In This Review

The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia
The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia
By David Hoffman
567 pp, PublicAffairs, 2002

What a story. Alexander Smolensky, arrested in 1981 for stealing seven kilos of printer's ink and carrying on "individual commercial activity" (printing Bibles), had become 16 years later a commercial banker whose empire had $5.2 billion in assets and 43,000 employees -- all of which crumbled a year later in the 1998 crunch. Thanks to an immense amount of digging, including a remarkable set of interviews, Hoffman traces how Smolensky and four other restless young men on the margins of Soviet society -- Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Vladimir Potanin -- assembled empires by methods that made the American robber barons look like choirboys. Money mixed with power, intersected with political decisions, and then influenced the very political process. Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor, and Anatoly Chubais, reform's impresario, have the two other starring roles. Hoffman makes the tale of the men's rise and fall a masterful blend of adventure and serious, informed analysis.