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I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia Paperback – 1 May 2008
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A fantastic read. (Loose Ends, BBC Radio 4)
I Was a Potato Oligarch is the charming, witty and utterly hilarious telling of Mole's real-life experiences in a Russia still coming to terms with capitalism and competition...Mole is a bright, resourceful guy but his most valuable traits are his biting sense of humour and a willingness to take every setback in his stride. Bearing comparison easily with the likes of David Sedaris, Mole's story makes for a wonderful read. (The Sunday Business Post)
Very readable and very funny. (Clarissa Dickson Wright author of Spilling the Beans)
Funny and perceptive, it gives a vivid and sympathetic picture of what Russians are really like, and how they manage to survive and enjoy themselves in their often chaotic country. (Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to Moscow 1988-1992, and author of Across the Moscow River and Moscow 1941)
About the Author
John Mole has been at home in Greece for thirty years. "Like Odysseus making his legendary way home to his birthplace Ithaca, the island of Evia was the goal of my life's journey. It was better than Birmingham." He has had a varied international career, from banking in the USA and Athens to jacket potato restaurants in Russia. Meanwhile, he published comic novels and management books, including the perennial bestseller 'Mind Your Manners'.
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I persevered - which says more about my stubbornness than about the book - but found it rather a sad book that rambled about all over the place. There is some good observational humour about accents and I now know why every Russian you meet is so miserable at first (until they've hit the vodka) but I had to wade through a lot of inconsequential fluff to discover that the Russians can't grow a decent potato and the mafia will take all your money.
A bit of a waste of time really.
John Mole's book is frequently amusing but after a while becomes too relentlessly jokey. His attempt to introduce the Jacket Potato outlet to Russia reveals the unrelenting ability of the state machine to slow down, complicate and often defeat the best entrepreneurial instincts. Thus far so interesting and entertaining. But diversions into other areas of Russian life diffuse the focus and interrupt the main narrative. If one suspects that a little literary licence has been taken in crafting certain episodes - perhaps manipulated in detail without necessarily betraying the essential truth - that is something that can be alleged of some other travel writers.
In fairness, it must be said that Mole is no mean craftsman with words. There is a visit to a church. "The nave was packed. Incense and mist from damp overcoats and bad breath and fart and mumbled prayer and candle smoke and deep-throated harmonies billowed round the faithful and rose in a reverent miasma to the cupola where Christ Almighty looked down on us, big-eyed and stern and holding his breath." This from one of the funniest, saddest chapters in the book.
Sadly, towards the end there is a feel of peremptory tying up loose ends that is unworthy of much of what has gone before.
Other reviews (particularly on the U.S. Amazon) are correct to point out that Mole himself tends to dominate this book - like many travelogues it is as much about the man as the place he's visiting. Mole's eye and ear for comedy are not as pitch-perfect as Bill Bryson, say, and his personality does risk becoming grating, but his openness and measured self-deprecation do help allay this. Without thrusting it in the reader's face, he creates the clear impression of being a highly cultured man, a Slavophile and an experienced, albeit surprisingly naive, businessperson - and on reflection this is more or less the perfect combination for an explorer of a chaotic, dynamic and highly diverse society with deep historic roots. Because Mole is a businessman he gets far more closely engaged in the system than a "just passing by" travel writer would do, and is therefore more revealing - particularly when his naivety or curiosity get the better of him. But he is also sensitive to far more than the financial prospects of the situation.
This book is about events in the couple of years directly after the collapse of the USSR so isn't really intended to be a guide to the "Modern Russia", but was written sufficiently later for there to be added retrospective insight. A good example of this is the not-quite-meeting with future-President Vladimir Putin, then a relatively minor politician in local government. (Although something of a non-event, this does show the murky environment where Putin cut his political teeth in - had this book been written closer to the events, Putin's significance would have gone totally unremarked!) The critical comment here about Kroshka Kartoshka seems to be based on the false assumption that this is a book about Russia in the 2000s - in fact in the book itself, Mole briefly describes how Kroshka Kartoshka has thrived where he failed.
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