“The first thing that hits you is the nothingness, no anger, impatience, irritation or contempt, no sorrow or regret, no humor or joy. It is a look that says, ‘Beware, I’m capable of anything’. It is scary.” – Richard Stengel – Managing Editor (Time Magazine), speaking about his first meeting with Vladimir Putin.
The world’s richest oligarch. Conservative estimates put the value of assets under Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s direct control at close to $1.2 Trillion.
The cover photo above was taken when he beat out author J.K.Rowling, Chinese President Hu Jintao, ex-US VP Al Gore and the US commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, to be chosen as Time Magazine’s much hyped Person of the Year 2007. Other Russians who had won that dubious distinction before him were Josef Stalin(twice) and Nikita Khruschev, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev (once each).
Aware that the choice for the award came at a significant cost to the principles that free nations prize, the cover story took great pains to insist that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year award was not an endorsement but merely the acknowledgement of Putin’s success in ‘bringing stability’ to Russia.
The award ceremony was at the Kremlin and right afterward, Putin hosted a dinner for the entire Time team. Throughout, he was studiously polite but he made it clear by his aloof and somewhat contemptuous demeanor, that being chosen Person of the Year by an American news magazine meant absolutely nothing to him and that the dinner itself was a waste of time and he would rather be elsewhere.
And then he drove home his point. As the waiters were bringing in the dessert, Putin made a show of looking at his watch, set down his napkin and rose, saying something like, “I have to be elsewhere, please continue…”
Then, while his guests gaped in astonishment, he turned and left the room. They had just been dismissed.
Right since the time of the Slavs, the Dregovichs and the Slovens of the 7th century, through to the 75-year Soviet rule until Putin, oligarchy has always been the way of governance in Russia. The Soviet Politburo was no more than a tight cabal of privileged men living in opulent luxury, who governed as they saw fit and they did it through a slightly larger group called the Nomenklatura, members of which they themselves hand-picked.
Let’s stick with Russia and go further back in time. Following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, all land and income-producing properties, that had been confiscated and placed theoretically in trust with the nation, were handed over to bureaucrats to administer. In practice, the bureaucrats began acting like the new owners and that’s how it remained.
Until Boris Yeltsin took over as President in 1991.
Under Yeltsin, the first item in the new Russian Government’s agenda became economic reform. But what could it do? How would it begin? It couldn’t return all the businesses and properties that it had confiscated from their owners 75 years back. Heck, the original owners were no longer there, having perished long ago in the USSR’s torture chambers and gulags. There were no claimants alive, only skeletons, buried in pits somewhere in the permafrost.
The first decision the Russian Government took was very nobly worded in it’s press release. “The state bureaucracy has grown inefficient and corrupt”, it announced. Henceforth, it would “empower” it’s citizens to own and administer it’s assets directly and thus bring Russia speedily into the free market economy. The Russian government would divest it’s exclusive holdings in virtually all that it owned – it’s oil industry, it’s natural gas pipelines, its heavy engineering industries, it’s merchant fleets and it’s aluminium smelters and steel plants. Russia would open up it’s financial sector to private banks.
What the Russian government did finds a parallel in the Canadian author and activist, Naomi Klein’s definition of the term “shock doctrine”. Massive change, initiated by taking a sudden shock in the system as a pretext. It originally proposed by Milton Friedman, a University of Chicago-based asshole who called himself an economist who proposed sudden privatization as the only way to effect sweeping reforms. Prosperity would inevitably trickle down to the masses, he said. He first suggested his voodoo to the Chilean dictator, Augusta Pinochet in 1972 and won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976.
Friedman’s Shock Doctrine worked with disaster management as well. It was a two-step process, the essence of which was simple – (1) wait for a disaster (a war, a terrorist attack, a natural catastrophe, economic collapse and/or widespread destitution) and (2) while the citizens are paralyzed with shock, act like you are being strong and taking charge.
Etched in our consciousness are these words spoken by George W Bush the day after 9/11….“Leave it to us to fix and I assure you we’ll fix it. We’ll get those who are responsible for this horrific attack on America. You go on and enjoy yourselves like this never happened”.
Those words were just what ordinary Americans wanted to hear. Here’s a President who is going to fix this, they sighed in relief. 99 out of 100 members of the Senate – Democrats and Republicans – voted to invade Iraq. The one who cast the ‘no’ vote, a little old black woman, was hounded, villified and ostracized and ended up losing her seat in the Senate. The Iraq war began and it would be a year before people slowly began to catch on and started questioning the invasion.
Examples of the opportunistic aftermaths of shock are many – the handing over of Iraq’s oil to BP and Shell, the subcontracting of the ‘war on terror’ to Black Water and Halliburton, the mass surveillance of Americans after 9/11, the permanent closure of public housing, hospitals and schools in the US after Katrina 2005 and turning them over to for-profit private businesses, the auctioning of pristine South Asian beaches after the 2004 Tsunami. All of these were dastardly acts that were sprung upon a grieving citizenry.
In contrast, Russia’s version of shock capitalism was a happy one, cheered on by a deliriously thrilled public, tired of harsh austerity, hopeful of western-style freedoms. Boris Yeltsin’s divestment plan went ahead and almost overnight, he freed massive government assets.
Unfortunately Russians didn’t believe in vetting or due process, so the assets went directly into the hands of a motley group of individuals – low level komsomol functionaries, failed academics, hair dressers, gardeners, taxi drivers, rubber duck salesmen, airline stewards, chefs, petty criminals and black marketeers, many of whom had been Yeltsin’s partying daughter, Tatyana’s friends.
Russia was now the land of unbelievable rags-to-riches stories. From living inside rundown tenement blocks, the recipients of Yeltsin’s largesse were now jetting around the world, having high-priced call-girls flown in to satisfy their kinky desires.
The metamorphosis from communism never reached the ordinary Russian. It was so badly managed that it left many Russians feeling nostalgic about communism and wondering what the struggle to be free had been for.
Before I introduce you to the Yeltsin oligarchs, here’s a look at Vladimir Putin’s current St Petersburg set. (I have only chosen the more colorful ones) …….
Arkady Rotenberg, 70, Jewish, Putin’s childhood friend and judo coach – net worth $11bn – He produces oil pipes for Gazprom, owns real estate, malls, builds ports, distilleries and mines. Prominently mentioned in both, the 2016 Panama Papers leak and the 2021 Pandora Papers leak. Rotenberg has extensive ties with Israeli causes and is a personal friend of the ex-Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Sanctioned up to his balls by the US. Washes his money at laundromats in Switzerland and Cyprus.
Viktor Vekselberg, 64, Jewish, engineer – net worth $10bn – has interests in Aluminum, oil, telecom. Tasked by Putin to develop close ties with the US Republican Party and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Has close ties with Israel. Washes his money through investments in art, American and British real estate, and Swiss, Israeli and Cypriot laundromats.
Yuri Valentinovich Kovalchuk, 71, Jewish, dual Russian and Cypriot citizenship – net worth $15bn – He just happened to be Putin’s former St. Petersburg neighbor, maybe they grew close while mowing their lawns together or something. Holds a majority stake in Bank Rossiya, along with Russia’s richest man, Alexey Mordashov. Together, they are Putin’s “personal bankers”. For his ill-fated Moscow Trump Tower project, Trump had been told to allot the two 15000 sqft penthouse apartments to these two oligarchs, though in fact they were actually meant for the Putin family.
Alisher Usmanov, 68, Uzbek-born Muslim with a Jewish wife who is a close confidante of Putin’s girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva. Before he knew his wife, this dude was a minor functionary and shake-down artist who was in prison in Uzbekistan, for corruption. After Putin came to power, Usmanov was miraculously exonerated of all charges and released. He is worth $20bn and holds a majority stake in the British football club, Arsenal. At one point, he owned 10% of Facebook.
Yes, Russia’s oligarchs love Cyprus with its lax tax laws and loose banks. And while the average Russian is largely anti-Semitic, Russian government big-shots close to Putin are strangely drawn to Jews. If you are a Russian oligarch, chances are that you are either Jewish or there is a Jewish connection with ties to Israel and/or that you have bought yourself a Cypriot citizenship to launder your money through Cyprus’s corrupt banking system.
(Net worths are pre-Ukraine invasion)
Most of these fat cats live in the wealthy ghetto of Rublyovskoye Shosse, near Putin’s dacha on the edge of Moscow. Here, Lamborghini showrooms jostle for space with Gucci boutiques, plastic surgeons and glitzy restaurants that charge $7500 just to reserve a table and stock $150000 bottles of vintage wines in their cellars.
The ghetto keeps things private, away from the ordinary Russians who shiver in the cold as they shuffle to and from work where they barely manage to make $150 a month. In just 30 years, Moscow has grown to have the world’s second largest number of billionaires, fully 118 of them, as per a database published by The Guardian.
Moscow is the only city in the world which hosts an annual invitation–only Millionaire Fair – For a week, you can walk in and pick up a diamond encrusted cellphone for $15000, a $25000 negligée, $50000 S&M bondage set with leather and gold whip and a pearl-studded dildo or an obscenely priced mink coat. If you are musically inclined, there might be a grand piano on promotion for $350000.
The Millionaire Fair has a wine counter, selling wines so exclusive that for the price you pay, the vintner will fly down personally to uncork the bottle for you and show you how to drink the stuff. Jacuzzi-fitted executive jet sales counters are strewn everywhere you turn. Watch where you’re going or else, you might inadvertently bump into one of the skimpily dressed blonde waitresses carrying complimentary bowls of Beluga caviar, plates of Chatka crabs, Limfjorden oysters and pickled quail eggs.
Putin makes it a point not to show up at the Moscow Millionaire Fair. He wants to be above the ostentation. On paper, he is a modest man. The NY Times says that official documents show he has a salary of about $153,000 and owns a small plot of land, a small flat and two cars, one of which is a Soviet era Lada. It is however, virtually certain that a $1billion dacha built on the shores of the Black Sea not far from Sochi, belongs to Putin, as does the Scheherazade, a $700million super yacht, all paid for by his grateful nouveau riche oligarch pals.
Now lets get back to the original set – the Yeltsin oligarchs, the ones lording over Russia when Putin became President. They were the pioneers of the post-Soviet smash and grab, who behaved like little kids who had suddenly been given their own playrooms full of toys.
Yeltsin’s oligarchs paraded their naked wealth obscenely. Villas, yachts, cars, private jets, beautiful women, everything. You name it and it was there to be shown to the world…. while ordinary Russians queued up for basic necessities, as before.
There was Boris Berezovsky, a former functionary at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, worth $7bn, living in exile in a vast estate in England when he was assassinated on the orders of Putin.
Roman Abramovich, formerly a nobody – a mechanic and a rubber duck salesman, who suddenly found himself partnering with the above mentioned Berezovsky to grab and run the then Russia’s largest state-owned oil company. When Putin came to power, the two had to make a decision. Berezovsky chose to go up against Putin and he was found hanging over his bathtub. Abramovich was spared Berezovsky’s fate because he quickly maneuvered himself onto Putin’s right side. He is now worth $20bn.
Badri Patarkatsishvili(late), Jewish-Georgian ex-Soviet Komsomol functionary and close Berezovsky associate, worth $12bn. Berezovsky’s hanging should have told him something but I guess he wasn’t bright enough. Aged 52, he died of cardiac arrest in his Surrey mansion one night after dinner, an autopsy revealing poisoning with sodium flouroacetate, a well known KGB assassination technique that induces cardiac arrest and leaves no trace. Patarkatsishvili had no personal animosity toward Putin but his close links with Berezovsky and the absence of an explicit and public declaration of allegiance to Putin were sufficient for the Russian leader to order his killing.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a low-level communist party functionary before he became the 16th richest billionaire in the world and Russia’s richest. A very vocal critic, he fell foul of Putin and was packed off to a Siberian gulag where he spent 8 years. Then the strangest un-Putinlike thing happened – he was set free and allowed to settle in Britain (after he handed over most of his billions to Putin’s control of course). He is now worth a measly $500 million but lucky to be alive. Why did Putin spare Khodorkovsky’s life? Guess we’ll never know.
Mikhail Fridman, 58, Jewish-Ukrainian with dual Israeli citizenship, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, ex-thug and movie theater ticket black marketeer-turned co-founder of Alpha Bank. Like Abramovich, Fridman too managed to wiggle his way onto Putin’s right side and is now worth $15bn.
Unlike Yeltsin, Putin didn’t have a vodka haze to muddle his thought processes. Things had been crystal clear to him from the start. Two things actually. One, with all their riches, Yeltsin’s oligarchs were potentially more powerful than him and therefore a threat that needed to be neutralized. Two, ordinary Russians hated them because they did what they did – rob the state of its resources.
As to the Yeltsin oligarchs, they had plucked Putin from obscurity and made him President and now they could control him.
Or so they thought……
The first week after he was ‘installed’, Putin called a meeting with all the fat cats. He deliberately held it in Stalin’s old house, the one with bullet holes on walls where Stalin had old cronies lined up and shot. He stood up and told them in no uncertain terms, “You all made a lot of money and you can keep all of it, but know this – you owe me everything. From here on, I tell you to jump, you jump.”
Before they knew what had hit them, Putin proceeded to take the Yeltsin oligarchs down one by one, a move that saw his approval rating among the masses, shoot up to 80%. By the end of his first month in office, most of the Yeltsin groupies had escaped into exile in Britain, lucky to be alive.
And why England? Because, like the Swiss, the British are disgustingly unscrupulous and very hospitable toward rich folk who want to come over and settle. While the French and the Spanish prefer African and Latin American despots, the British are more finicky about race. They love Russian oligarchs. Who do you think occupy those palatial homes in Belgravia and Kensington Palace Gardens in London? Englishmen? Nah, those neighborhoods are strictly for the ‘Bratva’. The city of London now has the world’s third largest number of billionaires, 54 of them, mostly Russian, as per The Guardian. (Britain’s Russia connection goes real deep. The current Queen Elizabeth’s great grandmother was a fucking Russian queen).
Putin’s finesse is evident from the smooth switch from the Yeltsin oligarchs to his St Petersburg cabal. There’s a difference between the two sets. Unlike Yeltsin who lost control, Putin has his oligarchs in a tight leash. He has ordered them under pain of death to be more discreet with their cash, which may be why nobody noticed when, during the 2008 global financial meltdown, some of them saw their wealth fall to their last $100 million and there was not even a whimper in the press. A drop in assets to $100 million is like the über-rich equivalent of hitting skid row.
The 2008 downturn however didn’t stop Russia’s oligarchs from splurging behind closed doors. When a Times correspondent asked Kamaliya Zahoor, wife of Pakistani-Ukrainian Mohammed Zahoor, from the erstwhile Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic now settled in London, about the kind of champagne she prefers, the gorgeous singer replied that she liked ‘slipping into some Krug Clos d’Ambonnay’ to perk her up after a day of shopping.
The reporter assumed that Kamaliya Zahoor meant to say ‘sipping’ and not slipping. “No, no, I need it to bathe in,” the young lady responded and she meant it when she said, “I fill the tub with it and just slip in. It cleanses all the toxins from my body. You should try it some time.”
(Btw, the Krug retails for $750 a bottle and Kamaliya’s spacious bath tub needs just 265 bottles to fill up to the overflow drain.)
Oligarchy? By Golly_garchy!!
If you like watching the news, then you’ll know that a lot has changed of late for Russia’s oligarchs. Two weeks back, the US announced ‘full blocking’ sanctions on an expanded list of Putin and Yeltsin oligarchs. Now, the billionaires’ assets will not simply be frozen, they will be confiscated. Also, the US will now go after family members and close friends too.
The EU is planning similar measures. Even Switzerland has smelled blood, I understand. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the governments of a lot wealthy western nations. Now they can legitimately steal, in broad daylight and make it seem like they are administering justice. Yachts, private jets, limos, real estate, private islands – everything that they themselves once sold to the oligarchs. Now everything is fair game. The hyenas are closing in. In the US, the responsibility for finding and appropriating those assets is with a section within the US Justice Department, aptly named KleptoCapture. Only, who are being the kleptos here?
The oligarchs have been planning for this eventuality of course, by setting up shell companies in tax havens, so watch out for an Aliens vs Predators fight of the millennium.
Interesting info sources:-
“Russia’s Crony Capitalism” – Anders Aslund
“Once Upon a Time in Russia” – Ben Mezrich
“Putin’s People : How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West” – Catherine Belton