You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Russian Oligarchs

Lawrence Bush
May 30, 2017

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was found guilty of fraud related to his control of Siberian oil fields through his Yukos corporation and was sentenced to nine years in prison on this date in 2005. Khodorkovsky, who was behind bars until Vladimir Putin pardoned him in 2013, is half-Jewish (on his father’s side). Many of the Russian oligarchs, most of whom exploited their political connections during the privatization years under Boris Yeltsin’s highly corrupt government to become hugely wealthy, are similarly half-Jewish or Jewish, including Boris Berezovsky, who took over Russia’s main television channel and died under uncertain circumstances (likely suicide) in 2013; Alexander Abramov, a steel magnate; Mikhail Fridman, a banker; Roman Abramovich, a younger billionaire investor; Viktor Vekselberg, an aluminum tycoon; and Leonid Mikhelson, a natural-gas billionaire, and a half-dozen others. The shock-capitalism that vaulted these men to the Forbes list of billionaires is known in Russia as the katastroika and “brought in its wake mass pauperisation and unemployment,” writes Seumas Milne in The Guardian, “wild extremes of inequality; rampant crime; virulent antisemitism and ethnic violence; combined with legalised gangsterism on a heroic scale and precipitous looting of public assets. . . . By the late 1990s, national income had fallen by more than 50 percent(compare that with the 27 percent drop in output during the great American depression), investment by 80 percent, real wages by half, and meat and dairy herds by 75 percent. . . . while epidemics of cholera and typhus . . . re-emerged, millions of children suffer[ed] from malnutrition and adult life expectancy . . . plunged.” Several of the oligarchs were prosecuted and harassed by Putin’s government between 2000 and 2004, before an unofficial agreement was struck to permit most of them to keep their lives and their fortunes as long as they demurred from opposing Putin’s political power.

“The oligarchs, idiotically rich in a country that was largely poor, and given to parading their wealth in a manner that makes American hip-hoppers look like an especially reticent community of Amish farmers, could certainly have given any former Soviet citizen pause to wonder, as he queued for beetroot, what the proletarian revolution had been for. The oligarchs, not content with buying companies, villas, yachts, planes and the most beautiful of Russia’s beautiful women, also bought power. In 1996, they connived to engineer the re-election of the politically and physically ailing Boris Yeltsin. In 2000, they helped steer Yeltsin’s successor into power -- Vladimir Putin, a saturnine former spook with the KGB, and its descendant organisation, the FSB. This, as Russian Godfathers demonstrates, may have been the moment at which the oligarchs out-clevered themselves.” --Andrew Mueller, The Guardian

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.