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The Book on Business: Account of capitalism in post-Soviet Russia among best works

Sunday, September 16, 2001

By the Business Librarians at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

"Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism's Wildest Frontier" by Matthew Brzezinski. The Free Press, 2001.

In the opening pages of "Casino Moscow" the author is hogtied with the cord of his fax machine and beaten into unconsciousness by a member of the Ukrainian underworld. Resigned to his fate, Matthew Brzezinski's last thought before passing out is a simple one -- he wishes he hadn't quit smoking. He's going to die anyway, so what good was quitting something he loved?

Fortunately, he survives and his experience results in a riveting nonfiction work about Russia's conversion to capitalism and the ensuing chaos as state-owned assets are transferred to the private sector.

Brzezinski, an "underfed stringer for the Wall Street Journal Europe," details the frantic pace of this largest transfer of wealth in the modern era and perfectly captures the greed, violence and seemingly omnipresent corruption surrounding it.

The most entertaining moments of Brzezinski's story are found in his hilarious descriptions of roaring excess and vulgarity as Moscow's newly rich find themselves suddenly free of the economic and social constraints of the Soviet system. The new Moscow is a world of outlaw capitalism run amok, succumbing to tidal waves of money, while at the same time yielding control to powerful mobsters and corrupt political bosses. Brzezinski's insightful take is that "gigantic and obscene fortunes were grabbed, not created."

A scale can't tip one way without affecting the other side and "Casino Moscow" offers a sobering tale of disenfranchisement in the rest of the Russia and its former territories. The abandonment of the Soviet-controlled economy left millions to fend for themselves with a devastating outcome. For example, Brzezinski visits Okha, a town with no running water and a work force that hasn't received paychecks in 6 months; but what makes this typical post-Soviet hamlet stand out is that its workers have extracted over a billion barrels of oil for a company that refuses to pay them for their work and to pay the taxes that might allow the government to offer some assistance.

What makes "Casino Moscow" even more compelling is Brzezinski's description of how the lines between reporting a story and living it threaten to dissolve when he personally stands to profit from the frenzy through his engagement to an employee of a company profiting from the turmoil. Initially glib remarks about the size of the yacht he will one day own are replaced with questions about his own complacency toward what is happening around him, and doubts as to whether or not he is part of the problem.

"Casino Moscow" is one of the year's best works of nonfiction and essential reading for anyone interested in the post-Soviet Russian culture and economy.

"The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try to be the Best at Everything" by Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews. Crown Business (Random House), 2001.

What do consumers want? Is it the absolute lowest prices on the best products with lots of value-added services all obtained in a fun and entertaining shopping experience?

That's what Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews assumed they'd find in a survey of 5,000 people. Instead, they were surprised to discover that consumers are looking for products or services that match a particular set of personal needs or values and not the entire package all rolled into one. Crawford and Mathews spent three years exploring why their survey generated this unexpected result and "The Myth of Excellence" is their answer.

In looking at this values-based approach, Crawford and Mathews developed a model of "consumer relevancy" and demonstrate how a company can apply this concept to its own business. According to the model, business transactions can be broken down into five attributes: price, service, access, experience and product. The "excellence myth" of the title suggests that to be commercially successful, a company should achieve excellence in all five of these categories. Crawford and Mathews conclude, however, that a strategy to excel in one attribute, be good in another, and be at least average in the remaining three is actually a better path to satisfying consumer desires and realizing higher returns.

The authors make their case by detailing each of the five attributes from the perspective of successful companies that focus on excellence in one area as their primary goal, strive for good in another and maintain at least an average level for the rest. Wal-Mart, for example, dominates on price and maintains a good selection of products, while Target excels at product selection, followed by price considerations.

From Detroit to Dublin, Crawford and Ryan examine the areas in which given companies excel and why. Each discussion is accompanied by a set of questions to help the reader analyze how that attribute fares in his or her own company. This crisply written book provides an insight into consumer behavior that will prove of great use to business leaders and also makes for fascinating reading for consumers.

Also recommended are:

"The New York Times Management Reader: Hot Ideas and Best Practices From the World of Business," edited by Brent Bowers and Deidre Leipziger. Times Books/Henry Holt, 2001.

"Use the News: How To Separate the Noise From the Investment Nuggets and Make Money in Any Economy," by Maria Bartiromo. HarperBusiness, 2001.

Contact the business librarians, who also answer questions about business, money, and work, at 412-281-7141 or at http://www.carnegielibrary.org/clp/libctr/business.

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