Friday, June 26, 2015

"Casino Moscow" Explores Economic Chaos of Post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine

When my family moved to Ukraine in 1995, I was too young to fully understand the completely fucked up economic situation. But I could see the effects everywhere: desperate people waiting in line for bread, babushkas begging for change outside every metro station, packs of half-wild dogs running through the streets and fighting.

My parents moved our family of five from the Jersey Shore to the Ukrainian capital for a one-year missionary trip. The combination of extreme culture shock and the chaotic state of affairs that defined this place and time resulted in one of the most formative years of my adolescence. My parents moved to Kyiv full-time in 1999, and we still visit frequently and hold on to a deep connection with the people of Ukraine. Having spent so much time in Eastern Europe, I was excited to finally read Matthew Brzezinski’s book Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism’s Wildest Frontier. And I was even more excited that a good third of the book dealt with Ukraine.

The book jacket explains that as a “rookie Wall Street Journal reporter,” Brzezinski “is instantly plunged into the crazed world of Russian capitalism, where corrupt Moscow bankers and American carpetbaggers preside over the greatest boom and bust in international financial history.” Brzezinski — nephew of Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski — doesn’t write in the detached economic prose of a WSJ article. He’s market savvy and explains complex economic issues, but his writing isn’t stuffy or packed with insider lingo. Instead, the book reads more like a travelogue through Russia and Ukraine, as Brzezinski recounts his nights on shitty Russian trains, his vodka-pounding sessions with Russian power brokers, how he bribes officials with cigarettes and bumps into mafia bodyguards armed with automatic guns.

Brzezinski’s description of Ukraine in the early 1990s is so poignant that it brought up memories I didn’t know I’d forgotten. When he talks about the crackly phone lines in his apartment, it reminded me of calling up friends and having a Ukrainian woman jump into the conversation when the lines got crossed. He describes living in a run-down neighborhood (as most were) near Kyiv’s weedy botanical gardens, and although he doesn’t give street names, I’m quite sure he lived in the same area as my family, Druzhby Narodiv. During this time, he explains how the old army trucks that delivered milk and pumped it from a rusty spigot into old beer bottles. I laughed aloud as I read him describe how, in Kyiv, “it was a matter of some prestige” to been seen carrying items in a plastic bag. I remember old women carrying their treasured personal belongings in plastic bags with pride, as if toting plastic was a badge of honor. They carried the bags around until the plastic stretched into shreds or disintegrated.

This was a time of fast-paced transition from post-Soviet collapse to “capitalism” and “democracy” — at least that was the idea. As Brzezinski explains, the early and mid-90s in Ukraine and Russia was a time of power-hungry oligarchs, brazen political corruption, mafia domination and economic inflation. While a few powerful locals (mostly ex-Party bosses) and a slew of Western vulture capitalists got filthy rich, the average person saw their society decay as almost every measurable standard of living dropped.

The Ukrainian people amazed me as an adolescent, as they still do today, with their unique blend of steadfastness and compassion, but Kyiv was a scary place in those early days. A man was found dead in our apartment lobby, his body face-down and his throat slit. Other Westerners constantly warned us to stay away from men who drove black Mercedes or BMWs. There was no real functioning Ukrainian media, but we heard all sorts of stories about ego-bloated mafia men beating pedestrians who refused to move out of their way as they drove their cars on the sidewalk. We American kids traded stories about which courtyards and alleyways had been sites of mafia executions. Most of this violence was brutal but targeted, centered around the flourishing organized crime scene. Still, I bought a whole bunch of knives off street vendors and began carrying two switchblades with me everywhere I went, just in case I lost one. I also carried a $20 bill, which was enough to fend off a thug or pay off a cop shaking me down for a bribe, but not enough cash to get too upset about losing.

Brzezinski didn’t escape the chaos of post-Soviet Kyiv unscathed. He recalls being hog-tied and robbed by a gangster who used the guise of a pretty woman in distress to gain access to his apartment. Brzezinski had all his shit stolen and was left unconscious but alive. Yet this relatively petty crime belies what Brzezinski sees as the real problem: “The economy was a continuous vicious circle of rip-offs, rooted in the communist premise that property belonged to no one — and was thus up for grabs by everyone.” Liberated under the flag of capitalism, only the iron-fisted had the power to grab what could be grabbed. The average citizen was left out in the cold.
Inflation was rampant and seemingly unpredictable, peaking at a mindboggling ten-thousand percent. When living in Kyiv, we Westerners dealt with this by carrying only American dollars and exchanging them for Ukrainian koupons only when we planned to immediately spend the money. Most vendors were more than eager to accept our American cash.

I’ll never forget the story of a young Ukrainian couple that became friends of ours. They had saved up their money for years in order to buy a modest car, a Russian-made Lada. The currency crisis eroded their savings, and their money could buy only about a pound of sausages. Families all across the former Soviet Union have similar stories.

A good portion of the book is dedicated to chronicling the rise of several New Russian oligarchs. As the government sold off public enterprises, powerful bankers were able to snatch up real estate, factories, even entire industries. And once they had snatched it all up, they bolstered the weak and corrupt state to protect their new wealth. One Russian oligarch brags to the author about how his companies are responsible for one-twentieth of Russia’s total Gross Domestic Product. The only thing comparable in American history, the author wonders, may be John D. Rockefeller, but, “there was a key difference between [the Russian oligarchs] and America’s robber barons: Rockefeller built his Standard Oil from nothing, while the oligarchs seized the assets of Soviet Russia. They had not created wealth; they had simply grabbed it.”

The author also investigates several prominent crime bosses, trying to find out how they operate within the economic and political structures of their time and place. Reading about the oligarchs and the mafia bosses, it becomes clear that the lines between mafia criminals and legitimate businessmen were illusory. Both existed in the same sectors of society at the same time, even in the same person.

In one of his many reporting trips into the Russian hinterlands, Brzezinski visits the oil fields of far northeastern Russia. Here, newly privatized companies had decided not to pay their workers or their taxes, which cripples local economies. This part of the book was perhaps the most depressing for me to read, as Brzezinski reports on the massive ecological destruction brought on by a combination of human apathy, broken-down equipment and total incompetence.  

The author also visits Chernobyl, touring the abandoned facility in a crummy “protective” suit, a radiation detection device in hand. He has some really interesting things to say about Chernobyl as a metaphor for the post-Soviet socioeconomic reality. 

Russia has changed a lot since this book was published, and I’m unsure what light this book has to shed on the current state of Russia’s capitalist experiment. Casino Moscow doesn’t have much to offer that would help understand Russia’s renewed imperial efforts in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. But I still think it’s a fascinating read in its own right, a well-researched and well-written book that delves into a critical time in Russian and Ukrainian history. 

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