One day, you're shaking hands with an associate across the table; the next day, his men have you surrounded in your armored car. You can't trust anyone.
Why I love it
Secret meetings, spies, double-crosses… Cars blown up, cups of coffee poisoned, men gunned down in their homes. A small group of businessmen take over a country and become untouchably powerful…
No, this isn't the plot of a Daniel Silva novel — this is the actual history of Russia in the early 1990s. Under the rule of Boris Yeltsin, Russia's socialist economy was transformed into a capitalist market economy. A few crafty entrepreneurs, known as the "oligarchs," seized a once-in-a-century opportunity to gain control of the vast resources of the country, making them billionaires practically overnight.
But with this instant fortune came power struggles and danger. Imagine if Jeff Bezos tried to blow up Bill Gates in his limousine, or Mark Zuckerberg had Larry Page gunned down in broad daylight — that's the equivalent of what was happening between the major Russian business leaders. One day, you're shaking hands with an associate across the table; the next day, his men have you surrounded in your armored car. You can't trust anyone.
It is breathtakingly shocking to learn about how a few men came into so much money, and so much power, so quickly. And how it still couldn't protect them from corruption and murder. And how, eventually, a man they had seriously misjudged, a shadowy control-freak from the old KGB named Vladimir Putin, turned on them and took back control of the country.
The author Ben Mezrich has a long track record of identifying crazy true-life stories and turning them into books that are both highly entertaining and highly educational. His book Bringing Down the House, about MIT students who hit it big playing blackjack in Vegas, was adapted into the movie 21. And his book The Accidental Billionaires, about the history of Facebook, was adapted into the movie The Social Network.
This book is compelling because the story is bonkers! It has all the twists and turns of a Tom Clancy novel. The rapid paced storytelling, the mixed loyalties and back-stabbings make Once Upon a Time in Russia read like an Elmore Leonard book on steroids. It is amazing to think that events like these happen outside of fiction. But, in Mezrich's hands, these make the best stories of all.