A study, based on interviews, on how oligarchs are reinventing themselves as a cultural elite finds room to skewer their self-aggrandisement and patriotism. By Oliver Bullough, 31 August 2018
Everyone loves to write about rich Russians: their yachts; their football clubs; their dalliances with our politicians; their basements. In fact, there are probably as many British journalists with strong opinions on Russia’s gilded class as there are actual oligarchs in Knightsbridge, but all of us have a problem: very few of the super-rich will talk to us. After all, why would they?
Enter the Austrian-born and British-based sociologist Elisabeth Schimpfössl, who has scaled the pinnacle of Russia’s economy and come back down with Rich Russians, a tightly observed study of this extremely small but spectacularly wealthy group. The book is based on interviews with 80 of Russia’s richest people, a third of them owning more than $500m in assets, and among them some billionaires.
We are all familiar with the stereotype of the Russian oligarch. They are male, they are crude, they drink, they own vast houses, they made fortunes in the 1990s by whacking business rivals. If they didn’t fall out with Vladimir Putin shortly after he came to power, they now prop up his kleptocracy with injections of cash whenever he asks them to. This stereotype is partly their own creation: everyone likes to claim they earned their fortune thanks to their own efforts.
Schimpfössl examines this picture of self-made businessmen and shows it to be largely myth, however. Russia’s staggering wealth inequality – in 2013, it had one billionaire for every $11bn of household wealth, a ratio more than 15 times less equitable than the global average – actually grew directly from its pre-1991 social inequality. Those who held power under the communists turned it into cash so successfully that analysts from Credit Suisse have considered creating a whole new category for Russia in their annual wealth report.
“The end of a centrally planned economy and the introduction of market reforms accelerated the careers of individuals who were already well on their way to success,” she writes. Schimpfössl’s interviewees were more than happy to disavow the oligarchs’ initial origin myth. Tales of the wild 1990s are embarrassing now, the equivalent of an English aristocrat having to explain that his exalted ancestors were actually bandits who stole their estates from the Welsh.
But these rich Russians have replaced one myth with another. Many of them have taken to patronising the arts, and now like to stress how cultured they were under communism. They claim kinship with the intelligentsia, the supremely cultured habitués of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres in the Soviet era, and some even trace their lineage back to the educated classes of the tsarist empire, or even the aristocracy.
Schimpfössl structures her book thematically, drawing on her interviews for the raw material of her analysis. Many of her interviewees chose to be anonymous, which is a little frustrating if you’re accustomed to the tighter sourcing of narrative non-fiction, but that was the price of her access. Her description of her research technique is entertainingly direct: she obtained rich Russians’ phone numbers, and badgered them until they agreed to talk to her. Her success rate was impressive, though she was under no illusion that she learned the whole truth.
The culture she describes is overwhelmingly male, and highly gendered. In one footnote, she describes how she had compared stories with a man called Gerry (“a hyperenergetic, ever-jolly, down-to-earth Essex man”), who services Russians’ business needs in the UK. He had heard plenty of tales of business rivals being murdered, of their multiple girlfriends and so on, which she had not. “I suspect that a male researcher would have been more likely to hear more revealing stories,” she writes. And yet when she spoke to female interviewees, she encountered considerable hostility. They could see only one reason why Schimpfössl, an unmarried woman in her 20s, would be so keen to obtain contacts for rich Russian men.
The core argument of her book is that wealthy Russians have sought to legitimise themselves – to transform themselves, in the words of her subtitle, “from oligarchs to bourgeoisie” – by means of their involvement in culture and philanthropy. She thus spent a lot of time in fancy restaurants and art galleries hearing about how important it is to give something back, and to support artists and cultural development.
This is an aspect of the book I found frustrating, since she did not question her interviewees’ claims as much as I would have liked. Perhaps because of her training as a sociologist, she did not focus on the political aspect of her subjects’ lives, which means she did not interrogate all the reasons why spending money on art had become so popular. She concludes that the primary target for the legitimisation campaign is the Kremlin itself: the wealthy want Putin to continue to allow them to enjoy their wealth. However, no doubt because her interviewees would feel uncomfortable discussing such a sensitive topic, the insecurity that must result is left unexplored.
Nonetheless, her wide-eyed interview technique scores notable successes in other ways. When the children of rich Russians claim to have achieved their success in fashion (or whatever) by their own efforts, Schimpfössl skewers them. Similarly, when the very wealthy claim to be patriotic, she pours her disdain into a paragraph that distils the very essence of Putinism: “Patriotism on the part of the moneyed class clearly ends when it comes to the matters of educating their children, acquiring second homes, and determining where to park their money.”
When this first post-Soviet generation passes its wealth on, she notes, it will be the single biggest transfer of assets within the smallest group of people ever to have occurred. Her book is a valuable and intriguing analysis of the emergence of a class that will shape Russia for centuries.
• Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland is published by Profile. Rich Russians by Elisabeth Schimpfössl (Oxford, £25.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.