By Matthew Brzezinski
Free Press -- 317pp -- $25
It doesn't take long to read Casino Moscow, a vivid and entertaining account by former Wall Street Journal reporter Matthew Brzezinski of his life "on capitalism's wildest frontier," as the subtitle aptly puts it. But reading the book took me on an extended sentimental journey, sparking nostalgia for the seven years I spent reporting in Russia during the 1990s.
Brzezinski captures it all: the greed and giddiness that pervaded Moscow during the boom years of 1996 to 1998, when oligarchs lived like czars and Western investment bankers sold stocks all day and drank in strip bars all night. He also keeps one eye on the have-nots, the millions of Russians who had to sell heirlooms--or their bodies--to survive. And while the title pinpoints Moscow, the author describes experiences in Poland and Ukraine as well.
The book starts out with a darkly humorous prologue describing how Brzezinski was attacked by thugs in his Kiev apartment, bound with electrical cord, and left in his bathtub. Such personal anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the book. In fact, his wife, Roberta--a bureaucrat turned investment banker--and his friends are major characters. This generally works well, but it gets cloying when he repeatedly extols Roberta's talents. Only a love-besotted newlywed could write: "Roberta greeted [our friend Boris] Russian-style with three kisses on the cheeks. `You look terrible,' she growled in her smoked-oyster voice."
I don't know what a smoked oyster sounds like, but Brzezinski does make good use of stuff from old reporter's notebooks. Take the description of Umar Dzhabrailov, a Chechen who is one of Moscow's most successful and feared businessmen. When his American partner was shot and killed, suspicion fell on Umar, who was questioned by police and cleared. "Ceremonial daggers, like those traditionally worn by Chechen warriors, hung from the walls," writes Brzezinski. "If they were meant to intimidate, they succeeded admirably. I felt as though I'd just entered the alpha wolf's lair."
That honesty is the book's strength. When Roberta takes a high-paying job with a private investment group, Brzezinski relishes the lavish new lifestyle he and his wife can afford-- and dreams of buying a yacht. "My job was to talk to the rich, and greed, as I was discovering, is a communicable disease."
Brzezinski and his wife fled for the U.S. on Aug. 19, 1998, after Russia eliminated tax benefits for foreign residents and applied all changes retroactively. Brzezinski, a Canadian, had delayed paying taxes and faced heavy fines. And Roberta, a U.S. citizen with a mega-salary, was in even worse shape. If she had stayed in Russia for more than 180 days in 1998, her potential tax liability would have climbed into six figures. It was a good time to leave for another reason: Two days earlier, the Russian government defaulted on its bonds and devalued the ruble. The short-lived boom was over. Money and good stories were no longer flowing so freely. Brzezinski says he doesn't regret leaving. Neither do I. But it was an incredible adventure. For those who didn't live through it, his book is a good--and safer--substitute. By Patricia Kranz