6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 46

Joining the wild party

Justin Marozzi

THE TASTE OF DREAMS by Vanora Bennett Review, L14.99, pp. 276, ISBN 0755300637 From time to time, a certain champagne house which suffers from an association with Jeffrey Archer places advertisements in this magazine, in which esteemed persons recall their first, unforgettable taste of said champagne. The writing can be good, but it's all a little contrived, entirely in keeping with an industry which pretends to be luxurious but is only marginally less massmarket than your average loaf of bread. I reckon most people would remember their first taste of caviar far more clearly. Fizz is all very well, hut fish eggs are where it's at.

Vanora Bennett, one-time Reuters correspondent in Moscow, understands this only too well. She spent much of her time in the immediate post-Soviet Russia shovelling down the stuff — Sevruga, Osietra, Beluga, whatever came her way. Those were heady days, both for the new-rich mafiosi and for Westerners with dollars like Bennett.

The love affair with all things Russian began earlier, as a child in Putney, where her parents entertained a constant stream of bohemian émigrés from eastern Europe. The bookshelves at home were lined with Russian novels. Bennett started at Pushkin and worked her way down, absorbing an idealised view of a romantic Russia long since disappeared.

Later, as a wide-eyed young woman, she falls in with a louche set of Russian emigres in Paris, spooning down what she thinks is caviar -it turns out to be lumpfish — with priests at an Easter feast. Indulging the urge to live dangerously and find the real thing, she heads for Russia and falls in love with a small-time gangster who liberates Westerners of their American jeans in return for some good old-fashioned loving and a spot of caviar.

Russians have a word for this sort of devil-may-care, high-jinks-chasing approach to life. They call it azart, which a dictionary defines as heat, excitement or fervour. Bennett has a more attractive definition:

Azart makes you rich. It makes you powerful. It brings you limos and lovers for every day of the week. Even saying the word makes you open your eyes wide with excitement and flare your nostrils. It dazzles and fizzles and sizzles. To a Russian, caviar is edible azart.

And so we enter the crazy extravagance of Russia emerging from the stultifying decades of communism. With her journalist's hat on, Bennett is an excellent chronicler of the excesses of that period. It may be a decade old now, but the writing is both fresh and acutely observant. We hear of the Young Ladies' Academy, brainchild of a dubious entrepreneurial couple, where 'for a hefty consideration, young ladies could learn modelling, deportment, etiquette, fashion design and lap-dancing', as good an entree to the white slave trade as one could hope for. Everyone is on the make, even the paterfamilias of the cosy family which takes Bennett under its wing in St Petersburg. He successfully regurgitates his decades-old PhD for a lucrative Western grant.

Azart has its ugly side, of course. Bennett writes of the steady elimination of the sturgeon from the Caspian Sea which began as poachers took advantage of the lawlessness of the post-Soviet era. In 1990, there were 15,000 tonnes of sturgeon officially caught. In 1994, that figure had fallen to 5,400 tonnes. Some think this magnificent fish's days are numbered, thanks to the caviar-smuggling mafia in Dagestan, which is linked with terrorism and bloodshed. Bennett heads south to investigate. She writes of driving down from the mountains, 'A day losing height, feet on brakes, squealing round every bend, feeling the air lose its poetry...'

There are plenty more attractive turns of phrase in this enormously engaging book. Occasionally Bennett goes a little overboard on the wonders of being a war correspondent — taken in by the self-referential azart, no doubt — but for the most part this is a charming read, a highly personal take on a disturbing subject. Caviar will never taste the same again. Or will it?

Justin Marozzi's history of Tamerlane will be published by HarperCollins in 2004.