Academic book review. By Susanne Wengle

This book examines the practices and narratives of a Russia’s richest citizens—the winners of the economic transition that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its main thesis is that this group of super wealthy are emerging as a coherent social group, best described as a bourgeoisie. In Elisabeth Schimpfössl’s words, Russia’s “robber barons” are “well on the way to transforming themselves into respectable gentlemen” (p. 12).

The book offers a compelling portrait of the narratives and cultural practices of this group of Russians. They engage in philanthropy and are patrons of the arts, and they have set out to discover family histories, for example. We learn, among many other things, that rich Russian do not like to talk publicly about their charitable donations and that they are uncomfortable thinking about social inequality. While we gain many new insights, some of the described characteristics are less than surprising: that this group is dominated by men and masculine values, and that many of members are patronizing toward the author. The main strength of the book is that it gives us a collection of stories that give us a better sense of how rich Russians narrate their own path to enrichment. The book is exceedingly well researched, the empirical evidence is rich, and as a portrait of the Russian oligarchy the book is path breaking.

The book’s main shortcoming is that it privileges a particular motivation for the practices and legitimizing narratives. Schimpfössl argues that they serve primarily one purpose—to make rich Russians “feel that they deserve their status and position in society,” which in turn consolidates their self-conception as a legitimate social class, the bourgeoisie (p. 171). There are other motives that are mentioned in the book, especially that rich Russians may engage in charity, philanthropy, and art patronage because the Russian state under Vladimir Putin explicitly demands that “those who accrued a certain level of wealth help fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the state” (p. 99). This is an important observation, and perhaps should have been explored in more detail, given that the relationship between the state and Russian oligarchs is a key area of research across several social science fields (Markus 2015, Wengle 2015, Gans-Morse 2017).

Other motivations are left undiscussed: could it not be that rich Russians engage in these practices because they value the causes they are contributing to, child welfare and art, for example? Finally, rich Russians may engage in these practices because Western elites—the Robber Barons especially—have in the past sought to legitimize their own social position in this way. The empirical evidence at times allows for a glimpse of what motivates the rich Russians: in the case of religious philanthropy the evidence suggest that most rich Russian do not on deeply believe in religious values. On the whole, however, there is neither a clear analysis, nor a clear evidentiary basis, to the claim that one motive dominates. Likely this is the case because rich Russians themselves vacillate and have myriad motives for the practices and the way they explain their own rise to the highest echelons of wealth and privilege.

The book could have done more to acknowledge the diversity of motives, perhaps at the expense of the strong claim that Russia’s 1 percent are primarily concerned with self-legitimization. Chapter 8, on “Rich Russians and the West,” is another place where the complexity of the evidence and the parsimony of the argument are in tension. The chapter opens with the explanation that “Russia’s view of itself has been intrinsically linked to its attitude toward the West,” and then goes on to argue that the “neo-Slavophile, Eurasian view of Russia as unique” are on the rise and go “largely unchallenged.” There are many instances in the book, however, where “Western” values and tropes, such as the self-made entrepreneur and the value of liberal markets, were unambiguously on display in narratives of rich Russians—and, of course, many also send their children to Western schools. The chapter would have gained from an analytical overview of these different and complex strands of how the contemporary Russian rich relate to the West, instead of the simpler claim mentioned above.

Despite these concerns, the book presents a novel and valuable account of rich Russians and is well worth reading.

Susanne Wengle, University of Notre Dame

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Elisabeth Schimpfoessl

About Elisabeth Schimpfössl

My research focuses on elites, philanthropy and social inequality as well as questions around post-Socialist media and self-censorship. I did my PhD at the University of Manchester and taught at Liverpool University, Brunel and UCL before taking up my current post as Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. I live in London.