SALE OF THE CENTURY
By Chrystia Freeland
Crown Business -- 389pp -- $27.50
GODFATHER OF THE KREMLIN
By Paul Klebnikov
Harcourt -- 400pp -- $28
By Stephen F. Cohen
Norton -- 304pp -- $21.95
By Boris N. Yeltsin
PublicAffairs -- 432pp -- $26
When Boris N. Yeltsin resigned from his position as Russian President last New Year's Eve, he shocked the world. But not a few Russian specialists around the globe breathed a sigh of relief. The resignation put an end to the uncertainty that had marked the erratic and ailing President's second term in office since 1996. It also signaled the closing of an era--the first phase in Russia's transition from a communist superpower to a much-diminished state with its own version of capitalism and democracy. With Yeltsin out and his successor--former KGB spy Vladimir V. Putin--known, it suddenly became simpler to reflect on and write about Russia's experience in the 1990s.
Now, the first books analyzing the Yeltsin era are hitting stores. Chrystia Freeland's Sale of the Century: Russia's Wild Ride From Communism to Capitalism and Paul Klebnikov's Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia are both fascinating, well-written narratives of how a corrupt, oligarchic capitalist system has evolved since Yeltsin and his team first launched economic reforms in 1992. Stephen F. Cohen's Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia is a shrill indictment of U.S. policy toward Russia over the past decade--what Cohen calls "the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam." And Boris Yeltsin's absorbing new memoir, Midnight Diaries, draws on notes he made during his second term while suffering from insomnia. It is, as he puts it, "his personal history as the first democratically elected president of Russia."
All four books are worth reading, especially by those who follow events in Russia. Each is critical of the past decade. Cohen, a longtime observer of the ex-Soviet Union, is the harshest judge, but even Yeltsin admits mistakes. Klebnikov calls Yeltsin's legacy "almost unmitigated failure." Freeland concludes that "Russia was robbed in broad daylight, by businessmen who broke no laws, assisted by the West's best friends in the Kremlin--the young reformers."
For the best and broadest overview, turn to Freeland. As Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times in the mid-1990s, she closely followed the two leading groups of protagonists in Russia's story--the "young reformers" and the "oligarchs," or business tycoons who came to wield powerful influence in the Kremlin. The reformers started out idealistic, Freeland says, but they were "too fanatical" and "believed the end justifies the means."
That's how they came to strike a "Faustian bargain," as Freeland calls it, with powerful Russian business tycoons. The reformers permitted the latter to win control of huge chunks of industry in exchange for embarrassingly cheap loans to the state. That ensured the tycoons' support for Yeltsin, which was key to his 1996 reelection.
But it also marked a betrayal of the reformers' original goals. They wanted to create an open economy with millions of private shareholders and a flourishing middle class. But because of loans-for-shares, Russia ended up with a "corrupt, distorted, and inefficient market economy," Freeland writes. That economy collapsed when Russia defaulted on billions in debt in August, 1998. Freeland captures officials' near-hysteria at the time: Central Bank chief Sergei Dubinin, she writes, was found "laughing uncontrollably" in his office.
Such details make Sale of the Century stand out as a work of reporting. But the book disappoints in another way: Freeland doesn't use footnotes, choosing instead to list where she got her information in a general way. This approach sometimes undermines the credibility of her data.
Klebnikov's Godfather of the Kremlin, by contrast, is well-documented. Klebnikov, who covers Russia for Forbes magazine, taps intelligence sources as well as interviews with the tycoons and their enemies, getting them to spill the dirt on each other. The result is a colorful--and, I would guess, accurate--portrait of the corrupt world of Russian politics and business.
Klebnikov's main subject is Russia's most prominent crony capitalist--Boris Berezovsky, the mathematician-turned-tycoon who insinuated himself into the top echelons of power. Klebnikov lays out Berezovsky's modus operandi: He doesn't create wealth. He destroys it by looting virtually every business he touches. These include Aeroflot, Russia's national airline, and ORT, the Russian public-television channel. Klebnikov presents Berezovsky as a power-hungry, manipulative, ruthless person. "Berezovsky's success was due in part to his relationship with some of Russia's strongest gangsters," the author writes. "He was a man of big ideas, drawing up a grand strategy and leaving his subordinates and intermediaries to deal with the execution."
Klebnikov criticizes the Clinton Administration for failing to recognize that the Yeltsin regime was a "kleptocracy." In Failed Crusade, Stephen F. Cohen comes to a similar conclusion. A New York University professor, Cohen accuses the U.S. Establishment of engaging in a "failed crusade" to essentially turn Russia into America by forcing unworkable formulas on its shattered economy. Cohen takes on everyone from experts at Harvard University to the U.S. media, including BUSINESS WEEK. His conclusion: The U.S. needs a new policy "aimed at the stabilization of Russia and its many devices of mass destruction." That's a worthy goal, but Cohen's suggestions--including an economic overhaul involving renationalization of industries and restoration of price controls, all of which could cost $500 billion--seem unrealistic.
Failed Crusade will likely appeal more to policy wonks than to general readers. Yeltsin's Midnight Diaries will also be enjoyed most by those who already know Russia. That's because the ex-President doesn't bother to explain who is who, and the book's editors offer only a little background information at the start of each chapter. Still, students of Russia will find it interesting to compare Yeltsin's account of events with those presented in Freeland's and Klebnikov's books. At times, Yeltsin comes across as nave. On one point, however, he is adamant: He claims he never asked Putin, his successor, to grant him immunity from prosecution of any crimes.
Yeltsin ends his memoir by quoting his resignation speech. "I did everything I could. A new generation is coming that will do it bigger and better," he writes. Of course, he means Putin. Neither Freeland, Klebnikov, Cohen, nor Yeltsin say what they expect from the new leader. For such predictions, readers will have to turn to other works. But for those looking to understand the challenges that Putin faces--the legacy of Yeltsin--these four volumes have much to offer.