Survivor, Oligarch Island

Eric Reguly has an extensive piece on the shifting fortunes of the fortunate in today’s Globe and Mail:

Mr. Prokhorov loves basketball and played well. He made almost half of his foul shots and graciously avoided using his height and skills to deprive his shorter, chunkier teammates of ball time. While he didn’t grin constantly like Mr. Pippen, he clearly enjoyed himself.

It’s been many months since most of the other oligarchs have been able to relax like Mr. Prokhorov did on the basketball court. In a January interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the oligarch who controls Russia’s ailing Sistema group of construction, telecoms and fashion businesses, said the financial crisis could eliminate as many as 40 per cent of the oligarchs.

“Most of the wealth of the oligarchs is in their companies, not with them personally,” said a senior executive at one of Russia’s leading steel companies. “When the companies lose, they lose.” (…)

When Vladimir Putin, now Prime Minister, was campaigning for thepresidency in 2000, he said the oligarchs, as they had become known,”will cease to exist as a class” under his leadership. Russia’sthen-richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was delivered to a Siberianprison after his conviction for tax evasion and fraud. His oil giant,Yukos, was dismantled and sold off. Other fat cats who got on Mr.Putin’s wrong side, among them media baron Boris Berezovsky, went intoexile.

But the oligarchs were also instrumental in overhauling Russia’sdecrepit economy. Big companies were beaten into shape and transformedinto national champions. Before the Russian stock market collapsed inthe autumn, a couple of them were on the verge of internationalstardom. Take Norilsk. Born in the 1920s, the company nearly collapsedin the mid-1990s when it was incapable of even paying its workers. Itwas privatized in 1997 and transformed by Mr. Prokhorov and histhen-partner Vladimir Potanin.