By Sabrina Tavernise
It is Saturday night and tan young people in designer clothing
recline on richly upholstered couches in a chic new nightclub
Bentleys and Ferraris are parked outside. A French DJ named
Red is playing lounge music.
These are the children of Russia's new rich, the first generation
to have come of age after communism. Their parents came into
their fortunes during a few short years of Russia's property
grab in the 1990s. They hungered for luxury after years of Soviet
deprivation, flocking to resorts in southern France and filling
Moscow's streets with Mercedes-Benzes. There was a downside
to these instant fortunes amassed during the economic chaos.
The vast majority of Russians consider them only partly legitimate.
Perhaps more dire, the government occasionally threatens to
take it all away, as evidenced by the Kremlin's recent attack
on Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
"You live with the constant feeling that everything could
be taken away tomorrow," said Kseniya Sobchak, 21, a wealthy
Russian and the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, a leading democratic
reformer of the late 1980s. "Fathers are rich today and in jail
The young people remember little or nothing of Soviet privations.
Many have servants. They are educated in Swiss and British boarding
schools. They ride in chauffeured cars instead of Moscow's subway
system, the transport common to almost all Muscovites until
the early 1990s.
"They're nobility," said one foreigner who teaches in the
homes of some of Russia's wealthiest families and requested
anonymity. "They are above the law. They have police working
for them, guarding them. They grow up with the assumption that
they are born to rule."
Sobchak, one of the Saturday night club goers, glided to the
fourth floor in a glass elevator and ordered green tea and a
bowl of cherries. She chatted with her friends about how, on
a recent visit to Yekaterinburg, local Russians had treated
her like Madonna.
She says she lives in "little oases of normal Western lifestyle,"
a remark that highlights the vast gap between rich and poor
"Home, the car, the health club, entertainment," she explained
on a recent evening in a Moscow sushi restaurant. "You go out
on the street and it's dirty. There are people and their envy.
It's a lot of negative energy."
In a country that at least paid lip service to social egalitarianism
just 12 years ago, and where the Communist Party to this day
regularly picks up at least one-third of the vote, these are
fighting words. Indeed, such remarks have raised the ire of
As Sobchak acknowledged, "The upper class is the other side
of Russians living badly."
The gap is also apparent in Moscow's prestigious Mgimo, the
Harvard University of Russia, Sobchak's place of study. The
university, where students are groomed to become diplomats,
was always an elite institution. But entry used to depend more
on Communist connections and brains; now money talks, and it
has become a favored destination for Moscow's rich young people.
"There was a very significant change in the early 1990s,"
Andrei Melville, the vice rector of the school, said in an interview.
"Our students I started to call them yuppies." The changes have
segregated the student body outside the classroom, he said.
"Children from very well-to-do families and from regular milieus
don't mix. As students in the class, they are the same. But
when they leave, some get into their Mercedes and go to nightclubs
and spend in a night what other students wouldn't have for a
While the most insecure of Russia's rich hide behind mansion
walls as if in prison, Sobchak likes the limelight. Her good
looks frequently land her on the cover of magazines. She is
part of many social gatherings and luxury boutique openings.
The twists of her love life are discussed in gossip magazines.
Most nouveaux riches in Russia are afraid to have their names
publicized. Too many question marks hang over the origins of
their wealth and the result has been a spending spree that has
yet to abate. Because, given the capriciousness of Russian history,
it could all be gone tomorrow.
The children of Boris Berezovsky, the media tycoon who is
now a fugitive from Russian law in London, are a case in point,
said Sobchak. They "used to think they owned Moscow, but now
they live in London and can't come back."
"We were like kids in a candy store," said Olga Sloutsker,
founder of an elite chain of fitness centers in Moscow, referring
to the time when the Soviet Union began to open up to the outside
world. "We wanted to use and consume everything that was there."
Sloutsker said that one of the challenges for young Russians
would be to find adults to look up to in the topsy-turvy new
Russia, where most celebrities have been imported from the West
and capitalism is at its most raw.
"We turned away from communist ideology, but we didn't find
anything new," said Sloutsker. "We lost our symbols, our heroes.
Kids saw Mafia, corruption, pornography. They saw that lies
and dirt were things that got you what you want."
Gradually, things are changing. Young people could be the
hope of the new Russia. They have studied abroad, and many are
returning. Often, they speak several languages.
One 25-year-old woman, Yekaterina Gomiashvili, who spent eight
years in boarding schools in Switzerland and London, has started
a clothing design studio in a two-story building across from
her father's restaurant in central Moscow. She now employs 12
people in a business she says pays for itself.
"I was a pretty spoiled kid St.-Tropez and everything," she
said, referring to the expensive French Riviera resort. "I partied
and partied. But it stopped being fun."
Still, it is too early to know what choices they will make
as a generation.
"If everyone keeps their money in Switzerland, we have a bad
future ahead of us," said Irma Ignatova, a television anchorwoman
whose show featured the lives of the rich and famous. "I hope
the kids understand this."
Originally published in The New York Times on July
31, 2003. Copyright © 2003 The New York Times. For more
New York Times articles please visit www.nytimes.com.
For more information go to:
"Russia's New Rich Are Living It Up, but Oligarchs'
Children Wonder: How Long Will It Last?" (July 31, 2003)
Young, a Russian Enclave Is Too Much the Old Country" (October
With Sabrina Tavernise
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