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The key points of 'Once upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History By Ben Mezrich

In 'Once upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History,' Ben Mezrich chronicles the tumultuous ascent of Russia's oligarchs during the post-Soviet era. The book delves into the chaotic transition from communism to capitalism, the immense fortunes amassed by a select few, and the eventual decline of their power. Through a narrative rich with intrigue and drama, Mezrich provides a compelling look at one of the most significant economic transformations of the 20th century.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian oligarchs rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union, leveraging privatization policies to amass incredible wealth and power.

  • Their dominance was marked by a complex relationship with the Kremlin, with mutual benefits and power struggles shaping the political landscape.

  • The oligarchs expanded their empires beyond natural resources, influencing media, society, and politics, and extending their reach globally.

  • Vladimir Putin's ascent marked a turning point, leading to the downfall of many oligarchs through legal challenges, exiles, and a shift in political favor.

  • The legacy of the oligarchs remains controversial, with significant economic and social impacts on Russia and lessons for other emerging economies navigating the path from state-run to market-driven systems.

The Birth of the Russian Oligarchs

The Fall of the Soviet Union

The dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of a superpower and the beginning of a new era in Russian history. The transition from a planned economy to a market-based system was chaotic and swift, leading to significant social and economic upheaval. The vacuum of power and the absence of established market institutions opened the door for a select group of individuals to amass unprecedented wealth.

Privatization became the buzzword of the early 1990s, as state assets were sold off, often at a fraction of their value. This process was not without controversy, as it gave rise to a new class of wealthy individuals, later known as the oligarchs. Their rapid ascent was a stark contrast to the struggles of the average Russian citizen during this period.

While some viewed the oligarchs as symbols of corruption and inequality, others saw them as necessary agents of change, driving Russia towards a modern economy. The legacy of this transformational period is complex, with long-lasting effects on Russian society and the global economy.

The Rise of Privatization

The early 1990s marked a pivotal moment in Russian history as the government initiated a mass privatization program, aiming to rapidly transform the state-controlled economy into a market-oriented one. The transfer of state assets to private hands was both chaotic and controversial, with a select few benefiting disproportionately.

  • The voucher privatization phase allowed citizens to acquire shares in state enterprises.

  • Insider privatization benefited the management and employees of companies.

  • Loans-for-shares schemes gave rise to the accumulation of significant wealth by a handful of individuals.

The process was not without its critics, who argued that it led to the rise of oligopolies and a stark inequality in wealth distribution. Nevertheless, this period laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Russian oligarchs, who would go on to play a crucial role in the country's future.

The Emergence of New Wealth

As the Soviet Union collapsed, a vacuum in ownership and control over the vast resources and industries of the former superpower emerged. Entrepreneurs and savvy opportunists seized this moment, leveraging the chaotic transition to amass significant wealth. The privatization programs, intended to distribute assets among the population, often led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

The new class of wealthy Russians, known as oligarchs, diversified their holdings, acquiring not just natural resources but also media outlets and financial institutions. Their fortunes grew exponentially, and with it, their influence over the political and economic landscape of the new Russia.

  • Boris Berezovsky

  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky

  • Roman Abramovich

These names became synonymous with the new Russian wealth, each representing a different path to power and fortune. The oligarchs' rise was rapid, their impact profound, and their stories varied and complex.

The Power Struggles and Political Intrigue

Navigating the Yeltsin Era

During the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin's presidency was marked by significant political and economic upheaval. The oligarchs, savvy and opportunistic, capitalized on this period of transition. They navigated the chaotic landscape by leveraging their connections and resources to acquire state assets at bargain prices.

Privatization schemes, such as loans-for-shares, allowed a select group of businessmen to amass wealth and influence rapidly. This era laid the groundwork for the oligarchs' future dominance in Russian politics and the economy.

  • Loans-for-shares program

  • Acquisition of state assets

  • Rise of oligarchic power

The oligarchs' ascent was not without challenges. They had to contend with a volatile economy, political instability, and the need to maintain favor with the Yeltsin administration. Their ability to do so would determine their longevity in the echelons of power.

Oligarchs and the Kremlin: A Symbiotic Relationship

The relationship between the Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin during the post-Soviet era was one of mutual benefit and intricate power play. Oligarchs used their wealth to support government officials, while in return, they enjoyed political favors that allowed their businesses to thrive. This symbiotic relationship was a defining feature of Russia's transition from a state-controlled to a market-driven economy.

Oligarchs often acted as the financial backers for political campaigns, securing positions of influence within the government. This interdependency created a network of patronage that was difficult to disentangle. The Kremlin, on the other hand, relied on the oligarchs' resources to stabilize the economy and maintain social order during turbulent times.

  • Financial support for political campaigns

  • Preferential treatment in business ventures

  • Shared interests in economic stability

The oligarchs' influence extended beyond the borders of Russia, as they began to assert their presence on the global stage. However, this expansion would eventually lead to increased scrutiny and challenges, both domestically and internationally.

The Tug of War for Influence

As the Russian oligarchs solidified their wealth, a tug of war for influence began to unfold. The oligarchs were not content with mere economic power; they sought to extend their reach into the political sphere. This led to a complex web of alliances and rivalries, both among the oligarchs themselves and between them and the government.

Influence was the currency that mattered most, and it was traded and bartered behind the scenes. The oligarchs used their financial resources to support political campaigns, control media outlets, and sway public opinion. However, this influence was not without its price, and the oligarchs often found themselves at the mercy of political winds and power shifts.

  • The support of political campaigns

  • Control of media outlets

  • Swaying public opinion

The parallels with the 'Billion Dollar Whale' are striking, as both cases involve lavish lifestyles, financial manipulation, and the global repercussions of unchecked ambition.

The Oligarchs' Empire Building

Acquiring Assets: From Industries to Media

The post-Soviet economic landscape was a fertile ground for the oligarchs to amass vast fortunes through the acquisition of state assets. The privatization wave of the 1990s allowed a select few to gain control of former state-owned enterprises at a fraction of their value. This unprecedented transfer of wealth saw the oligarchs expanding their empires beyond natural resources and into sectors like banking, telecommunications, and media.

The following list highlights some of the key industries that fell into the hands of the oligarchs:

  • Energy and oil companies

  • Mining and metals

  • Financial institutions

  • Telecommunications

  • Television networks and newspapers

This consolidation of assets was not without controversy, often drawing comparisons to the corporate raids of the West, such as the one detailed in 'Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco'.

The Lifestyle of the New Russian Elite

With the rise of the oligarchs came an unprecedented display of wealth and opulence. The new Russian elite indulged in a lifestyle that was once unimaginable in the Soviet era. Mansions, luxury cars, and private jets became the new normal for this exclusive circle.

Extravagance was not limited to tangible assets; it extended to lavish parties, exclusive clubs, and high-profile social events. The oligarchs didn't just spend their wealth—they showcased it, often competing with one another to host the most extravagant affair.

  • Mansions in prime locations

  • Fleet of luxury vehicles

  • Private jets and yachts

  • Exclusive memberships to elite clubs

  • High-profile social events and parties

This display of wealth was not without its critics. Many saw the oligarchs' lifestyle as a sign of moral decay and a betrayal of the egalitarian ideals of the past. Yet, it also served as a powerful motivator for others, who aspired to achieve similar success in the new Russia.

Global Expansion and Influence

As the Russian oligarchs solidified their power within the country, their gaze turned outward, seeking global expansion and influence. Their wealth was not just confined to Russia; it began to permeate international markets and politics. The oligarchs invested in foreign assets, ranging from real estate to football clubs, and their presence was felt across Europe and beyond.

The following list highlights some of the key areas where Russian oligarchs made significant investments:

  • Real estate in London and New York

  • Ownership of sports teams, particularly in the United Kingdom

  • Stakes in multinational corporations

  • Funding of cultural and philanthropic endeavors

These investments served multiple purposes, from laundering money to gaining social prestige. The oligarchs' ability to wield economic power on a global scale was a testament to their financial acumen and strategic thinking.

The Downfall of the Oligarchs

The Rise of Putin and Changing Dynamics

The ascent of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency marked a significant shift in the relationship between the state and the oligarchs. His rise to power began a new chapter in Russian politics, characterized by the reassertion of state control over key sectors of the economy. The oligarchs, once seemingly untouchable, faced a leader who was determined to reduce their influence.

Under Putin, the rules of the game changed. The Kremlin began to demand loyalty and alignment with its interests, and those who complied retained their positions and wealth. However, those who opposed or challenged the new order found themselves in precarious situations, often leading to legal troubles or forced sales of their assets.

  • Re-centralization of power and assets

  • Loyalty as a key to survival

  • Legal and financial pressures on dissenting oligarchs

Legal Battles and Exiles

The turn of the century marked a significant shift in the fortunes of the Russian oligarchs. Legal battles became a common theme as the state, under new leadership, began to reclaim assets and challenge the oligarchs' acquisitions. Many faced charges ranging from fraud to tax evasion, leading to high-profile trials and, in some cases, imprisonment.

Exile became the only viable option for some oligarchs as they sought to escape the legal onslaught. The list below highlights notable oligarchs who faced legal challenges and their subsequent fates:

  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Arrested and imprisoned in Russia, later pardoned and exiled.

  • Boris Berezovsky: Fled to the UK, where he lived until his death.

  • Vladimir Gusinsky: Exiled in Spain after selling his media assets.

The End of an Era

The turn of the century marked a significant shift in Russia's political landscape, with Vladimir Putin's rise to power fundamentally altering the rules of the game for the oligarchs. The once untouchable tycoons found themselves at the mercy of a new Kremlin agenda, one that no longer favored their unrestricted dominance.

Legal crackdowns and selective prosecution became tools for reining in the oligarchs who had thrived in the chaotic '90s. The state began to reclaim what it considered strategic assets, leading to the dismantling of many oligarchic empires. This period saw the dramatic fall from grace of several prominent figures, with some choosing exile to escape the Kremlin's reach.

  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky's arrest and the subsequent dismantling of Yukos

  • Boris Berezovsky's self-imposed exile and legal battles

  • The re-nationalization of assets deemed critical to national security

The Legacy and Impact of the Oligarchs

Economic and Social Repercussions

The legacy of the Russian oligarchs is not just etched in the annals of history but also in the very fabric of Russia's economy and society. The rapid accumulation of wealth and power by a select few during the post-Soviet era led to significant economic disparities. The concentration of wealth resulted in a skewed distribution of resources, which has had lasting effects on the Russian populace.

Oligarchs played a pivotal role in shaping the post-Soviet economic landscape, but their influence extended beyond mere economics. The social structure of Russia was altered as the oligarchs' lifestyles set new standards for wealth and success, creating societal rifts between the haves and have-nots.

  • The rise of the oligarchs led to increased economic inequality.

  • Their control over media shaped public perception and political discourse.

  • The oligarchs' investments and philanthropic efforts had mixed impacts on social development.

While the oligarchs' impact on Russia's economy was profound, their fall from grace serves as a reminder of the volatility of power and wealth. The story of the Russian oligarchs, much like the narrative of the 'Billion Dollar Loser' by Reeves Wiedeman, underscores the complexities of entrepreneurship and the thin line between success and failure.

The Oligarchs' Role in Modern Russia

The legacy of the Russian oligarchs continues to shape the economic and political landscape of modern Russia. Their influence persists, albeit in a transformed landscape where new rules and power structures apply. The oligarchs' impact is evident in the patronage networks that still operate, and their earlier economic decisions have long-term effects on the nation's wealth distribution and industrial organization.

  • The oligarchs' investment in political parties and media shaped public opinion and policy.

  • Their aggressive acquisition strategies set precedents for business conduct in Russia.

  • The legal frameworks and economic policies established during their rise still influence current business practices.

While the oligarchs of the 1990s have receded from the spotlight, their successors navigate a more state-dominated environment. The current business elite must balance their ambitions with the Kremlin's interests, often leading to a more cautious approach to empire building and international relations.

Lessons for Emerging Economies

The saga of the Russian oligarchs offers a cautionary tale for emerging economies around the globe. The rapid transition from a state-controlled to a privatized economy can lead to significant disparities in wealth and power if not managed carefully.

Transparency in the privatization process and the establishment of robust legal frameworks are critical to prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Moreover, fostering a competitive business environment is essential to encourage innovation and prevent monopolies.

  • Establish clear and fair privatization policies

  • Strengthen legal and regulatory institutions

  • Promote competition and prevent monopolistic practices

  • Ensure transparency and accountability in business dealings

As emerging economies look to their own futures, they must balance the drive for rapid economic growth with the need for sustainable and equitable development. The stories of influential investors, such as those found in 'Business Adventures' by John Brooks, highlight the importance of strategic planning and the relevance of these historical lessons to modern challenges.


In 'Once Upon a Time in Russia,' Ben Mezrich masterfully recounts the gripping saga of the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs. The book serves as a vivid tableau of the tumultuous era following the Soviet Union's collapse, where audacious individuals seized unprecedented wealth amidst the chaos of transitioning to capitalism. Mezrich's narrative not only illuminates the complex interplay of power, greed, and ambition but also provides a cautionary tale about the volatile nature of fortunes built on the shifting sands of political favor. The story of the Russian oligarchs is a testament to the transformative and often ruthless forces of history, and Mezrich's portrayal ensures that the lessons of their ascent and descent resonate far beyond the borders of Russia.

Frequently Asked Questions

What factors contributed to the rise of the Russian oligarchs?

The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent privatization policies in the early 1990s allowed a small group of businessmen to acquire state assets at significantly undervalued prices, leading to the emergence of new wealth and the rise of the oligarchs.

How did the Russian oligarchs amass their fortunes?

Many oligarchs amassed their fortunes through the acquisition of state-owned assets in industries such as oil, gas, and metals, often through controversial loans-for-shares schemes and by taking advantage of the chaotic transition from a planned to a market economy.

What was the relationship between the oligarchs and the Kremlin during the Yeltsin era?

During the Yeltsin era, the oligarchs and the Kremlin had a symbiotic relationship where the oligarchs supported Yeltsin's political agenda and reelection, while in return, they received favorable treatment and protection for their business interests.

How did Vladimir Putin's rise to power affect the oligarchs?

Vladimir Putin's rise to power marked a significant shift in the relationship between the oligarchs and the Kremlin. Putin sought to reassert state control over strategic sectors and reduce the political influence of the oligarchs, leading to legal battles, exiles, and the downfall of some oligarchs.

What impact did the oligarchs have on the Russian economy and society?

The oligarchs had a profound impact on the Russian economy and society, both positive and negative. They played a key role in the transition to a market economy but also contributed to the concentration of wealth, corruption, and the rise of crony capitalism.

Are there any lessons from the era of the Russian oligarchs for other emerging economies?

The era of the Russian oligarchs highlights the importance of transparent and fair privatization processes, the need for strong legal systems to prevent the concentration of wealth and power, and the risks of allowing business interests to exert undue influence on politics.

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