Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism's Wildest
By Matthew Brzezinski, The Free Press, New York, 2001
The Failure of Communism in the Soviet Union and China
Wren, Christopher S. The Failure of Communism in the Soviet Union and China. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Anyone who is curious about the years 1973-1998, when the communist system had done its worst and when the officials and people were struggling with " what now?" will be informed and entertained by both these books.
Brzezinski (nephew of Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser under President Carter) and Wren are American Journalists who reported on the Soviet Union and China during the years when the communist systems were unraveling. Wren lived with his family in the Soviet Union from October 1973-October 1977 and China from October 1981 to December 1984, and Brzezinski lived with his fiance, mostly in Russia with a few forays into China, 1996-1998. Wren worked for the New York Times; Brzezinski, according to the book jacket, "was a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, having previously reported from Poland and other Eastern European countries for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian (London), and The Toronto Globe and Mail."
Brzezinski, whose book I read first, was a young, adventurous type
who knew the Polish language from his family, who were diplomats
who took refuge in America from the purges that overwhelmed Polish
officialdom as well as other countries that came under the governance
of Russia. He became functional in Russian too. He reported on the
Russian economy at the time
(1996-1998) when state assets were being sold off to a handful of enterprising "oligarchs," who interpreted capitalism as license to grab as much as you could for yourself in any way you could devise. He found himself in many environments, in cafes and on the streets, and made observations which will curl the hair of even the straightest-haired person. Brzezinski blanched at mafia molls in heels and miniskirts and interviewed an aggressive woman barter trader worth four million. He traveled with journalists to parts of China, including an area where western oil companies are developing resources for export.
Wren (served 1973-1984) is a more mature reporter, literate in
both Russian and Chinese. He opens one aspect of life, then another,
and reports what he observed in each country. He looks at rural
development, the limitations of central planning and over-regulation,
government interference in people's private lives, entrenched nepotism, education, the efforts to introduce capitalist elements (his tenure as a journalist preceded the blossoming of the oligarchs), the difficulty of finding a place to live, and much more. He's good at seeing real people
behind the ubiquitous statistics churned out by the communist systems.
Both report the people's struggles with planned economies that never figured out how to produce enough of anything to go around, yet provided the people a minimal, predictable security that became comforting and very hard to give up. Both authors pass on hearsay ("somebody told me..."), chance observations, and jokes that made the rounds. Both learned more than a tourist could have because they made interview appointments with officials and were able to visit with ordinary people in their own language. Both found themselves under surveillance. Brzezinski was beaten within an inch of his life by a thug bent on theft and Wren learned how it felt to be denounced. Neither reported on farms at length, though both visited them and observed that communism served worst of all the peasants and workers in whose name the revolution had been launched. Both books are really absorbing reading for the person who would like to take a peek behind the iron curtain as it was, but who doesn't want to wait until the scholars sort it all out with credits and footnotes.