I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The market was free but it was also very, very wild. (p.55)
So say the three authors of today’s review subject, Heroes of the 90s: A New History of Capitalism. And I don’t dispute the fact. Unfortunately, this one was a DNF, but I DNFed at the two-thirds mark, so I still have enough material for a brief review. Perhaps reflective of the turbulence of its period, HotN is a crazy, eventful, somewhat overwhelming book.
Ascribing a thesis statement to HotN is difficult – unless one goes with the aforementioned line about the market. But if HotN’s goal was to chronicle Russia’s first decade as a new country and the transformation of social, state, financial, and civic institutions into something new, it does just that, and does it well.
HotN’s structure is similar to that of a TV news documentary: after an overview of key events, the narrative switches to anecdotes by major and minor players. Or alternatively, it’s an extended news article. Its first part introduces readers to economic policy after the Soviet collapse, early entrepreneurs, bandits, and people who’d eventually become the oligarchs. Part 2 examines political movements and thought leaders of the era.
HotN is a goldmine of information. So much information, in fact, that I felt overwhelmed, and that’s the reason I eventually DNFed. Names and data poured from the page faster than my brain could process them. Turning the introduction into a glossary of terms was a good move, and the cast list/chronology in the back was also helpful. HotN is written in straightforward language that tries to be dispassionate, though I don’t believe for one second that it’s “only the facts”, as the back cover claims.
Onwards to weaknesses. As I mentioned earlier, this work is based heavily on ancedotal evidence, and thus I can’t use it in a serious academic way. There are few in-text citations or footnotes, at least in the segment I read, and about 90% of sources in the back are from the authors’ employer, Kommersant. HotN focuses on big figures and the entrepreneurial class as the little man and his struggles slide into the background, but in fairness, it is a history of capitalism, and Kommersant was/is a business daily, so this approach makes sense. At least we get a glimpse of that “wonderful” entrepreneur’s mindset:
“I did have a certain amount of money, of course. And it was quite a sizeable sum, it must be said; and I had a house in Rublyovka to go with it…I even had enough for my presidential campaign, to say nothing of my mayoral campaign. I borrowed a good deal more, it must be said – tens of millions of dollars, which went towards setting up a network throughout the country and collecting signatures. The only thing that wrankles me is that the money was spent in vain.
“Were it not for that financial disaster, I’d be living in Red Square right now. So I’m extremely indebted to the electoral commission. In all seriousness, though, I would love to become president, so that I could bring about change, and introduce moral reforms, first and foremost. The economy would soon pull itself together after that.” (Sterligov, p. 71-72)
I come away from Heroes of the 90s with no greater understanding of the period, but a lot of new information. That’s 100% my fault. This book wasn’t my cup of tea, but those interested in economics and journalism will likely enjoy it.