In an exclusive Moscow restaurant, Matthew Brzezinski reflects on his time in the Russian capital. “Newcomers to Moscow were always shocked by its vulgar excess,” he writes. “But what I hadn’t counted on . . . was how much I would become inured to this atmosphere. Almost everyone did—gradually, imperceptibly at first until, inexorably, you lost your observer status and became part of the landscape.”
Despite this fact, Casino Moscow—an anecdotal account of Brzezinski’s tenure as a Wall Street Journal reporter stationed in Russia throughout the 1990s—contains astute observations. The book follows Brzezinski’s career from Kiev, where he’s almost murdered by two destitute Ukrainian robbers, to Moscow, where he rubs shoulders with the rich and famous. Along the way, he meets a Stalin-obsessed businessman who seems to be Russia’s answer to Dr. Strangelove; a Ukrainian billionaire with 22 bodyguards and 20 percent of her country’s gross domestic product; and a Chechen hotel owner suspected of assassinating his Oklahoman business partner.
Amid the adventures, Brzezinski—now a freelance writer in DC—poignantly evokes what drew him and his fellow expats onto such tenuous ground. As Boris Jordan, a daring investment banker whom Brzezinski interviewed before Russia’s 1998 financial crash, put it, “The beauty of Russia is that everything is so wide open. The country is starting over from scratch, and if you get in on the ground floor, there is no ceiling, no limit to how far you can go.”
Although that limit eventually came, Casino Moscow offers a vivid picture of what life was like before.