An elite group of entrepreneurs amassed vast wealth, huge influence and bitter enemies in the fall of the Soviet Union. Andrew Mueller examines the gilded misery of the oligarchs.
Russian politics," declares Boris Berezovsky, "is Russian roulette." So, he might have added, is Russian business - although, given the considerable overlap between Russian politics and Russian business, he probably thought it unnecessary. Berezovsky, the archetype of the post-communist breed of Russian businessmen known - both admiringly and derisively - as the oligarchs, has survived several assassination attempts, including a 1994 car bomb which decapitated his driver.
Berezovsky makes this splendidly melodramatic declaration at the beginning of episode one of Russian Godfathers, an excellent new BBC series by Patrick Forbes, director of the acclaimed The National Trust. Russian Godfathers examines how, in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state-owned assets and resources of the superpower were snapped up by a tiny group of smart, ruthless, ambitious and well-connected men, who abruptly joined the ranks of the very richest people in history.
Russian Godfathers also examines their very mixed fortunes since coming into their preposterous wealth, which is a bold enterprise in itself. The rise of the oligarchs was one of many grotesque results of Russia’s transformation to capitalism - a shift managed so ineptly that many Russians ended up nostalgic for communism. The oligarchs, idiotically rich in a country that was largely poor, and given to parading their wealth in a manner that makes American hip-hoppers look like an especially reticent community of Amish farmers, could certainly have given any former Soviet citizen pause to wonder, as he queued for beetroot, what the proletarian revolution had been for.
The oligarchs, not content with buying companies, villas, yachts, planes and the most beautiful of Russia’s beautiful women, also bought power. In 1996, they connived to engineer the re-election of the politically and physically ailing Boris Yeltsin. In 2000, they helped steer Yeltsin’s successor into power - Vladimir Putin, a saturnine former spook with the KGB, and its descendant organisation, the FSB. This, as Russian Godfathers demonstrates, may have been the moment at which the oligarchs out-clevered themselves.
Putin, able to see matters rather straighter than Yeltsin, realised two crucial things about the oligarchs: that they were potentially more powerful than him, and that they were about as popular with your average Russian as a man idly burning bundles of £50s outside an orphanage (according to one 2004 poll, only 18% of Russians opposed wholesale renationalisation of the country’s resources). In a country in which anti-semitism never quite went out of fashion, the fact that many of the oligarchs are Jewish makes them an even more tempting target for a populist like Putin (after the arrest of arch-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin’s already high approval rating was measured at 80%).
The five men discussed below, despite their colossal wealth, now lead extraordinarily precarious existences. It’s little wonder that they continue to spend like tomorrow isn’t coming.
Doubtless the richest refugee in Britain, living in gilded exile in a vast pile in Egham, protected by ex-Foreign Legion bodyguards, gadding about by limousine and private jet. Berezovsky was granted refugee status here in 2003, and has been given travel documents under a new name - Platon Elenin. Despite this quixotic manoeuvre, everyone knows who he is - including Vladimir Putin, whose attempt to pursue him on fraud charges recently hit the buffers in the Russian courts. Berezovsky appears to regard Putin as an ungrateful protege - back when Berezovsky was a key figure in Boris Yeltsin’s entourage, he helped groom the charmless, but more or less sober, Putin for power. Berezovsky now campaigns openly against Putin. He once took out full-page advertisements in American newspapers warning of the hazards of trusting Putin, and claims to have substantially underwritten the Orange revolution in Ukraine, which vexed Putin considerably. Berezovsky’s most recent move, not unamusingly in the circumstances, was to go into business with Neil Bush, brother of George W.
Of all the things that may conceivably trouble the sleep of a Russian oligarch - the clinking of the platinum windchimes, the rutting rituals of the pet tigers, the breathy entreaties of the entire Dynamo Moscow cheerleading squad - it is surely Khodorkovsky’s story that provokes the most anguished insomnia. Khodorkovsky, former head of oil company Yukos, was by some guesses the richest man in Russia - Forbes magazine once estimated his wealth at £9bn. He spent some of this fortune on acquiring the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, and hiring journalists noted for their criticism of Vladimir Putin. In October 2003, armed agents of the FSB - Putin’s former colleagues - stormed Khodorkovsky’s private jet at Novosibirsk airport. In May 2005, he was finally convicted of charges of fraud and tax evasion, and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. He is currently resident at YaG-14/10, a Soviet-era prison camp outside Krasnokamensk, in eastern Siberia, where he is said to earn 23 roubles a day sewing police uniforms.
Gusinsky’s story is another warning that the wrath of Vladimir Putin is no respecter of wealth. At his peak, former taxi driver Gusinsky was one of the most powerful men in Russia, owner of Media-Most - the country’s only independent media corporation, with interests in television, radio and print. Gusinsky’s outlets were often critical of the rule of Boris Yeltsin, who either didn’t mind too much or was too drunk to notice. Putin was less tolerant. Gusinsky was arrested in 2000 on charges of embezzlement, and upon his release fled into exile in Israel. His media empire was subsequently dismantled, and he has been forced to fight attempts to extradite him from Spain and Greece, where courts ruled the Russian charges were politically motivated. Earlier this year, Gusinsky was questioned by Israeli police investigating suspected money laundering at Israel’s Hapoalim Bank.
For a kid who grew up orphaned from the age of four, raised by grandparents in the bleak northern Russian republic of Komi, Abramovich, now 38, has done tolerably well. His recent sale of his oil company Sibneft, to Russia’s state-owned Gazprom, swelled his fortune to an estimated £15.7bn. Given that he is already the proverbial man who has everything - a £28m pound pad in Belgravia, a vast villa in St Tropez, 440 acres of Sussex, three yachts, including the 115-metre Pelorus, a private Boeing 737 and a real-life Championship Manager game (previously known as Chelsea FC) - it’s hard to imagine what else he can spend it on. Perhaps - who knows? - he is consumed with a desire to see how a sudden windfall of, say, £10m would transform the life of just one journalist (address at the front). It is more likely, regrettably, that he will continue to invest in Chukotka, the Siberian region which unsurprisingly re-elected him governor in October. Has so far had the eminent sense not to get involved in national politics, or say much about Vladimir Putin.
In most cities, it would be considered weird if the mayor, after 13 years of taking home an unspectacular public sector pay packet, had accumulated a personal fortune running into billions. Most cities, mercifully, are not Moscow, over which Yuri Luzhkov has presided since 1992, winning re-election three times with policies including compulsory bulletproof windows for restaurants, fining weather-people for inaccurate forecasts, and rebuilding the torn-down statue of infamous KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinksy - an eccentric initiative interpreted by many as an attempt to curry favour with former Lubyanka employee Putin. Defenders of Mr Luzhkov however point out that the considerable money in the family actually belongs to Mrs Luzhkov, Yelena Baturina, whom Luzhkov married in 1991. The fact that her construction and furniture companies have benefited from many municipal contracts is surely testament to nothing but the fine work they do.
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