November 25th, 2007 13:30 EST
The Rich in Russia
There are very few places in the world like this place. The most modest house costs more than $10,000,000. Parked on the quaint, beautifully paved roads are the latest models of Toyota, Chrysler, and Mercedes-- all polished and shining just as in a car salon. Streets are thronged with attractive young women dressed in furs that would make the most fashionable Parisian green with envy. Everything is separated from the rest of the civilization by a young pine tree forest. In the suburbs of Moscow, this oasis of luxury seems more out of place than anywhere else.
Russia has not seen such splendor since the time of czars. But, even then, the big money was restricted exclusively to the royal family and the upper echelons of aristocracy, which comprised just a fraction of the country's large population.
After the communist revolution replaced blue-blooded aristocracy with the red mob, hardly anything had changed. Although workers and farmers were herded into cheap blocks of flats with one lavatory for the entire floor and no running water, the communist party activists built palatial dachas in the suburbs of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other fashionable places. Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the country in the 1960s and 1970s, not only had several villas scattered across the Soviet Union, but he owned a forest where he could hunt for bears and deer, undisturbed.
In 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved and, as with the royal family in 1917, communists were mercilessly thrown from the podium. A new group of immensely rich people was born: when a highly-centralized state fell apart like a house of cards and all nation-owned companies were up for grabs, those who knew how to pull strings accumulated vast fortunes in months, if not weeks.
At first they would hide their wealth from their countrymen by keeping money in Swiss banks or living on one of the Mediterranean islands. But a decade after the last monument of Stalin disappeared from Moscow's numerous squares, the rich decided it was high time they revealed themselves. They changed cheap cherry and green suits for top European brands. Gold chains, rings, necklaces and earrings were bought in previously unheard of quantities; later, they adorned trophy wives of some new oil tycoon. It was said that all the gold mines in South Africa– the world's biggest gold exporter– could work fast enough to satisfy the demandd of the Russian billionaires.
Capitalist Russia has one of the most stratified societies in the world. Although the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) exceeds $1.7 trillion, which gives Russia the 9th position in the world, only a fraction of this sum goes to ordinary citizens.
While the number of millionaires grows faster in Russia than anywhere else in the world-- there were 88,000 of them in 2005 and this number increases every year by about 15 percent-- for the majority of Russians, very little or nothing has really changed since 1991.
Except for Moscow, which boasts first place in Europe's most expensive capitals, people in the provinces lead the same life as their fathers and grandfathers did when communism was the country's national religion. Communal, post-Soviet blocks of flats are packed full with people who can't afford their own place; it is not uncommon to find two families living in one flat with a shared bathroom and kitchen.
The luxury village, which has now acquired the status of a city, was designed in 2002 and finished within the first months of 2007. The fears that the developer might have problems getting clients in a country where the average citizen earns less than $6,000 a year proved groundless. The demand was so huge that, as the first residents began to move in, a few miles away diggers and rollers were paving the way for another village. According to the developer, the exclusive apartments will be ready next year.
It is hard to please people for whom money is not a problem. Apart from grandiose palaces and villas, often designed by some of the world's most famous architects, the village hosts a number of stores with popular brands such as Chrysler, Coco Channel and Rolex-- these are the modest ones.
Women can flick through the latest models of furs, dresses, shoes and jewelry long before fashionistas can admire them in Paris or Milan. Anything below a Mercedes, with all the extra gadgets, would be considered passé; car companies from around the world have their most luxurious products shipped to Moscow and its suburbs. Following the fashion, the village residents splurge on yachts and airplanes, completely staffed and fully equipped.
Stalin would turn in his grave if he saw this capitalist orgy at the very doorstep of Moscow. More than eight decades of communism have made Russians willing to show off the countless amounts of money they have earned fast, and that they can spend even faster.
It is not a problem to say “easy come, easy go,” when the source never dries up. But, it also creates antagonism between the extremely rich and the extremely poor in a society that has a long history of civil war. Even the highest fences and the thickest forests may not protect the luxury village and its residents, if it remains the oasis of comfort in a desert of dire poverty.
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