Academic book review. By Jukka Grow

Jukka Gronow (2019): Rich Russians. From oligarchs to bourgeoisie, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, DOI: 10.1080/23254823.2019.1587872

Rich Russians. From oligarchs to bourgeoisie, by Elisabeth Schimpfössl,Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, 234 pp., £25.99.

 

The origins of the enormous wealth of the rich and super-rich Russians and the trajectories of its accumulation, or rather appropriation, are unique in world history. In the 1990s, Russia experienced a very rapid transfer of state property, in a couple of waves of privatisation, into the hands of a very small group of entrepreneurs who formed the new economic elite of the country. This first generation of private business people did not, and could not, have any bourgeois background, or inherited finance capital, having been brought up in a socialist country. Even if many early starters have already lost their property, and in some cases their lives, and disappeared from the scene, those left created the foundations of their wealth in the 1990s. This rapid transformation led to extreme economic inequality of wealth, which, as Elisabeth Schimpfössl points out, has parallels only on some small Pacific tax haven islands with their millionaire residents. This story is more or less well known from previous studies and journalistic reports. So is the poor reputation of Russian oligarchs, their internal fights, including violent takeovers, often with the support of various organs of the state. The first-generation Russian entrepreneurs are notorious for being corrupt, often referred to as oligarchs, and even compared to Mafia bosses. It was typical for these successful Russian businessmen, many of them born in the 1960s, to have occupied in their youth strategic positions in Soviet organisations and enterprises, albeit not on the very highest levels, which gave them competence to master the new rules of the game, useful social networks and opportunities to privatise the state-owned enter-prises where they worked.

What is less well-known is that the Russian rich have increasingly in the 2000s started forming their lifestyles and cultural orientation in patterns remarkably similar to those of other social groups of ‘nouveaux riches’ in history. The classical case is the ‘robber barons’ of the USA of the Gilded Age at the turn of the previous century, analysed by Thorsten Veblen in his famous work The Theory of the Leisure Class (2009[1899]). Whereas ostentation and conspicuous consumption, or openly showing off their newly acquired money, is typical of parvenus, their manners and cultural values tend to become (with time) more civilised and cultured, which finds expression in their free-handed donations to art and philanthropy, their children’s education, as well as in their lifestyles and taste. The merit of Elizabeth Schimpfössl’s study, Rich Russians, is that she documents this cultural transformation in the case of Russia in great detail. She underscores her study by stating that

the chaotic situation in which the Russian elite emerged in the 1990s did not fit into the theoretical models developed on the basis of Western experience in earlier, twentieth-century context. However, the stabilization that Russia’s elite enjoyed in the 2000s removed this mismatch, making an analysis that focuses on the cultural and social dimension of power and social class timely and topical. (p. 10)

This does not, by any means, mean that rich Russians would no longer enjoy their expensive cars with chauffeurs, their yachts and jet planes worth millions, or live in luxurious castle-like villas in their ‘gated communities’ and send their children to expensive private schools and universities abroad. Ostentation has not disappeared from the scene; rather according to Schimpfössl, it has taken on new, more civilised forms. This becomes apparent in the way those concerned have increasingly acquired bourgeois tastes and habits, thus cultivating a sense of legitimacy for their children and themselves. As she argues convincingly, ‘the upper ranks of Russian society have … become more self-restrained and “European” in their public personae, which has helped them shed the nouveau riche image of the 1990s’ (p. 13). Thus they ‘replicate processes we have seen in numerous other societies and on numerous other occasions in the past’ (p. 12). According to Schimpfössl, the so-called Russian robber barons are well on their way to trans-forming themselves into respectable gentlemen.

Schimpfössl’s study is quite unique and remarkable. She interviewed and observed eighty wealthy Russian entrepreneurs in their homes, offices, cafés and restaurants as well as at parties and receptions, their spouses and children, from the Russian top richest, between 2008 and 2017, many of them several times and quite extensively. About one third of them might have been classified as ‘super-rich’. The interviews took place in Moscow, London and New York. As the author quite rightly claims, the economic upper class has hardly figured in social and cultural terms in academic research in Russia, and one could easily add that they have not been common objects of sociological research elsewhere either mostly due to the real, or imagined, difficulty of gaining access to them. How the author succeeded in interviewing them is interesting as such. This alone makes Schimpfössl’s study a remarkable achievement, and worth all due attention. She has succeeded in painting a systematic and detailed picture of their cultural ambitions and dispositions. The book is not only full of exciting and illuminating stories, which are a pleasure to read, but it also presents many well-argued generalisations and conclusions.

Despite the fact that the development of the culture and social life of the Russian rich resemble the trajectories of other ‘nouveaux riches’, they differ at least in one important and interesting respect from their predecessors elsewhere in history. In setting themselves apart from other groups in society, the rich Russians adhere rather amazingly and often quite explicitly to the ideals and cultural values of the Soviet intelligentsia of the past. As Schimpfössl discovered, ‘my interviewees’ claim to belong to the intelligentsia constitutes one of the most prevalent narratives in Russian culture’ (p. 51). Many of them come, in fact, from families who belonged to the former Soviet intelligentsia, an officially recognised social stratum – alongside the workers and peasants – that enjoyed certain privileges in society and was highly conscious of its own cultural standing. Their parents were often highly educated scientists who worked in academic and otherresearch institutes, in the military industrial complex, or in administrative positions as experts. The first generation of the new rich Russians received their education in the best Soviet universities and institutes of higher learning, often graduating in science, engineering, economics, or international relations. Almost one third of Schimpfössl’s interviewees hold doctoral degrees. Their social background certainly helps to explain why they find it natural to refer to the values of the Soviet intelligentsia in defining and legitimating their own social position. The fact that the cultural values and ideals of the intelligentsia seem to fit perfectly well into their own understanding of their social position and function, strange as it may sound at first glance, is indeed quite intriguing. According to Schimpfössl, the Soviet intelligentsia plays in this respect a role similar to that played by the aristocracy for the classical North American and European parvenus, acting as a role model and example of a cultured life worth imitating. Karina, the wife of a wealthy businessman, who has entered Moscow’s high society through marriage, formulated this explicitly:

‘You can also place us in the intelligentsia in terms of our attitude to life and our moral and spiritual values, such as support for others, friendship, love, and mutual understanding. The most important values are certainly integrity, pro-priety, and good manners, as well as high ethical and aesthetic standards.’ As she also wisely admitted, ‘of course, without money it’s all difficult’. (p. 53)

This attitude reveals what unites the lives and social tasks of this group with those of the former Soviet intelligentsia. As Schimpfössl points out, this cultural disposition becomes most evident in the importance given to literary culture, Russian classical literature in particular. As matter of fact, an interesting recent study of the cultural strategies of the Russians in St. Petersburg, the second largest city of Russia, has shown that the cultural status hierarchies of the Soviet intelligentsia are very much alive despite the fact that this social stratum almost completely lost its economic standing after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Sokolov, 2018). Whereas the former Soviet intelligentsia emphasised the importance of cultural and symbolic capital at the cost of economic capital, the present-day rich Russians certainly do so rather as a counterweight to it, helping them to legitimate their – in the eyes of many – undeserved wealth and privileged position. At the same time, they can be fully conscious, as in Karina’s case, of the fact that it is easier to show these valued features of character, engage in arts and philanthropy and act out of altruistic motives, once one has succeeded in guaranteeing oneself a social position in which one can engage in art and philanthropy without the burden of daily economic necessities, not having to pay attention to one’s material well-being. In this respect, the rich parents’ expectations concerning their children’s future are typical. Judging from her interviewees, Schimpfössl comes to the conclusion that ‘along with right schooling, the inculcation of appropriate manners, a certain cultural understanding, and a training in philanthropy might soon become part of what is accepted by the [Russian – JG] bourgeoisie as a proper upbringing for their children’ (p. 151).

There is, however, one quite unique and important factor which, in addition to their unprecedented rapid and extensive appropriation – or, as many wouldargue, theft – of capital, sets the rich Russians apart from the economic elites of the capitalist countries of the West: their close ties with and dependence on the centres of political power. This does come up in Schimpfössl’s study on many occasions in the biographies of the Russian oligarchs who have lost their positions and wealth, or have had to emigrate abroad, because they have fallen into disgrace with those in power, as well as in the interesting observation that almost all Russian rich entrepreneurs are residents of Russia even if they have second homes in London, or elsewhere, and have placed their families permanently in the West. The large donations that the rich make to charitable purposes are often not genuinely voluntary but ‘ordered’ by the authorities. The money goes to various state-run institutions, and not to NGOs, compensating for the lack of appropriate state funding of health care, social security and education. As Schimpfössl also points out, the Russian new rich can command power as individual tycoons who have close relations to the Kremlin, but not as representatives of a cohesive social group with its own political organisations and agenda.

Their ‘state dependency’ does not however come up in any more straightforward manner in their interviews. One could well imagine that if the interviewer had pushed these questions further any interview might have come to an end quite soon. Their relative vulnerability and non–independence, compared to their Western parallels, in relation to the political power organs of the state and the political elite does not seem to occupy the minds of Schimpfössle’s interviewees. Or could it be that this has remained partly unnoticed by her? Their adherence to Russian nationalism, including the cultural importance of the Orthodox Church, even among people who were not religious at all, as well as their emphasis on Russian cultural superiority, or exceptionalism, and/or the con-sequent inferiority complex and unease in relation to the more firmly established Western economic elites, could probably be interpreted in this light. One could even argue that these families’ peculiar relationships to the Russian state is one of the factors contributing to the Russian rich entrepreneurs’ ‘natural’ adherence to the cultural values and ideals of their Soviet-intelligentsia parents. The Soviet intelligentsia, unlike their children and grandchildren, lacked real economic capital but they were also, not unlike their rich sons and daughters, largely left outside the corridors where real political power was exercised. But it is also true that their lack of economic capital would have made it impossible for the Soviet intelligentsia to show cultural good will in the way that, according to Stella Kesaeva, the wife of Russia’s biggest tobacco retailer, has become almost a norm among the super-rich: that is, setting up large museums of their own. Schimpfössl’s list of the museums the oligarchs have funded and founded recently is remarkable:

The oligarch Roman Abramovich’s third wife, Dasha Zhukova runs her Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Russia’s richest person both in 2016 and 2017 (with $18.4 billion), Leonid Mikhelson, spent 150 million on a new contemporary art gallery, and Boris Mints renovated a building for $16.5 million to turn it into a museum to show his art in a public space. David Iakobachvili has so far spent over $50 million in a museum to exhibit his collection of self-playinginstruments. Viktor Vekselberg’s Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg opened in 2013. Pyotr Aven contemplates setting up a museum in Moscow or Riga to show his collection of avant-garde art. The businessman Yevgeni’s concern about Russia has inspired him to set up a ‘museum of the Russian soul’ which will cover a space over twenty-two thousand square feet. (p. 114)

It remains to be seen how well the Russian rich manage to preserve their fortunes under deteriorating economic conditions and increasing tensions in international politics, and whether their cultural strategy, so aptly described by Schimpfössl in her study, succeeds in legitimating their privileged position in the long run – both in their own eyes and in those of their much less fortunate compatriots.

 

References

Sokolov, M. (2018). Cultural capital and social revolution: Arts consumption in a major Russian city, 1991–2017. Poetics. November 2018. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2018.10.005.

Veblen, T. (2009). The theory of the Leisure class. An economic study of institutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

https://doi.org/10.1080/23254823.2019.1587872

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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.