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If Michael Lewis (The New New Thing, Liar's Poker) or P.J. O'Rourke (Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores) had spent the 1990s in Moscow, they might have produced a book like Casino Moscow--a dizzying first-person account of the wild east and its shotgun wedding with capitalism. It begins with Matthew Brzezinski as a rookie reporter getting beaten and nearly killed by a pair of Ukrainian thugs; the rest of the book is a white-knuckle tour through a place where the line separating entrepreneurs and criminals is often impossible to discern. Brzezinski worked in the Moscow bureau of the Wall Street Journal. If his name sounds familiar, that's because he's the nephew of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor. He is an ideal guide: sometimes it takes a fish-out-of-water foreigner to see the things a jaded native cannot. (Comparing the author to Alexis de Tocqueville or Gunnar Myrdal is a stretch, but it's the same idea.) Brzezinski also writes with great humor and amazing panache. Describing the parking lot of a high-class bank, he writes that it "resembled a well-stocked Mercedes dealership that specialized only in armored, navy blue 600-series sedans, or shestotki, as the top-of-the-line models were affectionately known--as in 'My shestotka's just been blown up, can I borrow yours?'" Gangsters, prostitutes, and Western investors fill these pages, all of them coming to life courtesy of Brzezinski's narrative skill.
Despite the title, Casino Moscow isn't just about Moscow--some of the best sections cover other parts of Russia: "It was heartbreaking that St. Petersburg had been so mistreated. Yet even in its state of decay, I still preferred its shabby elegance to Moscow's new-money makeover. In St. Petersburg you lived for the past; Moscow lived only for the day." At the edge of Siberia, on the Pacific coast, is Vladivostok--"five time zones ahead of the Russian capital, but a decade behind." The book is a fast-paced adventure story--and a must for readers interested in Russia as well as fans of modern-day gonzo journalism. Brzezinski is a writer to watch. --John Miller [via]