Der Oligarch: Vadim Rabinovich bricht das Schweigen
(The Oligarch: Vadim Rabinovich Breaks the Silence)
Jürgen Roth
Hamburg, GER: Europa Verlag, 2001
299 p.
(Language: German)

Subject, Methods, Database:
An autobiography of Vadim Rabinovich, Ukrainian oligarch, written by German investigative journalist Jürgen Roth, who injects an occasional third-person comment.

Oligarchs are business tycoons who got rich from privatizations after the collapse of the state planned economy in the Soviet Union. One of them is Rabinovich who agreed to a series of interviews with Roth in 1999 and 2000.
Vadim Rabinovich is born in 1953 to jewish parents in Kharkov, Urkaine; his father an army officer, his mother a physician. His life in the Soviet Union is determined by the laws of survival in an economy of shortage, the limits set on private initiative, and anti-semitism which blocks certain career paths for jews. At times Rabinovich is on top when he demonstrates his talents in social activities or in the procurement of scarce resources, at times he has to suffer the harshness of the system. In the military-where he is put in charge of procuring rare goods for his unit-he gains deep insights into the inner workings of the Soviet shadow economy. Back in civilian life, as foreman of a brigade of construction workers, he builds a small fortune with the illicit sale of building materials until in 1980 he is arrested and convicted on charges of misappropriation of state funds. Due to internal quarrels within the public prosecutor's office, Rabinovich is released and goes into hiding. Instead of laying low, however, he starts new businesses in manufacturing and selling crystal glas and calendars.
Eventually, Rabinovich is caught again and spends the following years in prisons, forensic hospitals and forced labor camps. In the Gulag he manages to earn the respect of both his fellow inmates and the prison guards. For the first time Rabinovich finds himself in the position that will be characteristic of his later life as an oligarch: forming a bridge between professional criminals and the legal authorities. It is not before 1991, long past the advent of glasnost and perestroika, that Rabinovich is set free. After several failed attempts in various lines of business his breakthrough comes with trading nonferrous metals. Already in 1992, however, he withdraws because, as he claims, things have become too tricky with many plants being taken over or extorted by criminal groups.
During the following years, Rabinovich works for Nordex, a company alleged of being involved in money-laundering activities. He arranges Russian oil-deliveries to the Ukraine in exchange for other goods. In 1995 Rabinovich leaves Nordex to establish his own consulting firm that offers services to Western companies interested in investing in Eastern Europe. At the same time he buys himself into the media business.
His bad reputation stems from the business and private contacts Rabinovich keeps to dubious businessmen and outright criminals. However, he feels wrongfully accused and the victim of a smear campaign: "Look in what a situation I am in. Can't you understand what is really going on. On one shoulder I have the American and Ukrainian security services and business competitors, on the other shoulder there are all kinds of bandits and criminals. I have to try to come to an arrangement with both sides to stay in business and to stay alive. That's why I have to maintain relationships with all these forces, whether I like it or not" (p. 239).
The basic elements of the system Rabinovich sees himself a part of are personal ties connecting entrepreneurs who operate in an economy of various shades of gray and who at one time seek assistance from groups of criminals while at other times they ally themselves with the government in their pursuit of personal profit and power.
Roth's conclusion: Rabinovich is a person with many faces, a generous sponsor of jewish culture in the Ukraine, a ruthless, self-confident and successful businessman, but one who is aware of the conflict between profit seeking and social responsibilities towards the poor. One label, however, according to Roth is completely inappropriate, that of a powerful "godfather", a Ukrainian "capo di tutti capi".

Jürgen Roth is known for his sensational books. "The Oligarch" is not one of them. Rabinovich's account, it seems, has helped Roth to free himself to a considerable extent from the usual stereotypes characteristic of journalistic treatments of crime and adventure capitalism in Eastern Europe. Though Rabinovich may not reveal everything, in fact a lot remains in the dark, this book is still a very vivid and plausible depiction of the conditions in the former Soviet Union.

Overall evaluation:
"The Oligarch" is an enormously important book for understanding the interconnection between politics, business and crime in the former Soviet Union. The subjective perspective of Vadim Rabinovich grants new insights and contradicts commonly held views, even though not the whole truth may have come to light.

Further Reading:
Hoffman, David E., The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia, New York: PublicAffairs, 2002
Klebnikov, Paul, Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism, New York: Harcourt, 2000

© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.