European Affairs

Book Review: "Once Upon A Time in Russia, The Rise of the Oligarchs, A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder" by Ben Mezrich     Print Email

JerroldSchecter‘Once upon a time’ is the way fairy tales begin. Ben Mezrich calls his tale “a dramatic narrative account” that runs from 1994 to 2013, tracing the rise, fall and death of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, interwoven with his partners, friends, and henchmen. They include the dour Georgian fixer-cum-advisor Badri Patarkatsishvili; his brilliant business partner Roman Abramovich; and former KGB and FSB (Federal Security Service) officer Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko who refused to kill Berezovsky as ordered and fled to London where he was poisoned to death in 2006 by radioactive polonium 210.

The wicked king is Vladimir Putin, who was handed the throne of Russia by the ailing president Boris Yeltsin six months before he was scheduled to leave office. This surprise move provided Putin and Berezovsky enough time to start a second war in Chechnya and build a new political party, United Russia, enabling Putin to win the 2000 presidential election. Berezovsky appears as the white knight rallying the oligarchs to contribute money for the new Unity Party’s strong showing in the 1999 Duma (parliament) election, and to finance Putin’s election as president.

Berezovsky turns into a black knight when Putin judges him a mortal threat for overstepping the line between business and politics. In July of 2000 Putin invited eighteen oligarchs to a meeting at the Kuntsevo Dacha, Stalin’s home in a dark woods on the outskirts of Moscow, where the dictator died. The symbolism was not lost on those invited. Putin had a clear message to deliver: he was not a simple cog the oligarchs could twist and turn as they wanted. They could keep their wealth, but they had to stay away from politics.

Yukos oil baron Mikhael Khodorkovsky failed to heed the warning and was arrested in the middle of the night, stripped of his holdings and jailed for eleven years. Vladimir Gusinsky, a media baron who made his fortune in banking and television, was given the choice of selling out and leaving Russia or facing charges of corruption and jail. He chose to sell and take his winnings to Spain and Israel.

In Mezrich’s telling, Berezovsky thinks he is cleverer than King Putin, but he fails to listen to advice and makes devastating miscalculations that lead to his downfall. Mezrich recreates a meeting with the world class financial mover and shaker George Soros at Davos in 1996, when Yeltsin’s health is failing and Yeltsin’s nemesis, the Communist party leader, Gennady Zyuganov is ahead in the public opinion polls. Capitalism in Russia faces destruction and an end to the oligarchs who privatized state owned industries. Mezrich says Soros, told Berezovsky : You should think about leaving Russia Boris. You are not just going to lose this election --- you are going to end up hanging from a lamppost. Mezrich tells a good story but there are no quote mark, and he tells us Berezovsky could not remember Soros’ exact words.

Berezovsky, we are told, does not take Soros’ advice and emerges as a whirling dervish to save Yeltsin’s reputation and elect Putin to the presidency by financing the Unity Party and paying millions provided from his partner Roman Abramovich’s Sibneft Oil company for campaign expenses. Berezovsky had arranged the privatization of the state owned oil company through his contacts with Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana. Berezovsky’s funding helped build support for the second Chechnya war which rallied Russian nationalism behind Putin. Berezovsky was a member of Yeltsin’s inner circle which was given the nickname The Family. When Putin was elected Berezovsky was rewarded with an appointment as National Security Advisor.

Mezrich steers clear of detailing who was responsible for the Moscow apartment house bombing blamed on the Chechens which killed 300 people and wounded hundreds. Nor does he detail Berezovsky’s role in financing the presidential campaign other than to show how he rallied the oligarchs to contribute to the campaign to save their lives and fortunes. Mezrich claims that the funds raised came to hundreds of millions of dollars more than any American presidential campaign. In 1990 American presidential candidates spent $345 million. The oligarchs’ lives are detailed with all their extravagant, often obscene excesses, but the core of the book is the question of loyalty and how it is perceived. Specifically, he explains Putin’s definition of loyalty. which grew from his KGB roots and his absolute rule never to betray the secret services. Litvenenko told Berezovsky that his KGB superior had ordered him to kill Berezovsky. When he refused, Berezovsky convinced Litvinenoko and other FSB officers in the room at the time to go public at a press conference where all the others except Litvinenko wore ski masks to conceal their identity.

The tensions between loyalty, personal survival and personal morality loomed even larger than money. It was Berezovsky’s hubris that he believed he could destroy Putin that drove him to his death, according to Mezrich, who takes florid, graphic license to shadow or brighten his players. Clearly, he is setting forth the scenes for a forthcoming film which is already under option. As both the author and his publisher note: “the names of many of the characters and locations in this book have been changed, as have many physical characteristics and other descriptive details. Some of the events and characters are also composites of several different events and persons.”

Mezrich also acknowledges: “I employ the technique of re-created dialogue, based on the recollection of participants who were there, court documents, and newspaper accounts, doing my best to communicate the substance of these conversations, especially in scenes taking place more than a decade ago.” He has produced a page turning, yet too often hyped read that shows little original research.

So what has Mezrich left out of his fairy tale? He sidesteps the role of Putin and Berezovsky in blaming the Chechens for the Moscow terrorist apartment house bombings which provided the basis for the second Chechnya War in 1990 . It was the bombings which rallied nationalist support for Putin’s Unity Party which won a surprising number of seats in the Duma election in December 1999 and paved the way for Putin’s election as President in 2000. In all this, Berezovsky under the rationale of saving capitalism, insists Mezrich, was instrumental, first as a supporter of Yeltsin through his friendship with Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana who welcomed him as a member of The Family, the inner circle around the President. This allowed him to privatize Sibneft, oil, the aluminum industry and buy a 40 percent share of ORT, Russian Public Television. He fails to answer the question of who poisoned Litvinenko, but lists the possible culprits who spent time with him before the polonium took effect.

Mezrich skillfully handles his account of how Putin forced Berezovsky to sell his interest in ORT after its TV coverage of the sinking of the submarine KURSK in August 2000. Berezovsky, relentlessly criticized Putin for not leaving his vacation and failing to mobilize rescue efforts. Berezovsky’s end was now sealed and he was forced to flee to London and seek asylum.

The book is a wild ride. Mezrich takes poetic license, but misses much of the real story which can be found in less sensational but convincing books such as Karen Dawisha’s, “ Putin’s Kleptocracy, Who Owns Russia.”

“Once Upon A Time” is a flawed but fascinating effort to dramatize the life of Berezovsky, one of the world’s richest men, who lost his fortune and his self esteem, leading to suicide. Shakespeare could not have conjured a deeper tale of intrigue, greed, brutality and betrayal.

Jerrold L. Schecter is an independent Cold War historian and the author and co-author of nine books including Russian Negotiating Behavior, Continuity and Transition, United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC, 1998

  • Organized Labor in U.S. and Germany—Will it Survive?

    By Michael Mosettig

    To the union leaders who occupy offices inside, the big white building just north of Lafayette Square in Washington is known as The House of Labor. Encased on marble, with a view of the White House, it exudes the power that once belonged to leaders of American labor unions to help pick and elect Democratic Party presidents and push their agendas through Congress.

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

Infrastructure Planning and Financing: Lessons from Europe and the United States

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

Read more ...

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Edge of a Precipice" by Nathan Crist

"Newpolitik" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course