Academic book review. By Tomas Matza (Slavic Review)

As I was reading Schimpfössl’s book, Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie, I was reminded of the time in Russia when, due to favorable currency exchange rates, a graduate student like myself could afford to go to a fancy fitness club in St. Petersburg. I was there with my partner while doing fieldwork, and the fitness club was our antidote to the long winter. The club was called Letuchii Golandets (the Flying Dutchman) and was situated inside an immaculately refurbished ship floating on the Neva, with views of the Winter Palace from every treadmill.

Tomas Matza, University of Pittsburgh
Slavic Review, Volume 78 / Issue 3, Fall 2019, 800 – 805

But despite our membership, it was clear we were not exactly “in.” The only friends I made that year were Anatolii, a Central Asian who cleaned the locker rooms, and Stanley, an exchange student from Nigeria who worked in the coatroom. The other attendees were obviously members of the city’s most elite and wealthy. While I might have sat next to them in the sauna, they were essentially beyond reach, socially speaking.

Rich Russians offers those of us “on the outside” a peak at the lives of Russia’s top 1% (and, in a lot of cases, its top .1%). We learn details about social origins, their pathways into wealth, and, most central to the book, the narratives they use to legitimize their social position. The resulting portrait is less one of confident captains of industry, and more one of status anxiety grounded in a search for markers of legitimacy in relation to the cultural norms of Russian post-Soviet society. As anyone familiar with basic things in Russia knows, the “oligarchs” are also a rather maligned class. Many ordinary Russians view the manner by which Russia’s rich came by their wealth to have been corrupt (as Schimpfössl attests), and since the 1990s they have derisively been called “new Russians.” As such, the elites’ search for legitimacy is also an effort to overcome this reputation.

Rich Russians contributes to sociologies of class and status by taking what is basically a synthetic approach. Schimpfössl situates her work amidst those other early famous sociologies of elites— Thorstein Veblen’s early study of late-nineteenth century consumption in the United States, Georg Simmel’s studies of fashion, and C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite. But the work also draws broadly from other classic studies of class, including a Marxian perspective on production (rather than consumption), a Weberian perspective on wealth and social status, and, importantly, a Bourdieun perspective on distinction and taste. The familiar question of the degree to which this is actually a “class for itself” is taken up briefly. Put in less sociological terms, the question is: who are these people, and to what degree do they constitute a recognizable group? For Schimpfössl, the unifying character of this group of what she ends up calling “bourgeoisie” is that they are “upper ranks in Russian society” who together have some shared experience or trajectory coming out of the Soviet collapse, the wild capitalism of the 1990s, and the rise of Vladimir Putin. As she notes: “What they all have in common is that they share a certain lifestyle predicated on financial privilege, but not wholly contingent on it” (14). This places her analysis more centrally in a Weberian, rather than Marxian vein.

What is really at issue for Schimpfössl, however, is less materialist in orientation anyway. The book tracks domains of meaning and narrative—put another way, the self-understandings of this group of Russians. As she notes, as “bourgeoisie” this group is somewhat at odds with histories of bourgeoisie in Europe: “Russia’s new oligarchs did not inherit their wealth from an existing bourgeois class” (11). Rather, they are a generation (part of the “last Soviet generation,” as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak puts it), who in their lifetimes have moved from the status of arriviste to elite.1 Perhaps it is that accelerated passageway from tacky to tasteful that has also given rise to the somewhat anxious kinds of self-justification Schimpfössl explores. This pathway, ultimately, is what also makes a contribution to the literature, for as the author states, the book contributes a post-Soviet chapter to “processes we have seen in numerous other societies … how new money becomes respectable money, and how parvenus can become an accepted part of the social elite” (12).

The book draws on interviews with eighty different people. About a third of the interviewees each had a net worth of $500 million or more. All told, almost all interviewed belong to the richest .1 percent of Russians (a group consisting of approximately 144,000 people).

So how did the elite do it? Where did their wealth come from? Schimpfössl starts with a succinct and well-managed description of 1990s privatization. As anthropologist Serguei Oushakine (2009) notes, this period was known by many ordinary Russians as prikhvatizatsiia (grabitization).2 Schimpfössl details how the eventual oligarchs, mostly born in the early 1960s, started out as the children of fairly well-positioned nomenklatura with good access to elite educations. This enabled them to be in the right place at the right time during the sale of state asset vouchers in 1992, and then later in the loans-for-shares deals that allowed banks to privatize state assets in 1995. “[A]lthough it did help in the climate of the 1990s to be aggressive, wily, and not overly principled (characteristics typically ascribed to the winners of that period), it was even more important for climbing the social ladder to have relatively privileged social origins” (37).

Since then, the oligarchs have been a shifting cast. Some have fled Russia while others have been imprisoned (Mikhail Khodorkovskii). As Schimpfössl describes, there has always been a close link between power and this social group in Russia, whether as the group vital to delivering Boris Yeltsin’s fragile victory in 1996 over Gennadii Ziuganov, or to maintaining Putin’s hold on power (a hold that has been in part bought through Putin’s creation of the siloviki—a new Putin-friendly class of oligarchs.)

As the glitzy ostentation of the nouveaux riches of the 1990s gave way to a more self-aware sensibility in the 2000s, Schimpfössl discusses the way in which the Russian bourgeoisie has navigated its status anxiety. Several features shaped this sensibility. In one sense, the first wave of Russian elite, increasingly normalized, sought to differentiate itself from more recent upstarts, who strove for the most obvious markers of their status. Signs of this self-awareness were carefully crafted expressions of simplicity, which Schimpfössl terms “poor chic” and “the new modesty” (43). But Schimpfössl also identifies the interesting cultural and historical dynamics of this process of status signification, including a renewed interest in the Soviet intelligentsia as a marker of authenticity. In general terms, the intelligentsia has been a central source of moral standards in Russia, as various scholars have noted.3 What is interesting about the rich is that they do not reach back to the Russian pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, nor to the Soviet artists and writers who took on that mantle later. Rather, their points of reference are the more technically oriented engineers whom Stalin cultivated as the new Soviet intelligentsia. This seems to be another way in which the family histories of these oligarchs have played an important role in shaping what they deem to be culturally and morally legitimate.

Meanwhile, Schimpfössl also charts the various objects that are used as status markers, from cars and yachts to fancy clothes and accessories, such as golden cellphones. As many of these interviewees (and oligarchs) are men, the discourse Schimpfössl extracts is also about performing a certain kind of Russian elite masculinity. In such contexts, “dressing down” to perform modesty is complemented by the use of wives or girlfriends as “foils” (46). This “ostentation through female companions,” as Schimpfössl puts it, is an extension of another post-Soviet process, namely the “commodification of women’s bodies and female sexuality” (46).

In considering the elite’s quest for legitimacy and superiority, Schimpfössl turns briefly to Thomas Picketty’s critique of the “moral hierarchy of wealth”: the idea that “ingenuity and sweat justify great fortunes” (65). Picketty’s critique is that these kinds of discourses “obscure the structural factors that perpetuate social inequality” (65). She examines the particular narratives that her interviewees use to establish the morality of their privilege. Such narratives are crucial not only for positioning themselves as legitimate actors, but also for establishing a position in a much broader search for shared social values in post-Soviet political culture. As such, the narratives are not only about distinction within and among the elite (worthy versus unworthy rich), but also about the particular ways of positioning their current wealth in relation to a variety of Russian/post-Soviet coordinates and values. This includes the awkwardness (brutality) of the 1990s: here most skirt the issues of graft by inserting a discourse of neoliberal individual entrepreneurialism. “As Khodorkovsky told journalist Freeland, ‘We all took the risks to get there, and not everyone is able to take such risks. Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it’” (66–67).

But such embraces are a bit awkward, it seems, and Schimpfössl argues that, by and large, many of her informants appeal to much more personalized conceptions of legitimacy. “[A] key to the legitimacy of the bourgeoisie does not lie in a harmonious narrative of post-Soviet history, but in their birthright” (84). This takes two forms: “genes and god.” First, many understand their success in genetic terms, effectively using a crude determinative understanding of the relationship between genotype, phenotype, and social position to naturalize their elite status. Such discourses are typical of the elite in many places, as Schimpfössl points out. To this, however, the rich add another discursive move that is more specific to the Russian context: a kind of nostalgic embrace of Soviet conservative values, which under Putin have been transmuted to Orthodoxy and linked, in general terms, to Stalinist culture. The idea of coherent Stalinist values occupies the place of a kind of lost social coherence. In this way, a kind of “god” figure holds a stabilizing values position, both sanctifying, in adapted Weberian fashion, the elite’s wealth, while also serving as a symbolic coordinate for social coherence.

The second half of the book tracks the quest for moral legitimacy into the domains of philanthropic practice, gender, children, and relations with the west. We learn that as wealth has become consolidated, many men have tired of the game and turned towards more spiritual and aesthetic pursuits, namely philanthropic practices. Interestingly, however, this is not the “charity” for the poor that is often found in the west. Adopting their bootstraps explanations for how they arrived at the top, many oligarchs tend to avoid alms for the unfortunate. This is particularly so for people struggling with, say, drug addiction. As such, Schimpfössl shows how, through decisions about philanthropic giving, Russia’s rich also express ideas about worthiness and charity, as well as activities freed from the pursuit of money—a status marker that Bourdieu considers a pre-eminent example of elite disposition.

The chapter on gender is interesting, and could itself have constituted a book. We learn that, in some cases, wives have taken over business activities as men have moved into philanthropic activities. Nonetheless, traditional views of sex-gender roles are prominent, and many male oligarchs posit extremely conservative naturalizing discourses about how a woman’s proper place is in the home with the children. Such conservative values also extend to LGBT rights discourses, which, interestingly, are also reproduced by one well-known gay oligarch. From the standpoint of social values, Schimpfössl portrays an elite in lock-step with Putin.

The question of the elite children is important to Schimpfössl’s argument about status justification because, unlike their parents, children cannot ground their moral legitimacy in a bootstraps narrative of entrepreneurial acumen. Their worthiness remains ungrounded, and, in many ways, Schimpfössl sees the youth’s emerging self-narratives as a possible place for political transformation in Russia. Might they, she wonders, provide a new ground for concern with social inequity? This hope, though, seems unlikely if the global record of elite concern is any indicator.

And what of the west? Given the travel, the off- shoring, the residences in Europe, the schooling of children in Europe and the US, is this class becoming less Russian? On the contrary: Russia’s rich have, in keeping with the ways in which their moral narratives link them to the Soviet intelligentsia and Russian values, mostly rejected western values. This is interesting inasmuch as the bourgeoisie, because of their cosmopolitan access to the world, have the potential to become flexible citizens. One thinks, for instance, of the new rich diaspora residing in the US, or of Aihwa Ong’s studies of Hong Kong elites in the UK.4 In the case of Schimpfössl’s interviewees, however, Russia is the place of eternal return (whether by yacht or private jet).

There were a few places where I found myself wanting to peer beyond the elite worlds. For instance, I wondered whether Schimpfössl’s book might have benefited from a bit of analytic tension—whether generated by the critical views ordinary Russians have of this group, or else by a more sustained political economic analysis of power and prestige. I was also wondering about the 1990s phenomenon that Vadim Volkov calls “violent entrepreneurship”; this mode of accumulation, in combination with a discussion of the 1990s mafia, would have provided a useful sidelight to elite narratives of self-legiti-mation.5 Nonetheless, Schimpfössl’s book is an impressive display of access to a famous group that is not particularly well understood. It is also clearly writ-ten and argued and will be of interest to specialists and non- specialists alike. Rich Russians also provides a great lens for understanding Russia’s elite, as well as the nature of Russian power and capital under Putin.

 

  1. Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, 2006).
  2. Serguei Oushakine, The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia (Ithaca, NY, 2009).
  3. Vera S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Durham, NC, 1990); Vadim Volkov, “The Concept of Kul΄turnost΄: Notes on the Stalinist Civilizing Process,” in Sheila Fitzpatrick, ed., Stalinism: New Directions (London, 2000); Michele Rivkin-Fish, “Tracing Landscapes of the Past in Class Subjectivity: Practices of Memory and Distinction in Marketizing Russia,” American Ethnologist 36, no. 1 (February 2009): 79–95; Jennifer Patico, Consumption and Social Change in a Post-Soviet Middle Class (Washington, DC, 2008).
  4. Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham, NC, 1999).
  5. Vadim Volkov, Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism (Ithaca, 2002).
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Elisabeth Schimpfössl

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.