- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

By Matthew Brzezinski
Free Press, $25, 317 pages

From a near-death experience in Kiev to flight from the Russian tax police, "Casino Moscow" is an account of Russia's experiment with capitalism in the late 1990s. It's also a good example of why you shouldn't depend solely on financial journalists for news or history. That, of course, is a sweeping generalization liable to offend financial journalists. But sweeping generalizations are a big part of this book, and they detract from it.
Written by Matthew Brzezinski, formerly a the Wall Street Journal reporter, the book is truly a tale of greed and adventure. As a correspondent in the Journal's Moscow bureau from 1996 to 1998, Mr. Brzezinski saw plenty of both. He depicts the amoral Russian business barons and the Westerners who stood transfixed like deer in the neon headlights of Moscow's glitz and bustle. The opulence, avarice and full-throttle debauchery that shocked, then thrilled, so many foreigners are well described.
The book is as much an indictment of greedy Westerners as Russians.
Valuable insider looks at Russians and foreigners are drawn from the experiences of Mr. Brzezinski's wife, Roberta, a high-powered Ivy League grad, who fought vainly to reform Russian laws and business practices while working, first, for the International Monetary Fund and, later, a Western investing house that the author refers to as "VSO," or "Very Secretive Organization." Perhaps a better name would have been "Very Annoying Abbreviation." At any rate, it's hard to see "VSO" as anything but a group of high-flying idiot savants who, unlike the Russians who eventually took them to the cleaners, didn't have the sense to keep their money offshore.
Mr. Brzezinski makes a good case that most Western investors never cared any more than the so-called mafia about reform; they wanted to get rich. Only when their own dreams of wealth got flushed down the drain did they denounce Russia's crony capitalism for what it had been all along. He aptly chronicles the machinations, murders and inside dealing that passed for "reform" in Boris Yeltsin's Russia, and his book is refreshingly free of mindless pro-reform propaganda. Mr. Brzezinski draws the right conclusions — in hindsight, of course — about how a country without rule of law, governed by fiat, is an open door to fantastic corruption. And he backs them up with great stories about meetings with Ukrainian billionaires, Chechen "businessmen" and Russian oil barons, politicians and others. In short, all the terrific access you would expect a Journal reporter to have.
But what hurts "Casino" are Mr. Brzezinski's constant, often wrong, generalizations and gratuitous swipes at entire groups of people, usually for a cheap laugh. There are also enough little mistakes to make the reader start wondering about the author's accuracy on larger events. The accumulation of these gaffes eventually compromised the book.
I lived in St. Petersburg and Moscow from 1991 to 1996, the year Mr. Brzezinski arrived. But many of his comments made me question whether we really lived in the same country. Mr. Brzezinski leads the reader to believe that most expatriates were high-flying business people or reporters with huge expense accounts. "The average expat had trouble surviving on less than $100,000 a year in Moscow," he writes. Perhaps in his circle of friends, but I was able to live decently in Moscow for one-third of that, and even save money while doing so. There were plenty of Westerners who paid $400 instead of $4,000 per month for apartments, and did quite well without satellite TV, milk from Finland and Toyota Land Cruisers.
Mr. Brzezinski writes that the Ukrainian language is spoken almost solely by "toothless peasants" in the Carpathian mountains. I know a few Ukrainians with master's degrees (and all their teeth) who would take issue with that. Another bizarre observation comes upon the unusual occasion of an American woman, a friend of Mr. Brzezinski's wife, marrying a Russian man. "It was usually American men, gents whose charms, for one reason or another, had been found lacking back home, who hunted for eager young wives in Moscow," he writes.
Perhaps as an American man who has been married for eight years to a Russian woman I'm being overly sensitive. But Mr. Brzezinski goes on about the dating services that hooked up "America's leering gargoyles" with "Eastern European beauties," and how the marriages inevitably split up when the bride's naturalization papers arrived. Of course, there were and are such dating services, and lots of American men who couldn't get a second look from a woman in the States lived like Casanova in Russia. But there were also quite a few normal marriages — whatever that is — between normal people. Almost a decade later, several of my American friends who married Russian women about the same time I did are still happily married, with bilingual children no less.
A needless and grating mistake comes when Mr. Brzezinski writes that Kitai Gorod — a part of Moscow that translates literally to "China Town" — "takes its name from the Chinese traders restricted to its walled confines in the fifteenth century." That sounds right because a Westerner's experience leads him to expect a Chinese quarter in a cosmopolitan city. But in Moscow's case, it's absolutely false. The word "kitai" — literally "China" in modern Russian — is the adjectival form for the building material — kita — used to build that part of the town hundreds of years ago. Several Muscovite friends told me that, but Mt. Brzezinski could have typed it into any Internet search engine and discovered the same thing.
Fixing most of the problems with "Casino" would require nothing more than a mouse and a delete button. But they're scattered throughout the book, like Russian traffic police, waiting to pull you over for no reason and extract a fine. In this case, an otherwise decent book pays the price.

Ron Laurenzo is a former editor of Defense Week and was a reporter in Russia from 1991 to 1996.

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