Two cash-flush “new Russians” walk into an elevator and realise they’re wearing the same designer tie. “Ah,” one brags, “I paid $500 for it.” The other guffaws: “You fool! I paid $1,000!”
Time was, this joke was all one needed to know about Russia’s generation of oligarchs — a rapacious, widely reviled group of tycoons who got rich privatising the USSR’s rich resources in the 1990s. During the oil price boom that fuelled President Vladimir Putin’s resurgence in the 2000s, Moscow regularly topped rankings of cities with the most billionaires. Russia’s riches are so unevenly distributed that Credit Suisse contemplated inventing a separate category for the country in a 2014 report.
Those cartoonish figures are now a thing of the past, argues Elisabeth Schimpfössl, a sociologist at Aston University who has written the first full-length study of oligarchs as a class.
Drawing on interviews with 80 of the Russian elite, Schimpfössl argues that the oligarchs have progressed to become a fully fledged bourgeoisie with its own tastes and values, much like the French one described in Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 work Distinction. The ostentation is still there — one of her subjects flashes a smartphone made out of gold — but is increasingly being supplanted by a desire for acceptance.
One businessman tells her: “While [Roman] Abramovich collects yachts, I collect paintings.”
The result is an engrossing and fresh account of how the Russian elite sees itself. The more self-aware of Schimpfössl’s subjects are dogged by a sense of shame about how they leveraged political contacts to take over valuable state assets on the cheap. Petr Aven, a privatisation architect-turned-oligarch, complains that 70 per cent of Russians still view privatisation negatively.
“It will be many years until private property will be seen as legitimate in Russia,” he complains. Others try to play down the prestigious university degrees and parental connections that helped them in the first place.
“None of us has inherited anything except for education,” says Boris Mints, sidekick to Mr Aven’s former Kremlin colleague Anatoly Chubais.
Schimpfössl argues that many are not quite the outsiders they portray themselves as. Jewish oligarchs such as Mr Aven’s business partner, Mikhail Fridman, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, had elite connections that gave them a head start, despite the official anti-Semitism that kept them from climbing the party ladder.
But the book’s most perceptive insight is when Schimpfössl points out how today’s oligarchs situate themselves in the tradition of the Soviet, and even Tsarist, intelligentsia. Key to this is the Soviet concept of kulturnost, or culturedness, whereby being conversant with Pushkin and Tchaikovsky was a requirement for social advancement. The resulting reverence for high culture ensures those values live on through the oligarchs.
A tycoon’s 31-year-old son tells Schimpfössl that the Russian oligarch is “closer to the people and cares more about them” than his western counterpart — a concept familiar to readers of Tolstoy. The Soviet preference for intangible values persists among the oligarchs even though they have little interest in the Soviet humanising mission. Asked to name a role model, billionaire banker Roman Avdeev opts for Karl Marx.
Schimpfössl concludes that those Russian cultural markers matter far more to the oligarch than the western status symbols often associated with them: Italian designer brands, German roadsters, or houses in the South of France. This is partly because having a presence in Russia is important to keep on the Kremlin’s good side.
The question left unanswered is how long this new class will remain at the top. Under Mr Putin’s rule they have lost political influence as the state reclaims power and wealth. A place in the firmament can be fleeting, too. Mr Mints fled to London this year after a pension fund scheme he ran collapsed, while the billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov is awaiting trial on racketeering charges he denies. In those circumstances, spending lavishly while professing to be above material things doesn’t seem so contradictory.
This article was originally published on FT’s Moscow correspondent