A gold-plated Porsche designed by Denis Simachev. Far from just being a practical mode of transportation, demand for vehicles like this is on the rise among Moscow’s New Russians, who flaunt their wealth in the most overt ways possible. More than 2,000 Porsches are sold a year in Russia and the company aims to double its number of centres in the country from 18 in 2012 to 36 in 2018.
Moscow – Long Read

Not always clear how fortunes were made

Photo by Achim Siegmund

Moscow – Long Read Not always clear how fortunes were made

Hello Moscow, with the rich on one side and, on the other, the poor. The former, the new Russian oligarchs, spend vast amounts of money – and it is not always clear how their fortunes were made. The latter hold on as best they can, often unable to afford two meals a day. Yet the oligarchs are the ones who need $10,000-an-hour shrinks to treat their depression.

Sergio Ramazzotti
Sergio Ramazzotti Photographer

Two Russian oligarchs are sitting drinking a cocktail in an exclusive bar. One is wearing a silk tie, and the other asks him how much he paid for it. “One hundred dollars,” he replies, and the other says: “You fool! Had you told me I could have sent you to a shop where you can pay $200.”

The first time someone told me this joke was in Moscow in 1990. The Soviet Union had been collapsing for months, and the emergent Muscovite oligarchy – made up of the new super-rich and a few Mafiosi – were already living it up. The last time I heard it, with exactly the same words (except that the price of the tie had risen to $1,000), was just a few weeks ago.

Two Russian oligarchs are sitting drinking a cocktail in an exclusive bar. One is wearing a silk tie, and the other asks him how much he paid for it. “One hundred dollars,” he replies, and the other says: “You fool! Had you told me I could have sent you to a shop where you can pay $200.”

The first time someone told me this joke was in Moscow in 1990. The Soviet Union had been collapsing for months, and the emergent Muscovite oligarchy – made up of the new super-rich and a few Mafiosi – were already living it up. The last time I heard it, with exactly the same words (except that the price of the tie had risen to $1,000), was just a few weeks ago.

Corruption has reached unreal levels

The oligarchy is now fully developed, and the novi ruski, as they were once called, are no longer a novelty, although their distinguishing features haven’t evolved much. The unrestrained showing-off with money, to a nearly pathological degree, is greater than ever and something which, in its post-Soviet form, is directly proportional to the speed with which the people came by their wealth. Very rarely, it has to be said, does it appear to have been acquired in an honest way. In Russia, and in Moscow in particular, corruption has reached unreal levels.

“In the days of the Soviet Union, poverty was so great that for many new oligarchs, becoming unexpectedly rich has actually been a traumatic experience,” says Asnis Maria, a real estate agent who specializes in seriously expensive homes in the centre of the capital). “Flaunting their wealth to the four winds is partly an attempt to exorcise that trauma. And besides, in a city with such a concentration of millionaires, anyone who wants to attract attention to themselves is forced to push the limits.” Asnis’ psychological analysis was clear to see in the café where we were seated. Nevertheless, his instinct has also allowed him to dream up and provide (with ever-increasing success) a service designed specifically for those who want to exceed even the extreme showiness seen in the glittering new metropolises of the Persian Gulf.

Some years ago, he and his associate, Andrey Shestov, founded Crystal Garage, a company that customizes cars using Swarovski jewellery. It began by attaching crystals as a joke to the wings of cars owned by obliging friends, but now they are about to get their own sales team. One oligarch (“It is better if we don’t say his name”) commissioned their biggest job to date, a BMW SUV covered in gold leaf and crystal from wheel to dashboard, and everything in between.

People looked scornfully at me

In spite of its name, Crystal Garage still doesn’t actually own a garage (until now, they worked by leasing them on a daily basis), but they will surely be getting one soon, given the way business is booming. And in addition to adding crystals, Asnis can also remove the crystals, as he ultimately had to do to those he attached to his own modest sedan for promotion purposes: “That was a bad time. People looked scornfully at me, as if I was a criminal.”

The compulsion of the novi ruski to outdo one another leads them to buy more and more designer label top-end brands. “In order: car, watch, clothes, house,” says Daria Berman, PR officer for Mercury, a company that imports luxury goods to satisfy every imaginable whim – from mobile phones that cost the same as a Rolex, to Rolexes that costs the same as a Ferrari, or the most sought-after Ferraris themselves. But nothing is ever expensive enough for those among the slightly obscene Muscovite jet set, just as no motor is ever powerful enough.

This also explains how this incredibly chaotic city, with 20million inhabitants, has become an immense, endless building site with dozens of mega-malls under construction. It is also plagued by a habit of chaotic wild parking that would put Naples in the shade; has permanent, citywide gridlock, and streets bathed in a mantle of smog; and is home to an astonishing number of top-of- the-range sports cars with massive engines. But most noticeable of all is the absence of motorbikes. “Moscow is not a place for motorcyclists,” says Andrey Shestov. “The season for enjoying two wheels is too short; moreover the motorists are often distracted, arrogant, and too dangerous.” He was speaking by telephone, from the hospital bed in which he was recovering after being involved in a motorbike accident.

If an oligarch (or more typically his son) does buy a motorbike, he will opt for – needless to say – a Harley, and the most expensive one at that. As one young man (an heir who wanted to remain anonymous) told me: “I can only use it in summer, but I like the rumbling sound it makes, and I like parking it in front of the bars where I go to drink.” Of course.

The Malevich was then hung in the garage

To be fair, there are those who invest their wealth in genuine works of art. Journalist Milla Kuzina writes a gossip column for the Kommersant daily paper, and spends her summer (for work) moving back and forth between the Principality of Monaco and the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. She knows more about the private lives of the oligarchs than some would like revealed. She cites one – making me swear that their name remains a secret – who recently spent several million dollars on an important painting by Kazimir Malevich, and gave his consort a gift of some glittering jewelery that once belonged to the Romanovs. The tragedy is that the Malevich was then hung in the garage.

And for every oligarch who owns a Malevich, there is always another, as reported recently in the Russian press, who buys a pure gold mattress for his dog. Or who vents his fury on the director of Rai, one of the more exclusive nightclubs in the city (with mink- covered walls), because he couldn’t do everything he’d wanted to in one of the club’s private shower cubicles, which he’d gone into with three models, none of whom was his wife. For the record, the showers have since been enlarged.

Not exactly setting a high standard then. But, as Kuzina says, “There are oligarchs in Moscow who lead normal lives, and many are married and relatively faithful to their wives. It’s when they are abroad and on vacation, that’s when they behave badly.” She recalls one episode in the exclusive French ski resort of Courchevel that has now entered into legend: “A group of millionaires were entertaining some women at their table in a restaurant. They were drunk and causing a commotion. On three occasions a man seated a few tables away came over and asked them to lower their voices. The third time, they answered by raising their middle fingers.” But the name of that man was Nicolas Sarkozy. “Some time later, when he was elected president of France, he sent the police to arrest those same Russians for exploiting prostitutes.”

A few years ago, one enterprising and oft talked about man came up with an idea to supply single rich men with a legal alternative to prostitutes. Piotr Listerman has in turn become rich himself, by setting up a finishing school for provincial girls who want to marry millionaires. Finishing, however, takes second place to local requirements: rather than learning not to rest their elbows on the table, he teaches the girls with high hopes how to match the right fabric colors, how to swing their hips in a showy way, how to choose the right perfume, and above all how to recognize a rich man from a distance by the make of his watch and the car he drives.

Ten time zones to the east of Moscow

The rich vein into which Listerman is tapping is almost infinite, since “provinces” means a territory that stretches across ten time zones to the east of Moscow, in which millions of attractive girls live with more than enough ingenuity to learn to distinguish between a Rolex and a Swatch.

And now even the doctors are benefiting: from a new need created by the rivers of money flowing into Moscow and its environs. There can’t be many places where a 34- year-old psychoanalyst can ask $10,000-an- hour for therapy, and still find five patients in less than a year. But this is exactly what happened to Artem Tolokonin, who in 2007 founded the NeoVita clinic for millionaires. There, in exchange for 180,000 euros a year, oligarchs can have at their disposal, 24 hours a day, a team of specialists to keep their physical and mental health under control, so as to maintain them in perfect shape to cope with the rigours of summer on the Costa Smeralda, or winter in Couchevel. Or the showers of the Rai nightclub. To give some idea of the high regard in which the clinic holds its patients: after taking blood, it is normal practice to offer bruschetta topped with beluga caviar.

But as a partial consolation to anyone who, on reading this, feels jealous or envious, do bear in mind Tolokonin’s answer to my last question, about the most common complaint among his patients: Depression.

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