Hard as it might be to imagine, readers of Ben Mezrich’s Once Upon a Time in Russia could find themselves feeling a certain sympathy for Vladimir Putin. Sure, the new Russian president was trying to seize control of the news media in 2000 when he forced television magnate Boris Berezovsky to sell his business. But Berezovsky was, to put it mildly, a handful.
In the gunslinger-capitalism years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, he had risen from mathematician to software guy to billionaire TV tycoon by running down everyone in his path. He and his oligarch buddies essentially bought the 1996 presidential election for Boris Yeltsin, and he was instrumental in the choice of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor. But he badly underestimated Putin and ended up in bitter exile.
Mezrich, best-selling author of The Accidental Billionaires, which depicted the rise of Facebook, is now writing about a world far more dangerous than Silicon Valley. He explores the evolution of post-Soviet Russia through the improbable stories of Berezovsky and his cohorts, primarily protégé-turned-rival Roman Abramovich (engineering school dropout to aluminium titan) and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB man who died in a bizarre polonium poisoning in 2006.
Using what he calls “re-created dialogue” based on interviews and court documents, Mezrich unfolds the drama in cinematic vignettes. Among them: Berezovsky survives a car bombing; Putin lays down the law to the oligarchs in Stalin’s old dacha; Abramovich lands by helicopter at an Alpine resort and agrees to pay $1.3 billion to Berezovsky to dissolve their partnership; Berezovsky chases Abramovich into a Hermès store in London to serve him a subpoena as he sues him for $5.6 billion. Surreal as it seems, it was all quite real.
It’s Wolf Hall on the Moskva: Litvinenko was murdered. Berezovsky died a broken man. Abramovich is worth an estimated $9 billion and owns England’s Chelsea Football Club. And Putin still runs Russia.