Before perestroika, these men were normal Sovie
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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,
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
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.
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