Valerij Panyushkin  <<

Rublyovka. Where power and money are at home 

Published by

edizioni e/o, Rome

Europa Kiado, Budapest

Tänapäev, Tallinn

Agora, Warsaw

Sluntse Publishers, Sofia

Rublyovka tells a story of one of the most important highways in Russia and the people who live there – the Russian top politicians and multi-millionaires. It gives insights into their everyday lives and customs and explains why they almost make a special species of Homo post-Sovieticus. Along with vodka, matryoshka dolls and AK-47s, Rublyovka has become a symbol of the new Russia and its new myths. Living at Rublyovka spells success for some, and for others is an example of bad taste.

Rublyovskoe Highway has been a place for the privileged ever since it was the ‘Tsars’ road’ in the 16th century: for the entire Romanov dynasty, from Alexei Mikhailovich (the father of Peter the Great) to the last of the Romanovs. This picturesque area, rich in game, was always the favorite place for the royal falcon hunting, and Peter the Great and Catherine the Great made pilgrimages to the Savino-Storozhevsky Monastery by this road. Here, near the sovereigns, the Russian nobility also made their homes, particularly the Princes Yusupov, Shuvalov and Golitsyn. The times changed, but the nobility continued to live at Rublyovka.

This is where the dachas of Lenin and Stalin were located, as well as the summer residences of all the subsequent general secretaries, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev. Their sidekicks also settled here (Anastas Mikoyan, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Nikolai Yezhov) – side-by-side with famous scientists, artists and writers (Mstislav Rostropovich, Andrei Sakharov, Dmitry Shostakovich), and foreign diplomats. And they all lived on a small stretch of highway that is only 35 kilometers long. During the Soviet period, General Secretary Brezhnev may have gone for a walk and encountered Solzhenitsyn, who was being hunted by the KGB and hiding out at Rostropovich’s dacha. Now President Putin, should he wish to venture beyond the wall of his residence and take a walk in the park, could well bump into the wife of Khodorkovsky, the mutinous oligarch that he has left to rot in jail.

In the mid-1990s, Rublyovka, which borders on the pristine and well-forested bank of the Moscow River was swiftly privatized by stars of show-business, the demi monde, officials and industrial magnates, and turned into a kind of a ‘millionaires’ ghetto’, or a Russian Beverley Hills, where it is outrageous not to be good-looking. Here you can find the most expensive market in the world, and the most expensive sports club, as well as the most exclusive boutiques and the highest fences, with an army of thousands of security guards.

Multi-story super-elite structures keep popping up around Rublyovka – this is where the new elite buy apartments for their parents, employees and guests. Alongside the ‘new Russians’ – and increasingly, social climbers from the state apparatus, reluctant to put their new wealth on show – there still live the classic Soviet intelligentsia, people who quite seriously believe that there is nothing more interesting in the world than reading books. Ironically, they also count as millionaires, because real estate prices here – depending on how far the land is from Putin’s and Medvedev’s residences – fluctuate between $40,000 and $200,000 per 100 square meters, and increase by 30-50% every year. A vacant piece of land can fetch record prices – a phenomenon comparable only to central Manhattan.

Valery Panushkin’s book is an attempt to look in the window and see how the rich live. It is an attempt to understand how these people have organized their lives, who have practically unlimited funds, and what the new Russian elite is like. People whose religion is the Big Game and Big Money. A game where the rules are not set, but imposed by the strong and the brazen. Like a young player of computer games sleeps four hours a day, and plays on the Internet the rest of the time, afraid to lag behind his rivals, the inhabitants of Rublyovka plan all their activities according to the progress of the Game. And you shouldn’t live on Rublyovka to enjoy comfort, love your children and raise them, realize yourself in work, sex and sport, wear new clothes, eat delicious food… No! You must win the competition of life!

The times change, and so do the rules of the Game, and the relics of the Rublyovka residents. Back in the time of gangster capitalism, it was fashionable to build houses that looked like the Butyrka prison – with thick walls and tiny barred windows (my home is my castle). They were replaced by gaudy houses with pretensions to a resemblance to the Winter Palace in Petersburg, with classical and medieval elements, and a hall that was supposedly like something from the Renaissance. Then the fashion came along for Finnish houses and Swiss mountain chalets. At the moment, the trend is to dismantle and transport entire rooms from Europe, or even an entire chateau – authentic parquetted, staircases and fireplaces. On the land of some estates on Rublyovka, a prison, a palace, a Finnish house, a chalet and a chateau stand next to each other – four of the houses are empty, and the owner lives in the fifth, because it is fashionable at the moment. It was not for the purposes of comfort that one resident of Rublyovka built an Orthodox church, with the relics of Prince Vladimir held in a golden reliquary above the gates, with a certificate of authenticity from an archeological institute (it’s not hard to guess that it cost the owner a fortune). And during dinner, models strut across the podium inside the church, wearing revealing dresses from the latest collection of Roberto Cavalli. And the owner asks whether the guests would like the models to take their dresses off. But everyone understands that with a chalet or a chateau, Rublyovka won’t become Gstaad. Russian mud is even more noticeable under the wheels of Rolls Royces or Jaguars.

The same applies to food. The fashion for Uzbek cuisine was replaced with sushi, and now advanced residents of Rublyovka only eat farm products of “home” cooking. The poor waiters, who are made to change their uniforms yet again according to the ethnic cuisine.

In the famous Barvikha (the fiefdom of Yeltsin), there is a conglomerate of boutiques with the clumsy name Barvikha Luxury Village. In a normal village, where you can’t walk to the next house without gumboots, no one would think of selling Manolo Blahnik shoes with stiletto heels. But it is the holiest of holies of fashion in the glamorous world of Rublyovka, which also has its prophets – famous European tailors or journalists who write about fashion read lectures here on the topic “how to dress”. Ordinary parishioners from Barvikha Luxury Village send their wives to these lectures. This parish has its own saints and followers, and they make vows, just as Orthodox monks make vows of silence. For example, the editor of “Interview” magazine Alyona Doletskaya never wears stockings. She must have made a vow. People respect this. There are also pilgrimages. To Milan to go shopping, to Paris, New York, to Saville Row in London for men’s suits, to Naples for the famous local tailors, who don’t hold the needle perpendicularly, but parallel to the index finger.

More serious people, on the other hand, try to show their disdain for clothes. Legend has it that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once invited to a reception by the Queen of the United Kingdom. He bought a dinner jacket, visited Her Royal Highness, and wen he came back to his hotel from the palace, he immediately threw it in the garbage, because he prefers to wear jeans and a sweater. The hotel maid, when she found a brand new dinner jacket in the garbage, sent it to be dry cleaned, packaged it and had it delivered to Khodorkovsky in Moscow. He threw it away again, and this time his own maid took it out of the garbage, had it dry-cleaned and hung it in the cupboard.

One of the attributes of the game is a car. Black is the color of power. A black Mercedes of the latest model means that you belong to the powers that be. A large black cross-country vehicle has something military about it. The cortege of the president consists of black cross-country vehicles. But a person at Rublyovka who is not involved in the military or the government should have a car of any color but black. But it must be a new car, unless you are Alexander Mamut, who drives a vintage Bentley, because Mamut is a philanthropist, who supports and revives culture.

In the morning, the men of Rublyovka spend a long time at breakfast, while the president’s cortege drives past. They start to move during the day. And their wives wait for them. They wait all day. They even wait for the husband they dislike, as there is nothing else left for them. They may kill a few ours at the Aldo Coppola hair salon, and talk to their friends, see how they are dressed, and spend another hour to break up the weekday with the only “correct” masseuse, whose services cost around ten time more than any other massage, and to invite her to your house is proof of success. And they may also receive a few invitations to children’s parties, where they go with their child and nanny, for without a nanny, who is always from the Philippines, the average client of Aldo Coppola cannot even change her children’s diapers. In summer she goes to Sardinia, in between seasons she goes shopping in Paris or Milan, and for New Year she goes to Courchevel to prance about in her new diamonds. Sometimes, late in the evening, her husband will send her a note in a special envelope from the Barvikha hotel: “I’ll be home late, don’t wait up for me.” As if he can’t ring her on his mobile phone. Perhaps he can, but it is not sufficiently humiliating as a separate envelope, in which money may also be placed along with the note. 30,000 rubles. This money is her real price.

The Rublyovka lifestyle (they use the English word here), if it is promoted and mass-produced, may become just as much a reliquary as a house, car or a Kremlin entrance pass – it can give a person power. Rustam Tariko, a vodka manufacturer, seller of expensive beverages and banker, bought a villa on the Emerald Coast of Sardinia, hired a plane and brought in society journalists and his former girl friends to take a holiday – to lie on the sea shore, drink Krug rosé wine and eat lobster. They also took part in a boat race, in which, strangely enough, the winner was not the former boat racing champion Guido Capellini, who Tariko invited, but Tariko himself and the Italian Gazetta dello sport devoted an entire page to this event. Journalists handed the newspaper to each other and prepared to write about Rustam Tariko in their own newspaper, who is practically a local here in the Mediterranean. Everyone pretended that they didn’t notice “advertorial” written at the top of the page in large letters. And this fantastically expensive celebration was not held for the sake of Rustam’s naturalization in Italy, but for the sake of the Rublyovka Game. It is almost impossible to become a local in Europe or America. But on Rublyovka, people can believe you are European if you have a house, football club, hotel restaurant or win boat races there.

Europeans are surprised: why do these rich new Russians behave so noticeably in Europe? Why, for example, do Rublyovka residents buy Ferraris and have an accident on the English Promenade in Nice? The answer is simple: so that their European life is noticed on Rublyovka.

The majority of residents of this money ghetto follow the Rublyovka laws meticulously, but there are also those who establish these rules – the trendsetters, the legislators of fashion. The oligarch Roman Abramovich, for example, may order a restaurant for himself alone, to eat a vegetable salad without dressing, surrounded by an army of waiters.

There are also those who come up with projects, and become people projects. When the French police, allegedly on the personal orders of Nicolas Sarkozy, arrested the billionaire Prokhorov for 4 days at Courcheval, with two buses of women of easy virtue who were brought from Russia, and was charged with being a pimp, the oligarch said that all the girls were his fiancées, and they were all so beautiful that he could not choose one, and decided to take them all to the ski resort. Nicolas Sarkozy, who knows nothing about Rublyovka project thinking, did not realize that he was involuntarily initiating a new project. Two years later, the French ambassador in Moscow, Jean de Gliniasti, gave an award to Prokhorov, and said that this new cavalier of the order of the Honored Legion had a genuine passion for art, and showed real interest in new technologies. Of course he had a genuine passion for art, if Prokhorov spent a huge amount of money on organizing French exhibitions in Moscow, and Moscow exhibitions in Paris! Of course he was interested in new technologies, if the oligarch invited a French company to develop the new hi-tech Yo-Mobile.

In recent years, many houses on Rublyovka have been bought by new and chance people. The owner of some company affiliated to Gazprom, or a minor oil-worker from Siberia, a police officer who has taken a lot of bribes – now that the Game is coming to an end, they can all buy a house on Rublyovka. And live quietly. They can even make attempts to understand the rules – to send their wives to courses of wearing fashionable dresses, enroll in sommelier courses themselves, to gain an understanding of wines. But the more they dream of living by rules, the further they get from the cherished goal. For paradoxically enough, the rules exist so that they can be broken. For example, if there’s a traffic jam on Rublyovka, then a “wise guy” (a category of people who can break the rules) will drive up to the traffic cop and offer him 15,000 rubles to drive in the opposing lane, and for him to tell his colleagues not to stop his car further down the highway. The cop takes the money. But if there’s a traffic jam the next day, then the “wise guy” will drive up to the traffic cop and wind down the window, and ask in a deliberately loud voice: “Inspector, how much does a monthly subscription cost to drive in the opposing lane?” An ideal “wise guy” not only tries to break conventional rules, but also the laws of physics, and of physiology. If his wife gets pregnant, and the doctor at the ultrasound test says that a girl will be born, then the “wise guy” will ask what it costs for the baby to be a boy. And if a “wise guy” is told that his friend has been killed, he will demand that the doctor brings him back to life. And he will not explain his friend’s death by a bullet to the heart, but that “the doctor is completely full of himself and doesn’t even take money anymore.” This is a real case told by doctor N.

But the residents of Rublyovka know that horizontal rules should be broken every minute, but vertical subordination should never be violated. Those who have broken vertical rules are exiled or in jail. Such as the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who broke the Rule of the mirror, when at a meeting on combatting corruption with the president, he tried to combat corruption by using the words “we’re all guilty”. How can “we all” be guilty? The president too? The lawyer of the company Hermitage Capital Sergey Magnitsky died in prison, when he tried to uncover corruption schemes of partners who were in power. This was not a battle of equals, but a low attack on the highest things, not with an empty-headed opposition bark, but with legal proof in the hands.

The poet Dmitry Bykov, together with the performing artist Yefremov, hold concerts two kilometers from Putin’s residence, where they declaim poems slandering the government. But they warned that this is a project, and in a year’s time they will close it down. And they did close it down, and after making plenty of money from the Rublyovka audiences and dividends in the form of an image, which after the project was closed down saw them receive a wave of invitations to appear on the radio and television, and hold concerts all over the country. Or the opposition politician Alexei Navalny works on the anti-corruption project Rospil on the Internet, openly raises money, publishes documents compromising high-ranking officials and oligarchs, and labels the party of power as being crooks and thieves. He does so with plenty of evidence, and if this were not a project (and a project does not involve development), investigations would have begun a long time ago, by the parliament and the prosecutor’s office. But the punk group Pussy Riot sings in the Church of Christ the Savior “Mother of God, Drive out Putin”, and the girls get arrested, for a long time. And activists of the opposition rally on the 6th of May are also arrested simply for scuffling with the police, and also for a long time.

In the 2000s, you could pay for the Great Game with the price of freedom. The players decided that it was better to transfer the function of destruction to the state, and that it was more convenient for the state to put people in jail than to kill them. Before you were put in jail, you had to pay money, not to the prosecutor himself, but to his intermediary. After this it would be too late: in Russian courts just 0.7% of sentences are not guilty! To keep your money, and avoid bankruptcy, jail and emigration, you must become a tool in the Great Rublyovka Game, to go into state service, because no one asks anything of a tool. The only difficult is to go into state service while holding on to your money and continuing to play the Game. There is a whole technology for this.

By the end of the 2000s, any significant immunity was no longer the privilege of deputies, but of state officials. The drawback of state service is that officials’ salaries are very small, and it is forbidden to have business or earnings on the side. So you have to present your boss with a terrible piece of compromising information against yourself. The deputy Mitrofanov, for example, was elected to all the convocations of parliament, and ran from one party to another, behaved eccentrically, participated in all the talk shows in the world – but his career wasn’t happening. But as soon as Mitrofanov was caught giving a bribe of 2.5 million rubles, he immediately received the media committee. This is because he was seriously compromised, and so Mitrofanov’s loyalty to the government is now guaranteed by the criminal case that is hanging over him. So his career will soar, the State will protect Mitrofanov from rivals in the Great Game, as they are certain that Mitrofanov himself is defenseless before the state, for at just one click of the fingers, not even by the general prosecutor, but by an ordinary investigator, he will go to jail.

Europeans are bewildered: why does the official Golikova spend money at the casino in Monaco which is clearly incompatible with her salary? Why does the official Kostin arrive at a port in Greece with not one, but two luxury yachts? Why do they need expensive hotels? Why the diamonds on the fingers of their wives and lovers? The answer is simple: so that the jail sentence is written on the forehead of every official, and so only the boss can protect the official from a criminal conviction.

Those who have survived and not gone to jail are about to embark on the final stage of the game, which the oligarch Roman Abramovich has already begun – to legalize his money in the West, and purify the money in the eyes of the entire world. For this purpose, he must pay money once more, and this is very hard for a Rublyovka player, a disciple of the religion of money: money may get angry if their disciple places the law higher than money.

And what can the people expect at the end of the Game who have managed to observe all the commandments of Rublyovka, to survive and hold on to their money? Happiness? According to the renowned political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, these people expect immortality: “Every religion aspires to immortality, and not to happiness”.

The territory of Rublyovka resembles a cucumber with strange zigzags, because the boundaries carefully avoid the villages which have cemeteries. One gets the feeling that death does not exist at Rublyovka. (The future also does not seem to exist, because there are virtually no schools at Rublyovka. The children of Rublyovka usually study abroad.) Rublyovka residents take care of their health in the expectation that an immortality potion will be invented, or at least a recipe for prolonging life.

The most important player at Rublyovka, Vladimir Putin, has two hobbies: saving endangered animals and the children’s hematological center, where children suffering from leukemia are treated. Saving endangered animals in Vladimir Putin’s performance looks rather comical. He shoots a sleeping dart at a tiger brought to him specially, which has already been pumped full of drugs before Putin’s arrival. Or he flies a motorized hang-glider and teaches the endangered great white crane to fly, but during the preparations for Putin’s visit, one of the cranes falls into the propeller of the hang-glider, and another one is crippled. But Putin is quite serious about the children’s hematological center. This is because the hematological center involves bone marrow transplants. And bone marrow means stem cells. And stem cells mean immortality.

At any rate, if in the near future the potion of immortality is not found, many Rublyovka players may turn to religion – a more traditional way of becoming immortal. You must waste a lot of time, efforts, and sometimes even money to determine how you feel about surrogate motherhood, pension reform, armament spending, same-sex marriages, juvenile justice, charitable work or the Olympics in Sochi. But as soon as a Rublyovka player chooses a belief (atheism is also a belief), virtually all the phenomena in the world are instantly sorted into good and bad of their own accord. “Belief” at Rublyovka is a cheap intellectual tool for swiftly sorting through the news. The Rublyovka player only really believes in money.

The owner of the Vimpelkom company Dmitry Zimin is the first person in the Great Game, it seems, who has reached the end of the Game because of his intellect and age, to the furthest level, where the only goal is to get rid of money. Not to leave the money to his son – this money will kill anyone who hasn’t earned it themselves, but to invest 90% of his fortune in charity. Other billionaires are also considering this method of solving the problem, such as Potanin or Prokhorov. But how can one make sure that the foundations in which this money is invested don’t kill anyone, but serve the public good? In other words, so that eternal life is acquired if not by those who possess the money, then at least by the money itself. Zimin has reached this last maze, from which there is no exit to any higher level. The most he can achieve is to leave the Game. To move to England or Normandy, to live the life of a very well-off person, but not a magician, not a sorcerer of money.

And finally to see the cherished words: GAME OVER