Thursday, August 9, 2012

Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism’s Wildest Frontier

The Book: Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism’s Wildest Frontier, by Matthew Brzezinski (Free Press, 2001).
Why You Should Care: Illuminating insights into what can go wrong when capitalism runs rampant without a supporting structure of law to ensure fair play.
One of the more adventurous things I did in my youth was to take advantage of a very cheap travel package whereby, for a couple of very enlightening weeks, I was whisked away from the comfortable surroundings of Mother England (where I was then living) to the land of the arch-enemy of the democratic West, the Soviet Union.
This was in the early 80s. The Cold War was still a very real phenomenon. The week I arrived in Moscow aboard an Aeroflot jet, deplaning along a path closely guarded on both sides by Soviet soldiers armed with AK-47s, just happened to be the same week a Russian trawler sunk after running into an American mine off Nicaragua. Let’s just say that, as someone holding an American passport, I was not met with a terribly warm welcome.
The trip did have a number of bright spots, among them Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), a beautiful city of pastel-colored buildings perched along canals where I managed to buy for five rubles a map of the world centered not on Kansas City, but on Moscow. Moscow? What I remember is an overall impression of gray—gray weather, gray buildings, gray people, gray food—with the sole exception of the underground subway stations, which were colorful and inviting. Overall, though, much of what I saw confirmed my prejudices, probably the opposite of what the Intourist sponsors of the trip intended.
I’ve often wondered if things have changed in Moscow since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Like everyone else, I’ve heard the stories of fabulous wealth and organized crime, but Matthew Brzezinski’s Casino Moscow gives us an inside picture of what it was like during the turbulent years immediately following the fall of the Communist state.
If you recognize the author’s last name, you must be about my age—his uncle was none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. Matthew Brzezinski, himself a Canadian, was uniquely positioned to watch the unfolding of the new capitalistic Russia from his position as a member of the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau. And what he saw, for the most part, was not pretty.
His Russia was a place where organized crime controlled almost all aspects of private enterprise, workers were paid in commodities (if they were paid at all), there was no sense of private property, and the legal system was ineffective at best. Pity the Western investment bankers and lawyers who, seeking a quick buck, assumed that Russians would adhere to reasonable tenets of commercial and corporate law in conducting business. Some became fabulously wealthy, but many found that their investments disappeared without trace, leaving them with pieces of paper but no way to enforce their rights.
The essential problem, it appears, was the introduction of the idea of capitalism to a people who had no respect for personal rights, the rule of law or private ownership—all residual effects of decades of Communist rule. In the early days of the social transition, many Russians fancied themselves successful entrepreneurs, but Brzezinski highlights the crucial distinction between them and Westerners: “Rockefeller built his Standard Oil from nothing, while the oligarchs seized the assets of the Soviet Union. They had not created wealth; they had simply grabbed it.”

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