Author Ben Mezrich trades blackjack and the tech scene for the Russian underbelly in his new book.
Boston resident and New York Times best-selling author Ben Mezrich often looks to his own backyard to find material for his books, including Bringing Down the House (about a group of MIT students who made millions in Vegas) and The Accidental Billionaires (about the founding of Facebook at Harvard), both of which were turned into major motion pictures. But for his new work, Mezrich broke out his passport. In Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder (Atria Books), he sinks his teeth into the complicated world of Russia’s new elite—men like billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a brilliant mathematician who struck it rich in the 1990s when the country privatized many of its state assets and who died mysteriously in 2013, and Roman Abramovich, a calculating businessman who rose to wealth and power by trading in the oil market.
What inspired you to tackle a story set in Russia? Truthfully, I never set out to write a book about Russia. Once Upon a Time in Russia actually started with a phone call from Brett Ratner, the director/producer. He told me he had some people he wanted me to meet in London who had an incredible story to tell. When I got there, I found myself face-to-face with a real-life oligarch, and my first reaction was, “No effing way.”
Did you speak with Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich directly? My sources will remain confidential.
Was it difficult to find the facts on a story that takes place in Russia? The research involved a lot of one-on-one interviews and travel, and an incredible number of documents. Brett introduced me to individuals with first-hand knowledge of the material I was writing about, which was amazing and terrifying. I think this book is unique in that there are no real good guys or bad guys. Everyone is both—except maybe Abramovich, who I think is a little more the hero in this than anyone else.
Who would you cast in a feature film of the book? I’d love to see Robert De Niro or Kevin Spacey as Berezovsky, Leonardo DiCaprio as Abramovich, and Adrien Brody as Alexander Litvinenko [the whistle-blowing Russian secret agent who was poisoned in 2006]. I’ll play a bartender somewhere, or maybe a waiter in some café.