Economics/Class Relations

How did Russia’s oligarchs become so powerful?

The Week Staff

The U.S. and its allies are going after the assets of Russia’s billionaires. Will sanctioning them hurt Putin? Here’s everything you need to know: 

Who are the oligarchs?

They’re the dozens of ultrawealthy Russians who schemed and swindled their way to control of Russia’s most lucrative industries. The term “oligarch” was coined by Aristotle, but became popular in the 1990s, when a handful of entrepreneurs and hustlers took advantage of the sudden privatization of the Soviet economy to buy up natural resources and formerly state-controlled assets, using rigged auctions and other tricks. A few even took control of companies based on ownership documents they’d produced on home printers. This first-generation — most prominently Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and four others — became the country’s chief power brokers, essentially buying President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 election win for him. Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000 in part through promises to “eliminate oligarchs as a class,” but that didn’t happen. A 2017 study conducted by the U.S.-based National Bureau of Economic Research found that Russia’s wealthiest elite had at least $800 billion stashed abroad — roughly equal to the total wealth of Russia’s remaining 144 million people.


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