Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History by Ben Mezrich, book review

Ben Mezrich scored a hit with his book on the founders of Facebook. Can he do the same with his story of Russia's oligarchs?
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The Independent Culture

The life of Boris Berezovsky, a one-time Russian oligarch who died in Berkshire in March 2013, his squillion-dollar fortune wasted, would make a great opera. Everything about his life story sounds exaggerated and almost baroque, and would lend itself to a glittery stage production.

Take the scene when he has fallen out with the Tsar, alias Vladimir Putin, and is being forced to sell his oil and gas shares to another oligarch for a trifling $1.3bn. One can imagine an Italian tenor belting out that episode in a tremendous aria. Apparently, the piddling size of this sum left Boris broken-hearted and vengeful, which is why he later bet the crown jewels on a lawsuit against Roman Abramovich, claiming he had ripped him off and should have offered billions more. The British judge disagreed. He lost the case, forfeited most of what was left of his pile and died not long after.

It's all stirring, sometimes grotesque stuff but for some reason it doesn't lend itself to a book, or at least not to the kind of book that Ben Mezrich has written, which is breathless and lifeless at the same time. Mezrich is a prolific author and his latest tome feels like a work that was belted out at rocket speed. Every known device is used to make the story hurry along and accentuate the drama. Whole sentences are in italics, there are tiny, two-word paragraphs, phrases are repeated multiple times for emphasis and there is the standard feature of chapters starting with exact times, dates and places. "5pm, June 7, 1994, the Logovaz club, Moscow", one begins. Readers are supposed to feel right there – privileged flies on the wall. The problem is, I did not feel I was at the Logovaz Club at 5pm on the given date – or anywhere else. It is also a mystery how the author feels able to tell us exactly what Berezovsky thought or felt as he sank into an armchair, swigged another vodka, gazed at Abramovich or stomped around one of his palatial villas on the Cap d'Antibes.

Part of the problem is that to sustain the relentless pace of the narrative, a lot of potentially useful detail has to be jettisoned and the result is sketchy and almost cartoon-like. The chosen formula of chapters built round precisely timed meetings and events allows the author no space to build up any backstory and flesh out the various characters. Did Boris have much of a sex life, an emotional life – any interests at all, except making his squillions? Did he have any relatives back home in Russia and, if so, what did they make of their ridiculously successful cousin, son or brother?

Readers may forgive these omissions, but another problem is that the book does not actually explain "the rise of the oligarchs". There is room here for just the one, our Boris. Abramovich gets a walk-on part as the initially submissive understudy who overtakes the star but the rest flit through in shadowy form. The promised "untold story" of their dizzying rise therefore remains untold. Two of Mezrich's non-fiction books have already been turned into movies and one became The Social Network. Apparently, Warner Bros has taken out an option on this one. Perhaps the film will be more exciting than the book.

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