With his knack for turning narrative nonfiction into stories worthy of the best thriller fiction, Ben Mezrich is one of our favorite writers. 2002's Bringing Down the House was a breathless account of how six card-counting M.I.T. students outsmarted millions of dollars out of several formidable Las Vegas casinos--at least for a while. 2009's Accidental Billionaires traced the story of a handful of horny Harvard undergrads--including Mark Zuckerberg--who pioneered social networking as a dating strategy. It eventually worked, and the book ultimately inspired the film The Social Network.
His new book--Once Upon A Time In Russia, an Amazon Best Books of the Month Nonfiction selection for June 2015--documents the rise of Vlad Putin--as well as unfathomable wealth--through the story of two men: Boris Berezovsky, known as the Godfather of the Kremlin, and Roman Abramovich, his one time protégé, and today, one of the wealthiest men in the world. It's a wild, sometimes violent ride made even more compelling by the incredibly colorful characters who populate the "Wild East."
Below, Mezrich has provided short biographies of these characters, some of whom are still making headlines.
June 7, 1994. 5 p.m.
A gleaming, black Mercedes 600 glides down a quiet, tree-lined street in the poshest district of Moscow. In the back seat, a Russian businessman contemplates the long evening of meetings he has ahead of him. He notices a wisp of white smoke rising from the trunk of a parked car just a few feet away. He is about to say something to his driver, when there is a sudden flash of light, followed by a wall of sound. The window next to him explodes in a rain of glass, and the businessman feels suddenly weightless--until the limo crashes back to the ground, axles cracking from the force. Then the heat hits, a ball of fire engulfing the interior of the Mercedes. The businessman starts to scream when he notices the way his driver is now slumped behind the steering wheel. The businessman comes to a sudden realization: his driver no longer has a head.
Thus begins the epic, true story of the larger than life billionaire Russian Oligarchs who surfed the waves of privatization after the fall of the Soviet regime. During a decade of incredible chaos and economic turbulence--often dubbed "The Wild East"--these ambitious, brilliant young men, most of them outsiders from poor backgrounds, carved out empires with the help of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his ruling "Family," a cadre of insiders whose only goal was to keep a resurging communist threat from overwhelming the fledgling "democracy." By the mid-nineties, as Yeltsin's health began to fade, these Oligarchs reached unexpected heights of wealth and power; at one point, seven men controlled more than fifty percent of Russia's GDP. But the party couldn't last forever. In a terrible miscalculation, as Yeltsin looked to step down from the Presidency, the Oligarchs helped install his successor--a man they wrongly believed they could control, a man they thought of as a loyal cog: Vladimir Putin. The Oligarchs couldn't have been more wrong.
Once Upon A Time: The Players
Boris Berezovsky: A former mathematician turned entrepreneur who went on to a political career, becoming known as the Godfather of the Kremlin. He met young entrepreneur Roman Abramovich on a yacht in the Caribbean in 1994, where Abramovich proposed a business deal to privatize a massive, state owned refinery and combine it with one of the largest producers of crude to create one company. In a single act, they would be creating one of the world's largest oil businesses.
Roman Abramovich: A young businessman who began his career running a toy company, manufacturing plastic toys that included rubber ducks. But soon after, he shifted into something much more lucrative: the trading and transportation of oil. The fact that a high school drop-out from the Arctic Circle with no connections could go from making rubber ducks to trading 3.5 million tons of petroleum products in just a few years intrigued Berezovsky.
Alexander Litvinenko: An officer of the Russian FSB secret service who specialized in tackling counterterrorism and organized crime. In November 1998, Litvinenko and several other FSB agents publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of Russian tycoon and oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was arrested the following March on charges of exceeding the authority of his position. He was acquitted in November 1999 but re-arrested before the charges were again dismissed in 2000. He fled with his family to London, and was granted asylum in the UK, where he worked as a journalist, writer, and consultant for the British intelligence services. On November 1, 2006, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized in what was established as a case of poisoning by radioactive polonium-210. He died on November 23rd. The events leading up to his poisoning and death are a matter of controversy, spawning numerous theories.
Badri Patarkatsishvilli: A Georgian businessman who also became extensively involved in politics. He was a close friend and partner of Boris Berezovsky. Although his first name was Arkady he was best known by the nickname "Badri". From the 1980s until the time of his death, he was a flamboyant figure in business and was behind some of the most successful companies in today's Russia. From humble origins, he became the wealthiest citizen in Georgia with an estimated wealth of $12 billion. He was also one of the country's largest philanthropists. Badri died of a sudden heart attack in February 2008.
Boris Yeltsin: President of Russia from 1991-1999. Having successfully fought off two separate attempted communist coups--once by climbing on top of a tank in the middle of Moscow--Yeltsin was instrumental in creating the privatization that led to the rise of the Oligarchs and the capitalist form of Russia we see today. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin surprised the country by resigning his Presidency, handing the reigns to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin.
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Vladimir Putin: The President of Russia. Putin first served as President from 2000-2008, then as Prime Minister from 2008-2012--then again as President until present day. Between 2000-2004, Putin set about reconstructing the chaotic economy of his country, winning a power struggle with the Oligarchs, and eventually reaching a "bargain" with them. This bargain allowed the Oligarchs to maintain their wealth, as long as they stayed out of Putin's way.
Alexander Vasilyevich Korzhakov: A former KGB general who served as Yeltsin's bodyguard, then became head of his Presidental Security Service--a role which he used to gain incredible influence in the Yeltsin regime. He was eventually fired after losing a power struggle with Berezovsky and Yeltsin's Prime Minister.
Valentin Yumashev: The "hippy writer"- a Russian journalist and politician, and a member of Yeltsin's "Family": the inner circle of advisors who helped run Yeltsin's government. Also married to Yeltsin's daughter, Tatiana. In March, 1997, he succeeded Anatoly Chubais in the position of Chairman of the Presidential Executive office.
Vladimir Gusinsky: Russian media tycoon. The founder of the Media-Most holding company that included Most Bank, the NTV channel, and various magazines.
Anotoly Chubais: A Russian politician and businessman who was responsible for privatization in Russia as a member of Yeltsin's administration in the 1990s.
Vlad Listyev: Arguably the most popular journalist and television anchor in Russia. Shortly after his appointment as head of ORT TV Channel, on March 1, 1995, returning home from the live broadcast of his evening show Chas Pik, Listyev was shot dead on the stairs to his apartment building. Valuables and a large sum of cash that he had on him were left untouched, leading investigators to conclude that the murder was either a political or a business-related assassination.
George Soros: The Hungarian born American billionaire, one of the richest men in the world--and in many ways a personal idol of Berezovsky's.
Mikhail Khodorovsky: A Swiss-based Russian exile, former businessman and Oligarch. Once one of the richest men in Russia, he dared confront Putin, and was arrested and convicted in two trials. He was in prison until pardoned and released at the end of 2013.