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Once Upon a Time in RussiaReviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
The history of the Jews since the time of their exile from Palestine by the Romans over 2,000 years ago is one of constant movement and persecution.

Yet, no matter where Jews may have settled they were able to forge a place for themselves among their often reluctant hosts, albeit often just temporarily. In time, excluded as they were from being able to participate in so many aspect of normal economic life, Jews developed special skills, whether it was as healers, artisans, or financiers, that allowed them to survive and often prosper even amidst the most difficult of circumstances.
Thus, when the old Soviet Union began to crumble in the late 1980s, it was often Jews who were able to seize the opportunities now presented by the dismantling of an obsolete and failed economic system. Now, in a brilliant new book by writer Ben Mezrich, author of “The Accidental Billionaires” (which was adapted into the Academy-Award winning movie “The Social Network”) and “Bringing Down the House” (which was also adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Kevin Spacey, titled “21”), “One Upon a Time in Russia” tells the story of the rise of the Russian oligarchs, focusing on two of most successful oligarchs of all time: Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.
The term “oligarchy” refers to “a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes”. While there have been other oligarchies throughout history, in recent times the term “Russian oligarch” has come to refer to one of the handful of billionaires who rose to power during the anarchic period following the downfall of Communism in the former Soviet Union.
Mezrich’s captivating book focuses primarily on the rise – and eventual tragic fall of Boris Berezovsky. While Roman Abramovich ultimately surpassed Berezovsky in terms of total wealth, “Once Upon a Time in Russia” explains how Berezovsky mentored the younger man, how he helped him to acquire what became an enormous stake in Russia’s newly privatized oil and gas industry, later an even bigger stake in its aluminum industry, and how Berezovsky’s deeply flawed personality wouldn’t allow him to countenance the notion that Abramovich had actually become an even wealthier and more influential oligarch than he was.
Mezrich claims to have pieced together first-hand accounts of many of the dealings in which Berezovsky is reputed to have engaged. Employing a dramatic re-imagining of conversations and events, the author keeps the action fast-paced and continually exciting. (Given the adaptability of his books into Hollywood movies, one would think that “Once Upon a Time in Russia” is also headed for the big screen at some point.)
Yet, more than a simple recounting of events, the book does suggest reasons for the sudden rise of the oligarchs that have to do with the fact that many of them were Jewish. Here is how Mezrich explains Boris Berezovksy’s meteoric rise to unfathomable wealth: “Impatience, ambition, the ability to dream big and live even bigger – none of these things had mattered in the Russia of his childhood. The best a young, mathematically gifted Jewish kid from Moscow, with no connections among the Communist elite and no knowledge of the outside world, could have hoped for was a doctorate in mathematics from one of the few universities that accepted the less desirable ethnicities. No matter how many awards he’d gone on to win, or papers he’d published, he’d been heading toward a simple, quiet life of books and laboratories.
“And then – Perestroika, the lightning bolt that had shattered everything. First, the old world fell in fits and bouts to Gorbachev and, rising parallel to him, Yeltsin. Then a chaotic new world haphazardly emerged, buoyed by an infant form of capitalism that was just now reaching its chaotic teenage years.
“Suddenly a man who was good with numbers, could think theoretically and far enough ahead not to get bogged down in the absurdities of the nearly lawless moment – and light enough on his feet to dance over the inevitable aftershocks of a science-fiction-level restructuring of an entire nation from the ground up – suddenly, such a man had a chance at a brand-new future. Being different, being an outsider, the very qualities that had impeded success in a world built behind walls, were a form of insulation when those walls came crashing down.”
Ironically, it was another ruthless figure who was able to bring the oligarchs to heel: Vladimir Putin. Mezrich explains how, to a very large extent, Putin’s ascension to power was enabled by Berezovsky who, among other things, owned Russia’s largest private television network, (known as “ORT”, by the way). Shortly after assuming power, however, Putin turned on the oligarchs and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that their days of running things in Russia were over. Berezovsky though, was either incredibly naïve in thinking he could somehow challenge Putin, or simply couldn’t accept the fact that Putin loathed him.
“Once Upon a Time in Russia” is reminiscent of the rise of the American Mafia: Ruthless opportunists see an opportunity to fill a vacuum and, abetted by the cooperation of corrupt officials, amass incredible amounts of power. The difference between the United States and Russia, however, is that while Mafia chieftains have often been challenged and imprisoned within the American legal system, in Russia it is the state itself that has usurped the powers of the oligarchs to a very large extent and it is the state that is really one vast criminal enterprise under Vladimir Putin.
While Mezrich doesn’t spend all that much time analyzing the Jewish origins of Berezovsky and Abramovich, I would think that other Jews would find the story of how two Jewish academics managed to seize opportunities available to them as outsiders and become among the wealthiest men in the world quite compelling. It’s not a story unique to Jews, but the fact that creative and brilliant Jews have, throughout history, been able to circumvent the restrictions placed upon them and achieve brilliant success, notwithstanding that the success may have been arrived at through highly dubious means, is something that is an endless source of fascination for other Jews.
The fact though, that Berezovsky eventually ended up taking his own life would certainly seem to suggest that wealth and power in and of themselves are not sufficient achievements for men of enormous appetites: What they are really craving is the respect, adulation, and yes, the fear, of not just the masses, but of the other men whom they regard as their rivals and peers.
“Once Upon a Time in Russia” isn’t just a riveting tale of greed and excess, it’s a fascinating case study in the psychology of gangsters, whether they are the brutes such as Al Capone or the more sophisticated and worldly types, such as Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather” and, in this book, Boris Berezovsky – and his equally rapacious counterpart, Valdimir Putin.

“Once Upon a Time in Russia – The Rise of the Oligarchs – a true story of ambition, wealth, betrayal, and murder”
By Ben Mezrich
Atria Books, New York
Published 2015
280 pages

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