Review on goodreads

Michael rated it on 2 September 2018.

Published by Oxford University Press, this book is the result of years of academic research but as the title “Rich Russians” suggests, the author hopes for a popular audience as well. The eight well organized chapters and conclusion run 175 pages, followed by more than 50 pages of end notes, bibliography, and an index.

The author spent about ten years accumulating interviews with about 80 of the most wealthy Russians as well as about 100 others who had different kinds of connections to the top 0.1 percent of Russians in wealth in order to build her knowledge base from which she wrote this book.

Here are the contents of this book:
-A short story of enrichment
-Becoming bourgeois
-Quests for legitimacy and superiority
-Family history
-Rich Russians’ philanthropy
-A man’s world
-The inheritors’ coming of age
-Rich Russians and the West

The organization of the different chapters is both to separate different areas of discussion but is also presents these topics progressively, as building blocks to understanding these people. That aspect is clever, I would say.

Wealth distribution in Russia is the most unequal of any country in the world, and the crowding of extreme wealth (billionaires) to a small number of people in comparison with the majority is particularly unusual. Putin’s Russia eventually brought much of the Russian population up to a higher standard than many had had previously, but at the same time the gap between these people and the super-wealthy grew ever greater.

In the 1990s, “oligarchs” were understood to be crude, “new Russians” who reached their positions of wealth through crude techniques that reflected their own crude character or nature. Since 2000, the author argues the super-wealthy of Russia have evolved into a Russian bourgeoisie that seeks to justify its entitlement to this wealth in various ways. She then documents these through what these people told her themselves in interviews – remarkable.

There are many things to learn from this book, I would say, which is well worth the time to read a compact 175 pages. It is interesting, for example, to contemplate where Russia will go when the present aging generation that built this wealth for themselves almost as a single age cohort turns over their power to their children, or others. The author also notes that she expected to have more to say about the materials goods accumulated, the consumerist conversion of the new Russian bourgeoisie, but although there is considerable flagrant consumption among many of them, the more interesting unifying characteristic is the pursuit of different aspects of “kulturnost’,” or culturedness. This interest in establishing the cultural justification and fulfillment of their wealth is more of a distinguishing characteristic of Russian super-wealthy than what they buy or spend on, and the author documents this in a way to engage an interested reader.

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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.