The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the most important geopolitical events of the last half century, the effects of which are still being felt. The disappearance of the controlled economy and its hierarchy left a chaotic vacuum which is fertile ground for a crime novel. It’s surprising more writers haven’t used it as the milieu for their novels but, with The Siberia Job, American author Josh Haven focusses in on one small but important aspect of this period and has produced an engrossing read.
In an attempt to kickstart its economy, the new Russian government produced a scheme of voucher privatisation. People were literally given vouchers which could be exchanged for shares in corporations that were previously socially owned, with the lofty aim of giving each member of the population a stake in a new capitalist economy. History has shown us that many unscrupulous people benefitted enormously from the scheme – in short, it helped lead to Russia’s oligarchs. In The Siberia Job, two outsiders – one American businessman, one Czech – attempt to secure pieces of the post-Soviet pie for themselves.
Haven describes The Siberia Job as a novelisation of true events. The names of the major characters have been altered, as has the name of the company being fought over, but the intrigue, the way the IPO was run, and the killings made – literally and figuratively – all happened as described.
John Mills, a married Texan banker, was already wealthy by most standards before a chance meeting in a London bar with Czech fund manager Petr Kovac opens up an opportunity too good to resist, whatever the risks. Kovac has already made a handsome profit buying up vouchers under Czechoslovakia’s similar scheme. Together, the two decide to open up a Russian investment fund to capitalise on the upcoming IPOs.
All it takes to set up in business is a Russian office and a stake. The pair take care of the former with a flight to Moscow, and Mills hits his business and government contacts up to get the latter. An English ex-pat nightclub owner puts them in touch with an ex-KGB colonel called Krylenko who has contacts in the Gazneft board.
According to Krylenko, the board members have a get rich quick plan of their own. Most Russians don’t understand the value of the vouchers, and it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to persuade people to part with their vouchers for a fraction of their true worth. Aware that others will come to the same view, the Gazneft board’s strategy is to make it as hard as possible for people to get their vouchers to the IMF-monitored auctions where the vouchers can be traded for shares.
The auctions are to be held at remote locations throughout Russia, with minimal noticed and they are only advertised locally.
The story of how Mills and Kovac chase across the country, assisted by a young Russian woman, Anna, harassed by the Gazneft board, the Russian mafia and the Russian army is the meat and bones of the novel. Haven has got hold of a good tale and tells it well, avoiding complex explanations of the technical aspects of the sale and focusing on the human drama.
He paints a vivid picture of a lawless country undergoing massive changes, and brings the risk-taking mentality and greed of his characters to the fore. However, there is no moralising of the actions on any side of the deals. Apart from noting Kovac’s predilection for young prostitutes, there is little consideration of the moral aspects of what his main characters are doing. The author largely ignores this except for one brief discussion between Mills and Kovac, who decide that being ripped off in their first exposure to capitalism will make the Russians do better in the future. Perhaps this is a result of relying on the American businessman as his source for The Siberia Job.
There’s a crazy, madcap aspect to the story, referenced in the novel’s title – surely a play on The Italian Job – and I found the pages flying by. The Siberia Job may be a little shallow, if that’s even a consideration for such a novel, but it’s an engrossing read none the less.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 4 Stars