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Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism

by Chrystia Freeland

I was only in Russia once, Moscow mostly, and for just a week, which means I can’t claim to have any kind of a command of the place. This was in the summer of 1997, and every public surface that wasn’t being renovated or rebuilt was being cleaned in anticipation of the city’s upcoming 850th birthday party. The mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, was spending $80-million on the event, in an effort – everybody said it – to boost his bid for the Russian presidency in 2000. There were reports that along with the cleaning, Luzhkov had, for a mere $700,000, ordered the clouds over the capital seeded to keep them from raining on his parade.

Otherwise the news was all bad. The annual murder rate in the capital was up, astronomically. The army hadn’t been paid in months. Boris Yeltsin was rumoured to be either drunk or dying, or both. Up above Luzhkov’s rainless clouds, the space station Mir was ailing in its orbit, cooling systems faulty, computers crashing, fires flaring. In a photograph in an English-
language newspaper, it looked like an appliance of lesser dignity – a hair-iron, a cattle prod, an articulated barbecue fork. Maybe the misery of Mir, the paper suggested, was beaming off one of the station’s solar panels and infecting the whole country.

If nothing else, a week in Moscow gives you a feel for the surrealism that is Russia. And the right to nod when, in Resurrection, the second of David Remnick’s penetrating books about Russia’s end-of-century, the former Russia correspondent (and now editor of The New Yorker) writes that “the texture of Russian life after 1991 is so fluid, so changeable and supercharged, that it is nearly impossible to capture in words and images.”

In Sale of the Century, Chrystia Freeland attempts just such an apprehension and, in large part, she defies the impossible.

For four years in the 1990s, Freeland was Moscow bureau chief for The Financial Times. (She’s now deputy editor of The Globe and Mail.) Professionally it was a dream assignment, booking her a front-row view of the country’s “wild ride.” There were personal implications, too: given, as she tells in the book’s preface, that her maternal grandparents fled Ukraine during the Second World War, going back Freeland was “swimming against the tide of history and my family’s personal experience.”

In Sale of the Century she chronicles the wild ride rather than her own swim. It’s a fascinating, frightening account, mingling money and politics and violence. Freeland gathers such a baroque, florid anthology of tales that if it weren’t history you might mistake it for a hybrid of opera and action movie. In the background, largely off-
camera, looms an ailing, addled Boris Yeltsin. In supporting roles are apparatchiks, thugs in black balaclavas, cell phones, and armour-plated Mercedes. And at the fore? An unlikely cast of former academics, theatre directors, burly bodyguards, and the sons of village schoolteachers, the likes of Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidor, Aleksandr Korzhakov, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Gennady Zyuganov.

Freeland takes us back to 1991 when Boris Yeltsin was first elected president and, a few months later, stood up on a tank to face down an attempted coup by hardline communists. The decade that followed – “bruising, corrupt and occasionally heroic,” Freeland writes – was not so much about power as it was the struggle for power. Feats of strength and intimidation, betrayal, brinkmanship, murder – yes, Russian politics had it all in the 1990s. But the real drama, as Freeland illustrates, was economic. Sale of the Century is an exhaustive study of the capitalist revolution that, as Freeland shows, has “impoverished and embittered” the country in the time since communism was swept away.

The strengths of this book are largely in Freeland’s profiles of the personalities involved, both large – like Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s chief bodyguard, who got so powerful that he was writing to the prime minister with instructions on how to negotiate a multimillion-dollar loan from the World Bank – and smaller, like Mikhail Gutseriev, whom Freeland uses to explore the wonders of the Loophole Economy, by which entrepreneurs used inconsistent tax laws and corruptible bureaucrats to fill their pockets.

Sale of the Century is not, perhaps, as accessible to the general reader as books like David Remnick’s Resurrection and Lenin’s Tomb. For one thing, it’s not interested so much in the broader culture, the effects of the past 10 years on, say, writers or artists. Nor, for that matter, does it reach as much to the country and the people beyond Moscow. There’s also a difference of style: where Remnick wears his vast learning lightly, in an ensemble with wit, crystallizing anecdote, and glimmering prose, Freeland tends more to straight-ahead, carefully sourced, and occasionally static analysis. Could she have written in more of herself and her family’s history? Maybe that’s for another book. In this one, it’s as if the inner journalist told the inner writer to get out of the way, stop blocking the view. We’re left with the mild frustration of seeing the glimpses offered in the early going packed away in what seems like too much of a rush.

Russia’s struggles are not, of course, over. What’s ahead? Toward the end of Sale of the Century, Freeland lays down more of a practical guide to Russian possibilities than any kind of prognosis. In the best-case scenario, the country would develop a civil society, its own effective kind of capitalism, a democracy that produces good governments and responds to its citizens. It’s the work of decades, Freeland writes, if not generations, and when it’s done, Russia won’t rule the world. “It will simply, for the first time in centuries, become a good place to live.”


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Doubleday Canada


Price: $36.95

Page Count: 353 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-385-25869-0

Released: May

Issue Date: 2000-6

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction, History