well understand the characteristics of the oligarchs. This book is a great combination with Misha Glenny's McMafia. *********************** I personally have an unusual impression with this book. It was in the morning during some weekend of the summer of 2018, I was awakened, late, confused, exhausted and lacked of the will of getting up. It was a hard time when existential crisis hit me real hard back then, as usually happens to recent graduates who are entering the life of early adults. I was haplessly thrashing myself around my bed attempted to find my glasses to no avail, my arm happened to accidentally hit this book I had bought since 2017 and barely touched it, the book fell from the shelf, I brought myself up to a sitting position, picked this book up and started to read it. The contents of the book reminded me of my 'old' identity during the time in the university, when I was obsessed with everything about Russia. Even though we definitely can not travel through time back to the past, the book provided me the missing pieces of the past to piece my present path together again. It was kind of remarkable and, some could say 'magical', moment provided by the journey to Russia 's underworld during such dark times of life.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    This is a fascinating book, but a chore to read. Hoffman packs it with details about the oligarchs, but the narrative is hard to follow, because it is bogged down with so many facts. The first few chapters are the best, as they tell the initial rags to riches stories of the various men. The rest of it is like a laundry list of transactions, one after another, with mind-boggling amounts of money changing hands in bewildering ways. OK. OK. I get it: so this super rich guy one-upped his super rich This is a fascinating book, but a chore to read. Hoffman packs it with details about the oligarchs, but the narrative is hard to follow, because it is bogged down with so many facts. The first few chapters are the best, as they tell the initial rags to riches stories of the various men. The rest of it is like a laundry list of transactions, one after another, with mind-boggling amounts of money changing hands in bewildering ways. OK. OK. I get it: so this super rich guy one-upped his super rich rivals yet again, and got even richer than before, while his rivals got richer to lesser degrees. Repeat. It made me sick to my stomach to learn just how much these greedy men controlled the media and influenced Yeltsin's government. The story Hoffman doesn't tell is what the ordinary Russians lives were like in comparison: suffering in a weak economy while a handful of filthy rich guys monopolized the wealth. I skipped ahead to the end to find that I was actually sympathetic with Putin when he stuck it to these guys. (Berezovksy? Who's that! --That made me laugh.) Of course, Putin has his own generation of the filthy rich, so it isn't as if he has improved the situation; though it is hard to say which regime is worse. Who would you rather have control the media and the economy--a thug like Putin, or a group of robber barons ultra-capitalists? The sad thing is that the oligarchs have given ammunition to the socialists who decry the evils of capitalism. Capitalism run amok is also an evil.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

    Absolutely scintillating look at the state of Russia in the 1990s as it emerged from 70 years of central planning and totalitarianism and tried to grope its way to the establishment of a truly free market and thriving democracy. Hoffman profiles some of the major figures who shaped this tumultuous, but exciting era in Russian history, and the ways in which they made (or stole) their fortunes to become some of the biggest players in Russian business and politics. I like that Hoffman devotes an en Absolutely scintillating look at the state of Russia in the 1990s as it emerged from 70 years of central planning and totalitarianism and tried to grope its way to the establishment of a truly free market and thriving democracy. Hoffman profiles some of the major figures who shaped this tumultuous, but exciting era in Russian history, and the ways in which they made (or stole) their fortunes to become some of the biggest players in Russian business and politics. I like that Hoffman devotes an entire chapter to each of the major "characters", describing where they came from and how they started their journey to the heights of power and wealth, but in the later part of the book lets chronology dictate how different storylines play out, showing how these leaders of business empires clashed with one another in a fluid period of shifting alliances and interests, and a balance of power which alternated from shaky cooperation to outright warfare based on the political and economic environment. This book is very readable despite the immense amount of detail covered by Hoffman, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in recent Russian history and the ways in which the Russian state tried (often failing) to build a true liberal, capitalist democracy in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Hoffman details the rise of six Russian oligarchs from the decline of the Soviet Union until the emergence of Putin. It is truly a shocking and incredible story. Gorbachev began to liberalize the Soviet economy by allowing the formation of cooperatives that could engage in capitalist business enterprises. A few of the successful cooperative managers didn't have any place to put their money and started banks. The banks benefitted from easy money policies and found ways to exploit the Soviet comma Hoffman details the rise of six Russian oligarchs from the decline of the Soviet Union until the emergence of Putin. It is truly a shocking and incredible story. Gorbachev began to liberalize the Soviet economy by allowing the formation of cooperatives that could engage in capitalist business enterprises. A few of the successful cooperative managers didn't have any place to put their money and started banks. The banks benefitted from easy money policies and found ways to exploit the Soviet command economy (e.g. by purchasing artificially low gas to export in exchange for hard currency). By the time the Russian government was ready to privatize state industry, these men were poised to make a killing, snatching up existing enterprises for pennies on the dollar or ruble. It was dirty and corrupt and even well-intentioned. But it made billionaires out of a select few who had been in the right place at the right time, and who began to think that they ran the country. And they did, until Putin showed up. The book closes in 2001, which allowed Hoffman to detail how Putin put two television stations back under state control--a mere hint of what was to come. Hoffman did incredible work putting this story together from a myriad of shady and self-interested sources.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Shawn

    To understand the Putin machine is to understand how Russia went from the Soviet collapse to the present. This very well researched and lively account of the Yeltsin years shows how ambitious upstarts made their way to the top and how Moscow's influence was bought and traded. No reformer, entrepreneur and idealist made it out with their soul intact. My questions: Why did Goldman, Merril and Morgan continue to pump billions into Russia after the 1998 ruble/GKO devaluation? Were they that desperat To understand the Putin machine is to understand how Russia went from the Soviet collapse to the present. This very well researched and lively account of the Yeltsin years shows how ambitious upstarts made their way to the top and how Moscow's influence was bought and traded. No reformer, entrepreneur and idealist made it out with their soul intact. My questions: Why did Goldman, Merril and Morgan continue to pump billions into Russia after the 1998 ruble/GKO devaluation? Were they that desperate after the 1997 Asian financial crisis? And the "financier" George Soros keeps turning up like a bad penny. After Chubais's experience with shock therapy and the encounters with those who came in to fill the power vacuum (organized crime, speculators, state security agents), no wonder Beijing doesn't want to walk the same road. The complete loss of confidence in both the Soviet system and the Wild-West privatization certificates has left Russians with no where to put their money except Western banks. The book also has excellent first-hand interviews and plenty of catchy Russian phrases.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Eric Logan

    Should be required reading in every economics class in America. Fascinating account of the breakup of the soviet socialist system and the intelligentsia who engineered and managed both the collapse and subsequent capitalist reforms and rebuilding of the Russian economy. Especially relevant today with some historical perspective of the individual fates from Khodorkovsky's imprisonment to Berezovski's exile in England and the intrigue surrounding his attachment to the Litvinenko case. America's rec Should be required reading in every economics class in America. Fascinating account of the breakup of the soviet socialist system and the intelligentsia who engineered and managed both the collapse and subsequent capitalist reforms and rebuilding of the Russian economy. Especially relevant today with some historical perspective of the individual fates from Khodorkovsky's imprisonment to Berezovski's exile in England and the intrigue surrounding his attachment to the Litvinenko case. America's recent bailouts and socialization of some of its most sacred capitalist Ideals and Institutions should give students of political science and economic policy makers pause as to the path that we choose and the potential ramifications for our country. A Highly recommended retrospective and cautionary tale !!!

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