Always something of an enigma to Westerners, Russia has become a veritable paradox in the decade following its transformation from communism to capitalism. In Sale of the Century, journalist Chrystia Freeland offers a riveting bird's-eye view of this conversion that should prove fascinating to everyone still hoping to do business there, and to anyone intrigued by the erstwhile superpower. Be forewarned, though: Freeland, who began reporting on the country in 1995 as Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, describes a nation of troubling extremes. The nation has evolved into a giddy utopia for some of its citizens, but one unable so far to handle its sudden affluence. The author portrays trendy Versace boutiques and bustling Mercedes-Benz dealerships lining Moscow's fashionable streets, whose sidewalks are patrolled by machine-gun-toting policemen trudging through the corrosive chemical waste used for melting the snow.
In well-written first-person accounts, Freeland goes on to describe how scrappy entrepreneurs made overnight fortunes and then lost them just as quickly to widespread corruption and the 1998 Russian stock market crash. By the end of the 1990s, the economy was half what it had been at the start of the decade, producing less than Belgium and only 25 percent more than Poland. Meanwhile, power blackouts, wildcat strikes, and water shortages had become commonplace. Additionally, the ordinary citizen often grew worse off than before the fall of communism, while a powerful few came to own nearly everything. This cautionary tale ends with a more "workaday economy" emerging from the wreckage, and the author's hope that Russia's economic leaders can stay this new, more-balanced course. All signs to date, however, leave her decidedly pessimistic. --Howard Rothman
From Publishers Weekly
All it takes to derail economic change is a few not-so-good men. That's the message in this page-turning, behind-the-scenes look at Russia's so-far failed attempt to transform its state-controlled economy into a free market. Freeland, who was Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times beginning in 1995, details how two groupsAformer Communist bureaucrats and a small clique of wealthy Russian menAboth opposed Russia's economic reformers who took power in the early 1990s. The reformers, she shows, had to choose one of the groups to ally with, and they opted for the cliqueAthe oligarchs, as the Russians call them. While this alliance may have been necessary, it hasn't done the governmentAor the countryAmuch good. After a series of barely legal dealings (most notably a 1996 plan in which the businessmen loaned the government money in return for large stakes in government-owned companies), Russian politics quickly descended into palace intrigues between the oligarchs and the government, and, sometimes, among the oligarchs themselves. The oligarchs united to maintain Boris Yeltsin's grip on power in the 1996 elections, but afterwards returned to back-stabbing each other. The effect on ordinary Russians has been to create widespread disillusionment. Freeland, no leftist apologist, quotes one Russian friend as observing, "Everything Marx told us about communism was false. But it turns out that everything he told us about capitalism was true." In an epilogue, Freeland argues that the struggle to reduce the power of the oligarchs and establish liberal capitalism is far from over. As the recent three-day jailing of one of the oligarchs, Vladimir Goussinsky, shows, she's probably right. (Sept.)
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