Sale of the Century : Russia's Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism
by Chrystia Freeland
Release Date: 12 September, 2000
I have lived in Moscow since 1997, and worked there since 1991. I was peripherally involved in a lot of the things that are described in this book, and much of my job involved commenting on them. I can recommend this book to both experts and amateurs.
Ms Freeland was the FT correspondent in Moscow during the heyday of Russia's oligarchs, and her story is based on a framework of meetings with all the people who helped a small group of bankers walk off with a significant chunk of Russia's state-owned assets. One of the things that I most enjoyed about this book are the personal details about the players, and the gossippy anecdotes about the things they got up to. The detail is important in Russia, and although she covers it, she never gets you bogged down in it.
I think that this will have staying power as one of the better contemporary accounts of a fascinating period in history. I can certainly voice for its authenticity. One of my colleagues, who was closer to the action, feels that she seemed to have too much admiration for a group of people who are, when all is said and done, criminals. Sometimes you do have to remind yourself that the interviewee would be in jail in any civilised country. But then, the quality of a story is not in its moral judgements, but in whether it conveys the information, and keeps you interested. This book definitely does that.
Wow, what a great book! Not just one of the best books on post-Communist Russia, but one of the best books on anything.
Ms Freeland brings to life the key characters in what is undoubtedly one of the most gripping stories of our time. It is a real page-turner. She writes beautifully, colouring her text with engaging personal anecdotes which bring the realities of modern Russia to life.
The book is a work of journalism (based on personal interviews) rather than history or economics. All the same, Ms Freeland also has an excellent understanding of the theory and practice of economic reform. A first-class journalist, she can break a complicated issue down to its essential core, in terms anyone can understand.
Her analysis and judgements are very level-headed and fair. From the perspective of 2001 she is probably too pessimistic about Russia's economic transition. Still, Ms Freeland is a lot more balanced than so many other commentators (notably hysterical Americans of the "who lost Russia?" school). For example, she draws a necessary distinction between the early phase of Russian privatisation, and the sordid "loans-for-shares" scheme of the mid-1990s, which is the centrepiece of the book.
The book probably overstates the centrality of the loans-for-shares scheme. But it isn't really a comprehensive survey of Russian economic transition. Rather it concentrates on the rise (and ultimate falling out) of the oligarchs, whose corrupt and scheming ways culminated in the 1998 crash. As the Financial Times correspondent in Moscow, Ms Freeman knew all these remarkable characters intimately.
At the same time, though, the book shows the complexity of post-communist Russia, with a colourful cast that goes beyond the oligarchs and their cronies. Here are the "young reformers", whose story of hubris followed by nemesis gives the tale elements of classical tragedy (Ms Freeland draws apt parallels with the stories of Dr Faustus and Dr Frankenstein). Here are the New Russians and Red Directors. The shifting alliances and conflicts between them are expertly described, with telling personal detail. Ms Freeman shows how these conflicts are as much social and generational as economic - which is essential to understand what post-communist Russia is really all about.
I think that this book will become a classic, which people will read in decades to come to get a first-hand understanding of Russia during the turbulent 1990s.