The rich and famous, their lives and their stories have always held certain allure. Rich Russians seem to attract even more attention. Their flamboyant lifestyles and questionable tastes have long become a standing joke in the West. However, as Elisabeth Schimpfössl demonstrates in her recent publication, their story is far more complex than the caricatures suggest.

Schimpfössl spent almost 10 years interviewing people belonging to the top 0,1 of Russian society, collecting their personal stories, trajectories, and ideas about life. Since the mid-2000s the addiction to excessive consumption and showing off, characteristic of the 1990s, has slowly faded away. Replacing conspicuous consumption, “cultural-ness” has become the new thing. By now, rich Russians have developed distinguished and refined tastes, rediscovered their family history, and begun actively engage in philanthropy. Most importantly, using culture and education as their major tools, they have worked out a narrative to justify why they deserve their elitist position in society and why they should be treated as equals by the West.

RA+C met with Elisabeth Schimpfössl to find out everything about her work, stories she collected and impressions she got.

 RA+C: I would like to start with the title of the book, Rich Russians. From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie, which I am sure catches a lot of attention. How do you define “bourgeoisie”? Is it lineage, money, status, social resources, power..?

ES: All of it, at least to some extent. The most fundamental is money and all of my interviewees fall into the richest 0.1 percent of Russian society; more than a quarter of them into the richest 0.0001 percent.

But money is not enough. I use Bourdieu’s definition of capital, which includes several principal forms: economic, symbolic, cultural and social. When I started my research the 2008 economic crisis had not yet hit. The high oil price was overheating Russia’s economy. Against this backgrounds, some top managers, for example, were getting insane salaries. At this particular moment of time, many of them easily made it into the richest 0.1 percent. Nevertheless, I dismissed them for my research because it was clear that, once these people lose they highly-paid positions, they are likely to have little other resources to fall back onto. Contrarily, I did include people such as Dmitry Kiselev, Konstantin Ernst, and a number of politicians, no matter that they, comparably, received very modest incomes (at least officially). However, what they did possess, in contrast to many top managers, is a high level of social power and political influence, not necessarily directly, but certainly through their media outlets and political networks. Such social power and political influence cements their position in society and might allow them to use their resources flexibly, for example, by converting them into other forms of capital, among them economic capital.

RA+C: People whom you interviewed still constitute a very diverse group. Do you think they can be regarded as one class or do they have more differences than similarities despite being rich?

ES: Indeed, they are very diverse and different, in very many respects. Some are openly gay, others are furiously homophobic, most notoriously Kiselev [who once suggested to burn gay men’s hearts rather than use them for heart transplants]. Some consider themselves as belonging to the opposition and others are very close to Putin. Some hate the West, others embrace it. Nonetheless, despite these irreconcilable contrasts and outlooks, many of them share similar views when it comes to why they think they are deserving of their privileges and status and how they strive to instil a sense of legitimacy in their children.

Intelligentsia background is the ideal scenario for that. A large majority of my interviewees were born into the Soviet intelligentsia, but temporarily forgot about this when, in the 1990s, they promoted their “rags-to-riches” stories. Now many of my interviewees reiterated how cultivated their upbringing was, how much they have in Soviet times, what high-quality education they received, and so on. A classic example for this is Alexander Mamut. What I remember from the 2000s when he was mentioned in the gossip pages were numerous lavish parties on his yacht on the French Riviera. This changed in the late 2000s when he, always surrounded by people from the arts, first launched the independent cinema Pioneer, then funded Strelka, a media, design and architecture school, and finally bought Waterstones. One of the first things he tells you when you meet him are that his father is a professor of law and how big their library was in their home. Among the intelligentsia crowd he, of course, remains a businessman, but this crowd is an interesting way to create a certain entourage and cultural flair.

Also with regards to their offspring, rich Russians have passed on this new spirit of cultural-ness and intelligentsia. An example: one of my interviewees, Denis, a young man of about 30, grew up in the 1990s in Moscow’s luxury suburb Rublyovka, where is father was highly respected, especially after skyrocketing onto about position 300 on the global Forbes list. Despite his upbringing in a world of money and luxury, Denis describes himself as categorically not belonging to some upper class (which for him is connoted to money in the first place), but to the intelligentsia. As odd as such self-identification might seem, similarly stark intergenerational shifts have happened before. In her latest book the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick talks about Stalin political elite of the 1930s. Many of their children turned their back on their parents’ political careers, in some cases almost sneeringly, and established themselves in the spheres of culture and academia.

RA+C: When you talk about the shift from the excessive consumption to culture do you think it can be a way for those people to become better integrated in the Western world?

Yes and no. Many of them are already reasonably well integrated and some use art as a tool to achieve this. Think of Leonid Blavatnik, after whom the new wing of the Tate Modern was named. Or Pyotr Aven who regularly lends parts of his collections to big Western art institutions. Or Igor Tsukanov who is most active in the London art scene. Yet even then, as in the case of Aven and Tsukanov, their commitment tends to be strongly related to “everything” Russian; its history, culture and society.

What role does art patronage play in general for the new rich?

A massive role. In many cultures all over the world patronage of the arts is the most direct way for new rich to convert financial resources into cultural credentials. Plus, let’s not forget that philanthropists, and in particular art collectors and art patrons, have a chance to live beyond their death. Patronising young unknown artists is especially a hazardous text of one’s tastes and judgments. In Russia, the new philanthropists are in a certain – metaphorical – sense the “aristocracy” of the new bourgeoisie: they have become economically secure and now want to leave a legacy for future gen­erations by engaging in activities that lie outside of business. Again, also for their children, especially their daughters, a good number of parents prefer a profession in the cultural world over business. The arts involve little risk, but still enjoy high status.

How does your book address the gender question?

One chapter – entitled A Men’s World – is discussing aspects around gender. Russia’s Forbes list is pretty similar to any other rich list where women are predominantly heiresses or divorcees; businesswomen are the great exception to the rule. The former journalist and now Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has argued in her recent book that the higher you go in the social structure, the more patriarchal it gets. In this particular context, persisting conservatism is not necessarily a sign of great gender oppression. On the contrary, as a number of sociologists argue, upper-class women are often the greatest defenders of patriarchal structures. Let’s take the example of Germany. Top elites in business and politics are expected to have a functioning family in their backgrounds. Public mistresses and noisy divorces are strongly frowned upon. Such “moral” expectations to those on the top is in many ways in the interest of bourgeois women who know perfectly well that, once divorced, their status would disappear just as quickly as their husbands.

On the final note, what was your impression of average Russians and Russian everyday life? Has it changed since your first visits in the early 2000s?

Oh there have been plenty of changes. Everything is changing superfast. One thing that struck me in between the late 2000s and the early 2010s was how quickly Russians acquired polite driving skills (stopping at zebras, for example), something that I previously thought would never ever make it onto Russian streets I was in Austria a couple of weeks ago. There, drivers ruthlessly knock you over even zebra crossing, many of them because they are hanging on their mobiles and couldn’t care less about weaker road users.

In some respects of service, however, Russia still seems to hold onto good old “traditions” of grumpiness and sloppiness. There hasn’t been a single trip to Russia that hasn’t left me with some reminders to those traits in Russia’s service industry. There are not all bad though. I remember one incidence in a bakery where the not-so-sales-oriented shop assistant was reluctant to sell me the loaf of bread I wanted. She looked at me gloomily, took the bread, bashed it in front of me on a counter to demonstrate to me how dry it was and, still without much of a smile, told me to better get my bread at the bakery next door. Such moments are, of course, unique and hugely impressive.