Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Rich Russians: from Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie’ by Elisabeth Schimpfössl

28 July 2022

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Rich Russians: from Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie by Elisabeth Schimpfössl. Hardback 248pp ISBN-9780190677763 (Oxford University Press, New York, 2018)

In 2008, the year Russia invaded Georgia, Elisabeth Schimpfössl set out to interview and observe 80 of the top richest 0.1 percent of Russia’s wealthy entrepreneurs, their spouses and adult children, in Moscow, London and New York.  She concluded her research in 2017, three years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the European and US sanctions it provoked.

Few of Schimpfössl’s interviewees are household names, but her objective in writing this book was less to penetrate the attitudes of tabloid oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich, and more to track the transformation of Russia’s “ordinary” super-rich into a bourgeois class, much like that of America’s nineteenth-century robber barons.  Indeed, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in America in 1899 is often cited as well as Max Weber’s Economy and Society and several texts by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  But seminal to her approach in analysing rich Russians’ attitudes is the work of French sociologist Daniel Bertaux, who collected life histories for his study of social mobility in post-Soviet Russia.  Schimpfössl justifies her reference to these Western texts with the following caveat:

The chaotic situation in which the Russian elite emerged in the 1990s did not fit into the theoretical models developed on the basis of Western experience in an earlier, twentieth-century context.  However, the stabilisation that Russia’s elite has enjoyed in the 2000s removed this mismatch, making an analysis that focuses on the cultural and social dimension of power and social class timely and topical.

Rich Russians came out in 2018.  Schimpfössl’s conclusion is encapsulated in the book’s subtitle: from Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie.  The plaudits on its back cover come from Russia scholars as well as Western sociologists of bourgeois affluence and influence.  Four years on and in the light of what we have witnessed since, it seems improbable that her thesis would receive the same endorsements.  

Drawing on Western sociological models, Rich Russians’ chapter headings are organised around areas of questioning and observation such as the quest for legitimacy and superiority, family history, attitudes to questions of taste, ostentation and philanthropy, gender balance in the home and in business, and attitudes of the inheritor generation.

Schimpfössl writes that she also interviewed over 100 “experts”: wealth managers, lawyers, consultants, former personal assistants, artists, architects, interior decorators, private jet operators, travel agents, psychotherapists, glossy magazine editors, journalists, teachers, drivers and builders. Some of them paved the way for interviews with the rich they catered to. Others helped by getting her into social functions and events. But one was most unhelpful and Schimpfössl takes her revenge in spectacular footnote form: 

Timofey, an eccentric wealth manager, was not in the slightest bit interested in replying to my questions.  The three-hour interview included myriad diversions, such as his complex Asian tea ceremonies, long stories about how he confronted a bear in the Siberian taiga, a demonstration of his knife throwing skills, and a tedious game in which Timofey kept moving closer to me on the couch in his penthouse flat off Kutuzovsky Avenue, and I kept moving away. 

Her interviews with her super-rich themselves are very revealing, and not only of her subject.  In one memorable episode, Schimpfössl is interviewing Vladimir, a PR entrepreneur in his forties, when she detects a note of nascent philanthropy: 

…he told me that when he was little, he wanted to be like Robin Hood. … “Ah,” I retorted, “that means you wanted to take money from the rich and give it to the poor?” Vladimir stared at me and then started laughing out loud: “No, I wanted to go into the woods and shoot with a bow and arrow.” 

There are several such examples of almost mutual incomprehension.  In this instance, Vladimir is demonstrating a distaste for socialist ideals shared by many in this book, who see being poor as a personal and not a social problem.  Vladimir continues: “In my view, everybody can earn money as long as they aren’t ill and are physically intact.  I don’t see any reason to help these people.”

But these rich Russians also speak of what they miss from their Soviet upbringing often citing its educational system, which instilled an appreciation of reading and cultural values they believe is absent in Russia today.  

The origins of those values can be traced back to that particularly Soviet concept of kulturnost’.  We learn that the term was first used in Russia in the mid-1930s when thousands of peasants flocked to the cities as a consequence of Stalin’s forced collectivisation. Kulturnost’ for the new urban poor meant a certain standard of personal hygiene – clean teeth and fresh underwear, a close shave and a spray of perfume, outings to the cinema, spectator sports and a glass of Soviet champagne from Crimea.  According to Schimpfössl, “this then embraced many of the cultural values and pursuits of the old Russian intelligentsia, books and pre-revolutionary writers,” and it was this bookishness of their Soviet childhoods that her interviewees were nostalgic for.

Schimpfössl observes other inherited characteristics from the USSR when she attempts to explain how come so many of her interviewees put their business acumen and success down to their genes (and God, sometimes both):

Soviet traditionalist ideology had by the 1960s and 1970s long dictated that everything was in the place allocated to it by “nature,” such as respect for traditional family and gender roles, with an emphasis on motherhood for women. That these ideas extended deep into the intelligentsia was partly related to the fact that in Soviet academia science was prioritised at the expense of developing the social sciences.

The emphasis on genetic inheritance and therefore on a family history narrative is fascinating.  In the chaotic, cut-and-thrust of the 1990s, rich Russians often sought the services of “crafty historians” who barely subsisted on their meagre university salaries and set up shop as genealogists to well-funded clients.  Early on, many rich Russians wanted to find connections among the tsarist aristocracy, later they wanted to boast of an aristocratic grandmother who saved the family by marrying into the Red Commissar class, which then spawned a direct line to the Soviet intelligentsia.  

The chapter about attitudes to philanthropy is most telling and in many ways makes clear the role of the Russian state in coercing Russia’s wealthy to subsidise the state, in what may appear on the surface as acts of charity or philanthropy:  “Already by 2006 almost 90 percent of donations in Russia went to state-run bodies, stepping in where the state had failed and helping to finance health care, nursery homes, orphanages, and cultural institutions.” One only has to think of Abramovich’s contribution to Chukotka when Putin suggested in 2000 that he become Chukotka’s governor.  It was non-negotiable and Chukotka benefited hugely. 

These days, rich Russians are more inclined to philanthropy in the arts – personal art collections, endowments to museums, the foundation of cultural institutions.   Many of Schimpfössl’s interviewees express boredom with business and the desire to find meaning in life.  She also points to the ageing of Russia’s first generation of super-rich and a growing sense of their own mortality.  Such cultural legacies offer a path to immortality.  Not for this sample of rich Russians, the investment in cryogenics and AI as a way of ensuring personal immortality favoured by tech billionaires of Silicon valley.  Interestingly, Moscow is the only city outside the USA with cryogenic freezing facilities. 

In a chapter called “A Man’s World”, we find the author exploring attitudes to gender.  In another memorable exchange, this time with Boris, a forty-eight-year-old businessman, he tells her that whilst he does not object to his wife working, he doesn’t like it when she goes away to conferences or works late into the night, just as he does, because it causes her to neglect the family:  

A little perplexed, I asked him if he was against women pursuing careers in general. “I’m a sexist,” he replied. I was astonished. Did he just say “sexist” in the way I understood the term?  My blank look must have made it clear how baffled I was. “A sexist is not someone who loves sex,“ he clarified, apparently seriously.

There are many such delicious moments in Rich Russians.  And more tantalising moments of insight that are almost developed, but never quite to the end.  One is the predominance of Jews among Russia’s super-rich; think Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  For the most part Soviet Jews had little or no religious affiliation but anti-semitism and strict quotas in the USSR gave them a sense of being an outsider and forging strong ties of trust and loyalty amongst their own. It also enlightened their approach to business and philanthropy, family, inheritance and legacy.  In exploring Russian Orthodoxy and its attitude to charitable giving, Schimpfössl contrasts it with the Jewish tradition, which she maintains is more organised and structured. As an example she cites Liniya Zhizni (Life Line), the brainchild of Jewish oligarch Mikhail Fridman. Talking to Oleg Sysuev, a board member of Fridman and Petr Aven’s Alfa Bank , she asks him whether he saw Jewish influence in Fridman’s model for Liniya Zhizni.  Sysuev tells her: “it’s probably more business experience than Jewishness.” But after a pause, he adds: “Then again, big business in Russia is mostly Jewish.” But why this should be so is never developed in much depth or detail.

Fridman has publicly stated that he will not be leaving “an enormous sum of money” to his children.  His plan is to leave it to charitable foundations.  Now the target of UK sanctions since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it remains to be seen how that pans out for him.  However, this negation of inheritance among Russia’s rich is not a trend borne out by research done at the Skolkovo Institute in Moscow, whose study predicts that “It will be the biggest intrafamilial transfer of wealth the world has ever seen if one considers the small number of people involved. The enormity of this project seems daunting even to the actors involved.”

It would be interesting to know how that’s going, after yet more sanctions, said to be the severest yet. Interesting also to know how many of the 0.1 percent are still in Russia.  If before the invasion of Ukraine, rich Russians could travel the world, with homes in London, New York, Paris and Moscow, and opine on the cultural and historical influences they wanted for their children, one imagines that they have been faced with a stark choice now.

Rich Russians draws on a wide-ranging bibliography, some with the most mind-boggling titles: “Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty”; “Ticking Boxes: (Re)Constructing the Wristwatch as a Luxury Object”; “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore”; “The Power of Dress in Contemporary Russian Society: On Glamour Discourse and the Everyday Practice of Getting Dressed in Russian Cities”.  One senses that these texts informed Schimpfössl’s interview with Maxim, whose gold mobile phone cost more than the average car: “I don’t like expensive watches but sometimes in meetings it’s necessary to let people see a phone like this, which is more expensive than an average car. This will put your opponent in the right place.”  (And unlike expensive watches or cars, he can decide when to flash his gold phone. ) Or the other rich Russian in her book who travels by metro because he can’t bear Moscow’s legendary traffic jams, but sends his chauffeured limousine ahead of time to pick him up so that he can arrive at meetings in wealth-appropriate style.  Or the vogue in marital fidelity as the new status symbol (rather than female arm candy half your age.)

Twice in the book, once at the beginning and once at the end, Schimpfössl claims that Russia’s own robber barons have transformed into respectable gentlemen.  Russia experts Catherine Belton, Oliver Bullough and Edward Lucas would no doubt refute her proposition.  I once tried that line about robber barons when talking to Bill Browder.  I don’t think I need to repeat his response here.

With hindsight and not only, it seems hard to believe that any scholar of Russia in the 2000s thought it was a period of sufficient stabilisation to make this study based on Western sociological vectors viable.  I have a hunch that in years to come, Rich Russians will form part of another author’s bibliography in a study about how the West got Russia so wrong.  It will be a very copious bibliography indeed. 

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