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Russian oligarchs

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Russian oligarchs (Russian: олигархи, romanized: oligarkhi) are business oligarchs of the former Soviet republics who rapidly accumulated wealth in the 1990s via the Russian privatisation that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The failing Soviet state left the ownership of state assets contested, which allowed for informal deals with former USSR officials (mostly in Russia and Ukraine) as a means to acquire state property.

The Russian oligarchs emerged as business entrepreneurs under Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary, 1985–1991) during his period of market liberalization.[1] Boris Berezovsky, a mathematician and former researcher, became the first well-known Russian business oligarch.[2]

Oligarchs became increasingly influential in Russian politics during Boris Yeltsin's presidency (1991–1999); they helped finance his re-election in 1996. Well-connected oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, Michail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Potanin acquired key assets at a fraction of the value at the loans for shares scheme auctions conducted in the run-up to the election.[3] Defenders of the out-of-favor oligarchs argue that the companies they acquired were not highly valued at the time because they still ran on Soviet principles, with non-existent stock control, huge payrolls, no financial reporting and scant regard for profit.[4]

Since 2014, hundreds of Russian oligarchs and their companies have been hit with US sanctions for their support of "the Russian government's malign activity around the globe".[5][6] In 2022, many Russian oligarchs and their close family members were targeted and sanctioned by countries around the world as a rebuke of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Yeltsin era, 1991–1999[edit]

During Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika (c. 1985–1991), many businessmen in Russia imported goods such as personal computers and jeans into the country and sold them for a hefty profit.

Once Boris Yeltsin became President of Russia in July 1991, the oligarchs emerged as well-connected entrepreneurs who started from nearly nothing and became rich through participation in the market via connections to the corrupt, but elected, government of Russia during the state's transition to a market-based economy. The so-called voucher privatization program of 1992–1994 enabled a handful of young men to become billionaires, specifically by arbitraging the vast difference between old domestic prices for Russian commodities (such as natural gas and oil) and the prices prevailing on the world market. These oligarchs became unpopular with the Russian public and are often blamed for the turmoil that plagued the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.[7][8][9][10]


Economists Sergei Guriev and Andrei Rachinsky contrast older oligarchs with nomenklatura ties and younger-generation entrepreneurs such as Kakha Bendukidze who built their wealth from scratch because Gorbachev's reforms affected a period "when co-existence of regulated and quasi-market prices created huge opportunities for arbitrage."[11]

The majority of oligarchs were promoted (at least initially) by the Soviet apparatchiks, with strong connections to Soviet power-structures and access to the funds of the Communist Party.[4][12][13] Boris Berezovsky himself was Head of the Department of System Design at another Academy of Sciences research centre. His private company was established by the Institute as a joint venture.[14] Mikhail Khodorkovsky started his business importing computers under auspices of the Komsomol-authorised Center for Scientific and Technical Creativity of the Youth in 1986, briefly serving as a deputy secretary of the Komsomol for a district in Moscow in 1987. His move into banking two years later was funded with the support of Komsomol alumni working in Moscow city government. Later, he served in the Russian government as an adviser to the prime minister and a deputy minister of fuel and power while still running his business.[15] Vladimir Vinogradov was the chief economist of Promstroybank , one of the six banks existing in the Soviet Union,[16] previously serving as the secretary of Atommash plant Komsomol organisation.[15]

Political support[edit]

Economist Yegor Gaidar worked in a Soviet Academy of Sciences think tank modelled after RAND.[17] Gaidar later became the economics editor of the Kommunist journal, the official theoretical organ of the CC of the CPSU. He also held various positions, including Prime Minister in the Russian government during 1991–1992.[18] Together with Anatoly Chubais, the two "Young Reformers" were chiefly responsible for privatization in the early 1990s.[19][20][21] According to David Satter, "what drove the process was not the determination to create a system based on universal values but rather the will to introduce a system of private ownership, which, in the absence of law, opened the way for the criminal pursuit of money and power".[22][4]

The 1998 Russian financial crisis hit most oligarchs hard and those whose holdings were based mainly in banking lost much of their fortunes. The most influential oligarchs from the Yeltsin era include[7] Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Potanin, Alexander Smolensky and Vladimir Vinogradov.[4] They formed what became known as the Semibankirschina (or "seven-banker outfit", compare Seven Boyars), a group of businessmen with a great influence on Boris Yeltsin and his political environment. Together they controlled from 50% to 70% of all Russian finances between 1996 and 2000. Historian Edward L. Keenan has compared these oligarchs to the system of powerful boyars that emerged in late-medieval Muscovy.[23] The Guardian reported in 2008 that "'oligarchs' from the era of former president Boris Yeltsin have been purged by the Kremlin".[24]

Putin era, 1999–2022 (prior to the invasion of Ukraine)[edit]

Putin (left), with Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) in December 2002. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed the following year.

With the ascent of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin the influence of the Yeltsin oligarchs dissipated, as some were imprisoned, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky (pictured here) and Mikhael Mirilashvili, while others emigrated, sold off their assets or died under suspicious circumstances, such as Vladimir Vinogradov and Boris Berezovsky. A number of Yeltsin oligarchs first came under fire for alleged tax evasion.[25][26] Vladimir Gusinsky of MediaMost and Boris Berezovsky both avoided legal proceedings by leaving Russia, and the most prominent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos oil, was arrested in October 2003 and sentenced to 9 years. This was subsequently extended to 14 years, and after Putin pardoned him, he was released on 20 December 2013.[27]

A second wave of oligarchs emerged in the 2000s, friends and former colleagues of President Putin either from his years in the St Petersburg municipal administration or his Dresden tenure in the KGB.[28] Examples are the director of the institute where Putin obtained a degree in 1996, Vladimir Litvinenko,[29] and Putin's childhood friend and judo-teacher Arkady Rotenberg.[30] Gennady Timchenko was close friends with Russian leader Vladimir Putin since the early 1980s.[31][32] In 1991, Putin gave Timchenko an oil export license.[11] These oligarchs worked in close cooperaton with the government, displacing a system of crony capitalism with a system of state capitalism whereby the new oligarchs benefited from financing by state-owned banks and access to public procurement projects.[33]

Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg in 2015

An economic study distinguished 21 oligarchic groups as of 2003.[11] Between 2000 and 2004, Putin apparently engaged in a power struggle with some oligarchs, reaching a "grand bargain" with them. This bargain allowed the oligarchs to maintain their powers, in exchange for their explicit support of – and alignment with – Putin's government.[34][35] However, other analysts argue that the oligarchic structure has remained intact under Putin, with Putin devoting much of his time to mediating power-disputes between rival oligarchs.[36]

Prominent Putin-era oligarchs[edit]

The ten most-prominent oligarchs of the early Putin era included Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, Mikhail Prokhorov, Alisher Usmanov, Viktor Vekselberg, Leonid Mikhelson, Arkady Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, Andrey Guryev and Vitaly Malkin.[37] In 2004, five years after Putin's ascend to power, Forbes listed 36 billionaires of Russian citizenship, with a note: "this list includes businessmen of Russian citizenship who acquired the major share of their wealth privately, while not holding a governmental position". In 2005, the number of billionaires dropped to 30, mostly because of the Yukos case, with Khodorkovsky dropping from No. 1 (US$15.2 billion) to No. 21 (US$2.0 billion). A 2013 report by Credit Suisse found that 35% of the wealth of Russia was owned by the wealthiest 110 individuals.[38][33]

Daniel Treisman proposed using a term "silovarch" (silovik and oligarch) for a new class of Russian oligarchs with backgrounds in Russian military and intelligence.[39] Billionaire and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev has criticized these new oligarchs, saying "I think material wealth for them is a highly emotional and spiritual thing. They spend a lot of money on their own personal consumption." Lebedev has also described them as "a bunch of uncultured ignoramuses", saying "They don't read books. They don't have time. They don't go to [art] exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht."[40]

On 30 January 2018, the U.S. Treasury published a "list of oligarchs" as part of a document known as the "Putin list" which was compiled under the requirement of the CAATSA Act.[41][42] According to the document itself, its criterion for inclusion was simply being a Russian national with a net worth of over $1 billion.[43] The list was criticised for being indiscriminate, and including critics of Putin.[44]

2008 global recession and credit crisis[edit]

According to the financial news-agency Bloomberg L.P., Russia's wealthiest 25 individuals have collectively lost US$230 billion (£146 billion) since July 2008.[45][46][47] The fall in the oligarchs' wealth relates closely to the meltdown in Russia's stock market, as by 2008 the RTS Index had lost 71% of its value due to the capital flight after the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008.[48]

Putin (left) with Oleg Deripaska (right) in the Kremlin in March 2002

Billionaires in Russia were particularly hard-hit by lenders seeking repayment on balloon loans to shore up their own balance sheets. Many oligarchs took out generous loans from Russian banks, bought shares, and then took out more loans from western banks against the value of these shares.[40][49] One of the first to get hit by the global downturn was Oleg Deripaska, Russia's richest man at the time, who had a net worth of US$28 billion in March 2008. As Deripaska borrowed money from western banks using shares in his companies as collateral, the collapse in share price forced him to sell holdings to satisfy the margin calls.[40][49]

Putin era, 2022 invasion of Ukraine and international sanctions[edit]

After the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Canada, US, and European leaders with the addition of Japan, took unprecedented steps to sanction Putin and the oligarchs directly.[50] In response to the sanctions, the targeted oligarchs started to hide wealth in an attempt to prevent the Western nations from freezing their assets.[51] These sanctions intend to directly impact the Russian ruling class as a response for their perceived contribution and acquiescence to the war with Ukraine. Although the sanctions miss some of the richest oligarchs, the impact on the war is unknown due to Putin's power over those that were sanctioned.[52] Since the invasion began, nine of the Russian oligarchs' yachts have turned their navigation transponders off as they sail to ports where they are less likely to be searched and seized.[50]

Putin (left), with Petr Fradkov (right) in the Kremlin in May 2019

On March 2, 2022, the United States announced a special task force dubbed "Task Force KleptoCapture". This team was put together to specifically target oligarchs. It is made up of officials from the FBI, Marshals Service, IRS, Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations and Secret Service. The main goal of the task force is to impose the sanctions set against these individuals to freeze and seize the assets that the US government claimed were proceeds of their illegal involvement with the Russian government and the invasion of Ukraine.[53] On March 21, 2022, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project launched Russian Asset Tracker to showcase the profiles and assets of several Russian oligarchs.[54]

Several dozen business people with family connections to top politicians include President Putin’s younger daughter Katerina Tikhonova, who through her investment fund has been the recipient of numerous large contracts from state-owned energy companies.[55] Her former husband Kirill Shamalov runs the largest Russian petrochemicals company Sibur as well as his own investment fund.[56]

The son-in-law of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov runs an investment fund with assets exceeding $6 billion. Andrey Ryumin,[57] the son-in-law of Viktor Medvedchuk, President Putin’s former closest ally in Ukraine, runs another investment fund with large agricultural holdings which have become recipients of state subsidies for import substitution (Rouhandeh 2022). Petr Fradkov, the son of a former Prime Minister and head of the Russian foreign intelligence service, Sergei Sergeevich Ivanov, the son of the former head of the presidential administration Sergei Ivanov, and Andrey Patrushev, the son of the current head of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev have all joined the ranks of the oligarchs.[58][circular reference]

The list of oligarchs and business executives who have risen to prominence and who have been sanctioned after Russia's invasion of Ukraine includes:

Russian oligarchs in London[edit]

The British Government policy encouraged the flow of foreign capital into the United Kingdom, for example through the foreign investor visa routes, introduced during John Major's premiership in 1994, one-fifth of whose recipients since 2008 are Russian citizens.[99]

A significant number of Russian oligarchs have bought homes in upmarket sections of London[100] in the United Kingdom, which has been dubbed "Moscow on Thames" or "Londongrad".[101] Some, such as Eugene Shvidler, Alexander Knaster, Konstantin Kagalovsky, David Wilkowske and Abram Reznikov, are expatriates, having taken permanent residency in London. Roman Abramovich bought 16 Kensington Palace Gardens in London, a 15-bedroom mansion, for £120 million.[102] Mikhail Fridman restored Athlone House in London as a primary residence in 2016.[103][104]

Roman Abramovich bought the English football club Chelsea F.C. in 2003, spending record amounts on players' salaries.[105] Alexander Mamut invested £100m to Waterstones bookstore chain after acquiring it in 2011 for £53m. According to its managing director James Daunt, the intervention saved Waterstones, which managed to make its first annual profit since 2008 in 2016.[106] He remarked that continued Russian ownership would've been "catastrophic" for the chain in 2022.[107]

See also[edit]


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