What is an oligarch and who are the Russian oligarchs today?

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These days there is a lot of talk about Russian oligarchs, who are being hit by the sanctions of various Western countries in an attempt to fight the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. And it is natural to go to the bottom of the concept of oligarch and understand how these men would be linked to Russian political power.

Let’s make a quick overview of the concept applied to Russia in recent history, to give an answer to the modern definition of “Russian oligarch”: before the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet Union was a communist reality and therefore the concept of oligarch was relative to people who could influence the political scene, but who, according to Communist principles, could not have become rich themselves by using that influence to their advantage. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some men in Russia became rich thanks to the opening up to the Western world. When we speak today of Russian oligarchs, we therefore mean that group of Russian men who are rich, but who are not necessarily linked to Russian politics or Vladimir Putin. Some of them got rich by taking possession of companies and economic realities that were state-run in the Soviet Union, while others are simply Russian entrepreneurs integrated into the globalized world, different than who got rich after the Berlin wall fell.

The concept of “Russian oligarch” would therefore originally be more linked to the past, while today it is often used to simply indicate the richest Russian men.

What is an oligarch?

According to the definition, an oligarchy is:

A restricted group of people who exercise, generally for their own benefit, a preponderant influence or supremacy in economic, administrative and cultural institutions, organizations and bodies, and also the institution, organization or body governed in this way.

Since the late 1990s, most of Boris Yeltsin’s oligarchs have left the political scene. In their place, a new business elite has arisen during the Putin era, most of them from the network of veterans of the security and law enforcement agencies known as siloviki (more or less, “agents of power”), these form the backbone of Putin’s administration. And it is these that really should cause concern rather than the confusion between oligarch, tycoon or simply billionaire.

University professor Daniel Treisman, who defines this typology of oligarchs as Silovarchs (crasis between Siloviki and Oligarch), describes them with these words:

Silovarchs can deploy intelligence networks, state prosecutors, and armed force to intimidate or expropriate business rivals. Their temptation to use secret service tools and techniques predisposes the regime toward authoritarian politics. Western policy towards Russia will have to recognize these realities. The most promising path toward authentic democracy in Russia involves the cooptation of leading siloviki into the international business world.

Daniel Treisman After the Deluge: Regional Crises and Political Consolidation in Russia (University of Michigan Press, 1999).

In this sense, Russian oligarchs refer to people capable of influencing Russian domestic and international politics. While the characters sanctioned during this period also include other rich men, who have little to do with the concept of oligarchy. Let’s see who they are.

Who are the Russian oligarchs and the sanctioned wealthy men?

In order of wealth:

Vladimir Lisin

President of the NLMK group, leader in steel production. Lisin started out as an electrical installer in a coal mine in Siberia and then worked as a steel worker in central Russia. Today he is the richest man in Russia.

Alexey Mordashov

Russian entrepreneur (cover image above), billionaire, main shareholder and president of Severstal, a company that deals with metal, energy and mines. Mordashov is also a co-owner of Rossiya Bank.

Vladimir Potanin

During the privatization of Russia in 1995 he acquired a stake in Norilsk Nickel, he now owns more than a third of the company. In 1993, thanks to his contacts in the government, he confused the Onexim Bank which controlled the major industrial giants.

Leonid Mikhelson

Founder and president of the natural gas producer Novatek. His partner in both Novatek and Sibur is Gennady Timchenko. Mikhelson began his career as a foreman building a gas pipeline in Russia’s Tyumen region.

Andrey Melnichenko

Industrialist Andrey Melnichenko owns majority stakes in fertilizer producer Eurochem and coal energy company SUEK. Melnichenko’s companies, which employ more than 100,000 employees, have invested approximately $ 23 billion in fertilizer and coal production over the past 15 years.

Vagit Alekperov

Former deputy oil minister of the Soviet Union and president and largest shareholder of Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company, created from three Caucasian oil fields that fell into his hands when the USSR broke up.

Gennady Timchenko

Gennady Timchenko has stakes in various Russian businesses, including gas company Novatek and petrochemical producer Sibur Holding. Timchenko, one of Russia’s most powerful people, is said to have close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Pavel Durov

Pavel Durov: founder and owner of the Telegram messaging app, which has over 500 million users worldwide. Durov is also known as the “Russian Zuckerberg” because he also created Vkontakte, the largest Russian social network.

Alisher Usmanov

Alisher Usmanov’s biggest stake is his stake in the iron ore and steel giant Metalloinvest. One of Facebook’s earliest investors, he also owns stakes in Xiaomi and other telecommunications, mining and media companies.

Roman Abramovich

Roman Abramovich owns stakes in steel giant Evraz, Norilsk Nickel and the Chelsea football team. He is also the owner of the second largest yacht in the world.