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Russia’s Old Money and New Money

What’s a Russian to do when he finally finds his fortune after a lifetime of poverty?

July 2, 2001

What's a Russian to do when he finally finds his fortune after a lifetime of poverty?

A friend of mine who lives in Moscow has a childhood buddy who, over the past ten years, has become one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs.

For old times’ sake, they still get together every once in a while. But, as it turns out, they have almost nothing to talk about.

My friend still vividly recalls the days of their penniless youth, when they were dying blue jeans as their first business enterprise.

However, when he recollects these times to the oligarch, the latter practically feigns to have no idea what his former buddy is talking about.

This is not an isolated incident. I have long noticed that — among the new Russian elites — global air travel in first class, expensive cars, homes at the world’s most prestigious resorts and aristocratic sporting activities have become completely ordinary, everyday things. It is as though they were all born into it.

Any mention of the — still quite recent — times when they did not yet know anything about grappa and could not locate Tenerife on the map is considered tactless.

I think that they, in all sincerity, have erased the entire period of their childhood and early adulthood from personal memory.

Of course, it is true that over the past 100 years in Russia, elites have changed over several times.

In fact, the current period is similar to the 1920s, when after the end of the Russian Civil War new elites flooded into the new capital, Moscow. The past suddenly disappeared.

Newcomers changed their ethnic names to Russian ones. Yesterday’s shoemakers from Ukraine or land-tillers from Central Russia became factory managers, secret policemen — or writers.

The question “What did you do before the revolution?” became taboo. For some, the answer could mean going to jail. For others, it merely brought back unpleasant memories.

Before the 1917 revolution, those in Russia who wanted to find a new life used to go to the United States of America.

This brings out a curious contrast between today’s Russia and the United States. Americans who achieve financial success rarely deny their regional or social origins later on.

On the contrary, former residents of the poorer neighborhoods in New York City — now rolling in Rolls Royces along the Long Island Parkway — cherish the memories of their impecunious childhood and playing baseball in the street.

And Texans are proud of their accent, cowboy boots — and huge hats.

In contrast, Russia’s elites have had a tradition of placing themselves outside the rest of the general population.

Nowhere else in the world is there such a strong concept of the “people” — meaning the masses — from which the country’s intellectual, educated or wealthy classes somehow believe they exist separately.

Quite literally, Russians describe achieving success from humble origins as “coming out of the people.” U.S. elites — even the cliquish East Coast establishment — are much closer to the so-called “American people” than the Soviet communists ever were in their wildest dreams.

Of course, there are Americans who, having made their fortune, try to buy their way into the upper classes — and pretend that they have more glamorous social origins than they really do. But they are relatively few.

The old model, which was followed by the robber barons from the times of the Vanderbilts, the Morgans and the Rockefellers, is no longer popular. In the United States, today’s nouveaux riches don’t necessarily want to climb into high society.

On the other hand, the selective memory employed by most New Russians, who can not make peace with their humble beginnings, serves as a reminder of Russia’s troubled social history.