Who are the Russian oligarchs?

Uzbek-born Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov attends a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow September 12, 2013. 

Russian Oligarchs are everywhere. Whether they’re losing billions in Sochi investments, escaping sanctions over the Ukranian occupation, or fearing a new front in the crisis, they seem to pop up like boogeymen whenever the media talks about Russia. But who exactly are these shadowy figures? To put it simply, they’re extremely wealthy men that wield an incredible amount of influence in Russian politics. Think the Koch brothers or George Soros multiplied by a thousand. To understand anything about Russia, you have to understand the oligarchs. Here are six of the most prominent:

Alisher Usmanov

The richest man in Russia and the 40th richest person in the world, Alisher Usmanov started in the metal industry, but now has interests in telecommunications, media, and sports. Last year, he invested about $100 million in Apple. The former fencing champion spent six years in an Uzbeki jail on fraud and extortion charges, but was eventually cleared by a Soviet court. Usmanov is close with Putin, firing managers of a magazine he owned after it printed ‘anti-Putin’ photos. Last July, he was given the Order for Service to the Fatherland, Russia’s highest civil award.

Oleg Deripaska

Oleg Deripaska spent $1 billion of his own money to fund the Sochi Olympics, but he’s best known to western audiences for the $15,000 he spent to construct a dog shelter and save some of Sochi’s strays. That good publicity is something of a rarity for aluminum magnate Deripaska, as he was embroiled in ‘yachtgate’, when two prominent British politicians boarded a yacht he owned. He also lost a fair amount of his fortune when the great recession hit and the aluminum market collapsed. Nevertheless, he remains a favorite of Putin, and he’s still worth $6.5 billion, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Mikhail Prokorov

Mikhail Prokorov owns the Brooklyn Nets, rapped on Russian TV, and has backflipped on a jet ski. If that weren’t exciting enough, he’s even criticized Vladimir Putin. In public. Although Prokorov got rich through metals, his current concern is politics. He ran as an independent candidate against Putin in the 2012 election, and he’s now building a political party called ‘The Civic Platform’. Although he only got 8% of the vote two years ago, he intends to expand ‘The Civic Platform’ until it’s ready to face Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party.

Roman Abramovich

An oil tycoon, former governor, and owner of the world’s largest yacht, Roman Abramovich is one of Putin’s closest allies. He also happens to be the 137th richest person in the world. Not just a businessman, Abramovich was governor, then Duma chairman of Chutokta, an icy province in Russia’s far east. At times controversial, Abramovich had a major falling out with former bussiness-partner and Putin king-maker Boris Berezovsky, who committed suicide after his $5 billion lawsuit against Abramovich was unsuccessful.

Leonid Mikhelson

Leonid Mikhelson sold his Soviet car in order to take part in the first rounds of Russia’s privatization. He’s now CEO of Novatek, one of Russia’s largest natural gas producers, and his fortune is estimated at $15.6 billion. Mikhelson is also one of the most important players in the art world, running the V-A-C foundation, which promotes Russian art. And who does he want to eventually run the foundation after him? Why, his daughter Victoria, who, perhaps not coincidentally, the foundation is named after. Not bad for an art history student at NYU.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Perhaps the most well known oligarch isn’t really an oligarch at all, as he’s only worth $170 million. Before he spent more than a decade in prison on charges of tax evasion and fraud, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia. Like so many other oligarchs, he made his fortune when the Soviet Union privatized its resources, tying himself in to the country’s controversial move to a non-communist economy. But after supporting Putin’s liberal opposition, Khodorkovsky found himself in jail, on what his lawyers contended were trumped charges. Ten years later, in what was widely seen as a move to improve Russia’s image before the Sochi games, Putin pardoned him. Khodorkovsky declared that he would no longer be involved in Russian politics, but on March 10th, he addressed a crowd of protesters in Kiev, railing against the Russian government. As for what’s next for one of the most famous (former) Russian oligarchs, only time will tell.

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