The mummified corpse of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Photo by AP
In the 1990s, a small clique of well-connected businessmen took control of Russia’s largest “privatized” assets in rigged auctions. One guy, Vladimir Potanin, was put in charge of a privatization auction for a company controlling one-third of the world’s nickel and 70 percent of its platinum. Guess what? He won. Paying just $170 million for a company which at the time earned $2 billion a year, Vladimir and a few of his pals became some of the richest men in the world overnight.
These newbie billionaires needed a name to describe who they were, since “thief” didn’t go down well with their new international banking friends. First they came up with “robber baron,” to try to make them seem like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the other ruthless-yet-respected titans of American industry. Then everyone started complaining that the analogy didn’t quite hold, since America’s robber barons actually built entire industries from scratch, whereas Russia’s robber barons merely stole already-built industries and stripped them bare. So then they just decided, “Aw fuck it, who are we kidding? We control the country, the economy, and the president. Let’s just shove it in everyone’s faces.” Thus were born Russia’s oligarchs. A recent Forbes survey found that Moscow has the largest number of billionaires of any city on earth. Things are changing however. Even though some oligarchs still have warehouses full of rubles, Putin has made it very clear that the second they fuck up they will end up in exile, in jail, or on ice. Putin photo by AP (P)—Putin Sort of like Pablo Picasso, Putin is only five-foot-five but girls cannot resist his stare. They also can’t resist his jails. Putin came to power by methodically working his way up the ladder behind the scenes and proving his loyalty to his venal masters in the Kremlin. In 1999, Yeltsin and his cronies were shitting bricks because there was a real chance they might lose power to opposing clans and find themselves on trial or in exile. In a moment of panic, they plucked the slippery Putin from the FSB, killed a few hundred people by blowing up some apartment buildings, and then blamed the whole thing on Chechen terrorists. With anti-Muslim sentiment raging Putin invaded Chechnya, and lo and behold, his ratings soared from under two percent to over 70, where they’ve stayed ever since. Why is Putin so popular? First, he doesn’t drink, which after Yeltsin was no small feat. Second, he’s ended the chaos of the 90s by clamping down on both “democratic elections” and the “free media.” We use quotes there because both democracy and the media were so corrupted at the end of Yeltsin’s tenure that all that was left when Putin took power were the trappings of these institutions. Finally, Putin doesn’t suck up to America the way Yeltsin did. Russians love and Americans hate that Putin hasn’t let Western multinationals wet their beaks at the Russian oil trough. When oil baron Khodorkovsky tried to hook up his oil major Yukos with Exxon and Chevron, Putin wiped him out. Today the American media has rebranded him the second coming of Stalin, which to Russians is not necessarily a bad thing. He is due to step down in 2008, but whether he will or not is the 64,000-ruble question. (R)—Rublyovka Every weekend, Russians head out to their countryside dachas. For most people this means a crumbling shack on a small plot of land. “Rest” involves either never-ending work to make the dacha marginally inhabitable, or hopelessly growing a few tomatoes and cucumbers in the dacha plot. No matter how it starts, it always ends up as getting drunk off your ass and letting nature take its course. For those who own a dacha on the elite Rublyovskoe Shosse, however, life is a bit different. Even though there’s nothing unique about this region—the landscape is the same flat, birch-infested setting that repeats itself over thousands of miles of European Russia—what matters is that everyone thinks it’s the best stretch of land Russia has to offer. For $5 million you can probably get yourself a modest plot of mud. Then there’s the actual house to build. Oligarchs, corrupt government officials, and the assorted high-end crooks who live here are fond of multi-themed structures combining turrets, classical columns, Spanish-tiled roofs, fountains, and helipads. Many Rublyovka estates include little Orthodox churches in their backyards for good luck. (S)—Siberian Express Many an enterprising trekker has harbored a romantic notion of taking the Siberian Express across Russia to Mongolia or Beijing. This is what is known as “retarded.” Try it and see. Here is what your seven days will be like. Day One: Train takes off. Shitty Moscow apartment blocks give way to birch-tree forests. Guy in your compartment gets drunk and won’t stop asking, “America good? Yes?” Day Two: More drunks in tracksuits pour into your compartment, one guy passes out on your backpack. Day Three: Mongolian shuttle-traders board the train. They pile huge bags full of cheap goods they’re taking back to Mongolia. They stink like BO, vodka, and dried fish. Day Four: Mongolians start drinking heavily. They fight and yell at each other. You ask to be moved. The conductor demands a bribe which you don’t have. You go back to your room and guard your shit by sleeping on your pretty new Jansport. Day Five: Your camera is missing. The stench in your room is so bad you can’t even sleep. You move into the corridor where the air’s slightly less fetid and sleep while sitting on a little stool. A cop jabs you with his stick and makes you move back to your room. A Mongol woman and her two babies are now asleep on your bed plank. Day Six: The bathroom in your wagon looks like Bobby Sands’s prison cell, with shit and vomit sprayed everywhere and the toilet backed up. Your iPod is gone and so are your Pumas. Day Seven: You can’t take it anymore. You disembark somewhere near Khabarovsk. Only then do you realize that your passport, wallet, credit cards, and underwear have been stolen. It’s time to call mom and dad and ask them to spot you a ticket back home. (T)—Techno Even though Russia’s the toughest country with the toughest homophobes in the world, they love faggy music. Even Italians can’t match Russians’ gay love of Eurotrash pop and techno. Unti photo by Kommersant (Oo)—Unti Napoleon and Hitler lost their empires to Russia—or more specifically, to “General Winter.” If you go to Siberia in the winter, when temperatures can easily drop below -50°C (-122°F) you’ll need superwarm boots. That’s why you’ll want a pair of unti, or deerskin boots. Sometimes unti will come with a mix of dog and deer fur. (F)—Fireworks and fountains Put up a fountain with some water squirting out of it. Then stand back, pop open a Smirnoff Ice, and wait. We guarantee you that within an hour, the fountain will attract crowds of gaping Russians, as mindlessly drawn to it as the zombies to the mall in Dawn of the Dead. It’s the weirdest fucking thing we’ve ever seen, but Russians love fountains. For example, the filthy fountain at Manezh mall next to the Kremlin always has hordes of people from Moscow’s outskirts gaping at it like it’s doing something. Fireworks are another big favorite. Every night in Moscow you’ll hear fireworks going off. It’s either to celebrate some obscure holiday, like Railroad Workers’ Day, or because some minigarch has paid off a city official to set them off near the Kremlin for his mistress.