I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole

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I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole

Category: Travel
Rating: 1/5
Reviewer: Ekaterina Rodyunina
Reviewed by Ekaterina Rodyunina
Summary: John Mole's autobiographical Russian travel notes could be easily applied to visiting a zoo or a disconnected tribe: they look funny, they act funny and they are so different from us! In this rumbling world of killers and clairvoyants, mad priests and homeless, where women moon their bums in public loos in Red Square and men sell ballet tickets for a living, it is the author who stands tall, English and polished, trading modern-day bangles for hats in his interactions with the aborigines.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 352 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 978-1857885095

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I remember getting this book in post, reading the title and thinking no, even though I am Russian, I will try to be unbiased and judge it like I would judge any other book about a foreign country experience. I now have to regretfully admit I failed. In my defence, John Mole's focus on mocking the nation and country made that all too easy.

First of all – for all those who might read it and make a mental note to never visit my country – it is a book which speaks of Russia without ever mentioning the year (point for that, by the way, very clever and might sell extra copies). Guessing by the mention of impeachment, it takes place in 1993-1998. As in, more than ten years ago. As in, barely a few years after communism collapsed and Russia was painfully trying to get out of its ruins. Needless to say things are totally different now.

It is then that author John Mole meets a random enterpreneur Misha on a random business conference. Misha knows of John and offers him a job opportunity: to give a few lectures on business in Russia. Short of money, John accepts and embarks onto a risque journey.

While in Russia, he is enchanted with the open world of unexplored business opportunities and easy money, and has a revelation, what he refers to as The Big One - an idea in the fast food market – to sell jacket potatoes with fillings. The idea seems feasible to quite a few people and John starts implementing it. The road ahead is dark and long – the quest for the perfect potato, the bureaucratic challenges, the lack of proper funding and even the mafia claiming their share: they all aim to stop him from becoming a potato oligarch. I won't spoil the ending for you, but all in all, Russia and the jacket potato business in particular turn out to be way less smooth than even John's grim expectations pre-advised.

The author does a wonderful job of creating flat and meaningless characters. His travel notes could be easily applied to visiting a zoo or a disconnected tribe: they look funny, they act funny and they are so different from us! In this rumbling world of killers and clairvoyants, mad priests and homeless, where women moon their bums in public loos in Red Square and men sell ballet tickets for a living, it is John Mole who stands tall, English and polished, trading modern-day bangles for hats in his interactions with the aborigines.

In all fairness, there are a few really descriptive and significant passages in the book and I found the story of an accordion player really touching. Thanks for that ray of literature once in 300 pages.

I guess that the book might be interesting. It is an easy read. Its infinite flaw though, is that it pretends to fit in the non-fiction genre when in fact it manages to distort reality for the sake of anecdote. Just look at the monkeys dear, smile and wave.

Thanks a lot to Nickolas Brealey Publishing for giving me a chance to criticise by sending this book to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you are interested in Russia travel narratives, why not try Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder.

Buy I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole at Amazon.com.


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