Almost everything that is wrong with Washington Post foreign editor David Hoffman’s new book about Russia’s transformation into a capitalist system, The Oligarchs, can be discerned in one small and apparently meaningless passage on page 91. In it, the erstwhile Moscow bureau chief of the Post (1995-2001) describes former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais’s reaction when, as a young man, the future and now infamous “father of Russian privatization” first read the works of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek:
Many years later, Chubais recalled the thrill of reading Hayek and instantly gave his own example of how Hayek’s theory worked in practice in the United States. “One person is selling hamburgers somewhere in New York,” he told me, “while another person is grazing cows somewhere in Arkansas to produce meat that will be used to make those hamburgers. But in order for that person in Arkansas to graze cows, there needs to be a price for meat, which tells him that he should graze cows.”
Now, the reaction a sane person is likely to have when reading a passage like this is, What kind of maniac experiences a “thrill” when reading about hamburger distribution? A corollary question that occurred to me, as I imagined this 20-year-old Soviet dreaming guiltily of Arkansas cattle, was, Were there no girls at all in the Leningrad of Anatoly Chubais’s youth?
It’s a given that the answers to questions like these are not to be found in the seminal analytical work of one of the Moscow journalism community’s most notoriously humorless foreign correspondents, but this problem is less inconsequential than you might think. For it is precisely Hoffman’s inability to write honestly and perceptively about ordinary human experience that makes The Oligarchs miss as badly as it does in its attempt to describe the changes in Russian society over the past decade or so.
By the time Hoffman took over as the Post‘s Moscow bureau chief, I had been living in Russia for about five years. First as a student and then as a freelance reporter, I’d watched during that time as Russians became increasingly disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. Kids I’d studied with who had brains and talent found themselves working twenty-four-hour shifts in dingy street kiosks or lugging feminine hygiene products door to door, while the only people from my class who ended up with money were morons and thugs who took jobs with local “biznesmen” (read: mobsters) doing God knows what.
That was the reality for the Russians young and old who had the misfortune to live through the early 1990s, when the inefficient old planned economy was dismantled and something–I hesitate to call it capitalism–was installed in its place. Honest, hard-working people were impoverished overnight, while swindlers and killers quickly rose to the top. The insult was exacerbated for Russians when they began to hear that the rest of the world, America and the American press in particular, was calling this process progress.