The rise of Russia’s oligarchs — and their bid for legitimacy

Roman Abramovich is the owner of the Eclipse, which, at 162.5 metres in length, is the world’s second largest privately-owned yacht.

The $500 million boat sits alongside a list of possessions that include a multi-million-dollar art collection, a Boeing 767 plane, and the English Premier League football club Chelsea.

Mr Abramovich, like most Russian oligarchs, found his billions in the carve-up of the Soviet Union’s industrial assets in the early ’90s, through his connections to the Kremlin.

The oligarchs, sitting atop the most unequal economy in the developed world, can seem almost comical to observers in the West.

But beyond their glitzy extravagance, a complex social transformation is taking place, according to sociologist Elisabeth Schimpfossl.

Dr Schimpfossl, who travelled Russia interviewing oligarchs for a recent book, says the elite are working to legitimise their monied status.

They are, she says, moulding into a class akin to the Soviet intelligentsia or Tsarist aristocracy, using cultural patronage to disguise the often-murky origins of their wealth.

A happy break-up — for some

The Russian ultra-rich amassed their wealth during the economic and social turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the introduction of the market economy.

Many had ventured into commerce in the 1980s, unaware they were positioning themselves to benefit unimaginably from one of the fastest redistribution of assets in history.

Russia’s early post-Soviet elite were from modest social backgrounds who had genuinely benefited from the Soviet education system.

Mr Abramovich, for example, grew up in poverty.

Over the course of the 1990s, a group of bankers and tycoons appeared at the top of the new rich stratum by seamlessly turning their political clout into wealth.

“The early Russian oligarchs seemed to have appeared from nowhere and got their hands on the driving wheel of government,” Dr Schimpfossl says.

During the oil price boom that helped fuel President Vladimir Putin’s resurgence in the 2000s, Moscow regularly topped rankings of cities with the most billionaires.

“A whole new layer joined them getting rich on the back of the high oil price which lasted until 2008,” Dr Schimpfossl says.

“It was almost as important as the first round of privatisation in the ’90s.”

Mr Putin eventually brought economic liberalisation under his personal control and significantly reined in the oligarchs.

“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,” Dr Schimpfossl says.

And while living abroad is popular for many, Russia’s oligarchs are being forced to keep a foothold at home regardless of their position in the state apparatus.

A 2013 law forced government officials, their spouses, and children under 18 to divest themselves of foreign stocks and bank accounts.

From yachts to paintings

Inequality in Russia is at staggering levels.

In 2013, the country had one billionaire for every $11 billion of household wealth, a ratio more than 15 times less equitable than the global average.

In a society that is still acclimatising to the idea of private property, these levels pose some challenges for the oligarchs, who are trying to legitimise their extraordinary wealth.

“The oligarchs are usually hated, and the re-shift of wealth in the population is resented by a population who trace their power directly to corruption during the ’90s,” Dr Schimpfossl says.

“When this first post-Soviet generation passes its wealth on, it will be the single biggest transfer of assets within the smallest group of people ever to have occurred.”

Russian oligarchs have now set out to develop more cultured tastes, rediscover their family histories, and actively engage in philanthropy in order to justify their position in society.

According to Dr Schimpfossl, wealthy Russians are seeking to situate themselves in the tradition of the Soviet, and even Tsarist, intelligentsia.

“They may imagine themselves to be living like the Tsarist aristocrats in a Tolstoy novel, and they’re brilliant at constructing narratives of their past,” she says.

“This allows them to say they are not random people that made it to the top, but they actually have an obligation to be there, even a moral duty.”

Key to this is their involvement in culture and philanthropy, reinvigorating the Soviet concept of ‘kulturnost’ which prescribed that social elites were versed in Russian music and literature.

Igor Tsukanov, for example, is a successful banker who frequently lends pieces of his world-class post-war Russian art collection to museum exhibitions.

The Tsukanov Family Foundation, run with his well-connected wife Natasha Tsukanov, is a London-based charity supporting education, arts and culture in Russia and the UK.

“My art is not for myself. My dream is to have a museum, for the best Russian collection outside Russia,” he told the Financial Times in 2016.

It is hard to judge whether the ultra-rich of today’s Russia will be able to find the social legitimacy Dr Schimpfossl believes they are seeking.

But as the country plans for a new wave of privatisations, they can probably count on getting richer.

AUDIO: Rich Russians: From oligarchs to bourgeoisie(Late Night Live)

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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.