Overall, this was a REALLY good book. I appreciated how fair and balanced it was towards Russia. Usually, books written by Westerners are so anti-Russian that they ignore facts. (See: Edward Lucas’ work and Masha Gessen’s work, among others.) This book was overall very fair and balanced.
In particular, I wish I could force every Russia-watcher to read Chapter 5, titled “Putin Takes Over: The Return of the Czar.” Specifically, the section starting at “The Attack on Yukos” is very, very informative and important. This section makes some important points, namely: 1) Pretty much everyone who got rich in Russia in the 1990s did so illegally, so in this sense Putin’s prosecution of Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky was unfair, and 2) Khodorkovsky certainly was not the angel he’s been portrayed as in Western literature. He stole people’s money in the 1990s when his Menatep Bank folded (I’ve had Russia watchers tell me this never happened, but it did. The author of this book, who is definitely not pro-Putin, agrees with me and cites actual sources.) He was probably involved in some contract killings—if not directly, then by turning a blind eye to his subordinates who perpetrated them.
The author also dis-spells the myth that Khodorkovsky wanted to reform Russian business and make it transparent and “normal,” for lack of a better term, as it is in the United States. Westerners think this means he was a good businessman, crusading against corruption. Not so, according to the author. Instead, he says Khodorkovsky embraced rule of law so that no one could do to his business empire what he did to acquire it (i.e. steal it). For reference, this passage is at location 2136 in my Kindle edition of the book. I don’t have actual page numbers, unfortunately. In a somewhat delicious irony, this didn’t help, and Khodorkovsky was arrested and his business broken up and sold.
Anyway, that’s just one example of many from this book that’s so fascinating. The author really does a good job of keeping balanced. To continue the Yukos example, he criticizes the Russian government for jailing Yukos lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, which I don’t fully agree with either.
The only criticism I could mount is the author’s position about the 1999 apartment bombings that let to a re-ignition of the Chechen War. He gives more credence to the theory that the FSB planted the bombs in order to blame them on the Chechens than is warranted. I am familiar with the theory and think it’s completely wrong. I suppose the author and I would have to agree to disagree on this. It is because of this that I downgraded the book by one star—otherwise, I probably would have given it five stars.