Stunned by sanctions, Russia’s wealthiest families take drastic steps to survive
When the Russian army crossed into Ukraine in February 2022, the luxury-soaked lives of Russia’s richest men in an instant were turned upside down. Some became international pariahs — beloved sports clubs were unloaded, glamorous yachts were confiscated. Others have found refuge, conserving their wealth and power for another day. Coda Story and Lighthouse Reports analyzed the Instagram accounts of six sanctioned Russian oligarchs, and of their families, to understand how their lives have metamorphosed. Combined with original reporting, the remade lives of a transformed Russian oligarchy comes into view.
Oleg Tinkov has led a maverick life. Often at odds with the Kremlin and the U.S. legal system alike, he broke with Putin after the invasion in a series of profane announcements.
Oleg Deripaska has been called one of the “2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis” and has been paying the price for his loyalty
The 1990’s oligarch last standing, Mikhail Fridman today swears he’s no longer a Kremlin man
Oligarch and art collector Leonid Mikhelson has revved up Russia’s weaponization of art as part of Putin’s relentless fight against the West
Mathematician and social media tycoon Arkady Volozh has always had to calculate the odds to appease his Kremlin critics
Alisher Usmanov’s wellspring of success is derived in great part from how he integrates his businesses with his sprawling family spread from Uzbekistan to New York
In early January 2022, as 200,000 Russian troops massed to the north, east and south of Ukraine, Alexander Fridman, the son of the Russian banking and retail tycoon Mikhail Fridman, net worth $14 billion, was on an elephant safari in Kenya. “An adventurous farewell to 2021 … Can’t wait to start the next chapter ????,” he posted to Instagram.
Meanwhile, Sasha Viner, whose husband’s stepfather is Alisher Usmanov, an iron ore and telecommunications magnate, net worth $21.2 billion, unwrapped her dream bag — a $4,300 gold-sequin Fendi baguette — to emoji-strewn acclaim from her followers, seemingly oblivious to U.S. intelligence warnings of the growing likelihood of an all-out Russian attack on Ukraine.
Pavel Tinkov, the son of Oleg Tinkov, a maverick entrepreneur, net worth $7 billion, was in a cable car, snuggled up with his girlfriend high above the French alpine resort of Courchevel, a favorite skiing destination for Russia’s mega-wealthy, swigging champagne together from the bottle.
Back in Moscow, Victoria Mikhelson, the daughter of Leonid Mikhelson whose $33.1 billion fortune derives from natural gas, was Instagramming for her work. Her first post of the year promoted a book produced by her father’s art foundation — which she runs — about the cultural cliches of life in Russia during the 1990s, which included a section on the oligarchs.
In hindsight, these and other social media posts by Russia’s oligarch families represent the final throes of unashamed excess. The efforts to display normality that many of these accounts revealed tell us a lot about the oligarchs and their families: how they’d succeeded in assimilating into Western society, how unassailable they felt and how blissfully ignorant they were about what would happen next.
Within six weeks, this gilded world would be upended by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Western countries led by the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom retaliated with unprecedented sanctions that included headline-grabbing asset freezes and travel bans on scores of Russian billionaires who owed their mind-boggling wealth to a decades-long symbiotic relationship with the Kremlin.
Mikhail Fridman was effectively confined to London with the equivalent of a $3,000 monthly living allowance and a sizable headache in the form of a mansion to upkeep, a mansion currently estimated to be worth $78 million. Alisher Usmanov divorced Sasha’s mother-in-law and partly withdrew to his native Uzbekistan. Oleg Tinkov’s billionaire status disappeared in a puff of anti-war self-immolation. And Western artists pulled out of Leonid and Victoria Mikhelson’s cultural programs en masse.
Social media is a simulacrum, an unfurling of carefully curated narratives intended for public consumption. But social media is also a glass, which, however stained, still lets in light. Investigative newsrooms Lighthouse Reports and Coda Story analyzed 69 open Instagram and other social media accounts of Russia’s wealthiest families under sanctions, gleaning unique insights into their lives before and after the invasion.
Before the war, the social media accounts of the oligarchs and their families were predictable montages of luxurious consumption, private jets and holiday resorts, yachts and wine collections, villas, art and expensive sports cars.
But when Russian troops rolled into Ukraine, the change was immediate. A couple of loyalists praised Russia’s military, some querulous voices, swiftly deleted, expressed support for Ukraine, but the vast majority fell silent or announced they had moved to Telegram, “due to the circumstances.” Only a few have since mentioned Russia’s war at all.
Some, like Tinkov’s daughter Daria, stopped posting anything on Instagram. Others, like Alexander Fridman, turned their profiles private but still pop up occasionally, tagged in other public accounts. For a few, the initial shock has given way to a gradual return to normality, like Usmanov’s niece Ganya and daughter-in-law Diora.
In order to understand how war and sanctions have affected the oligarchs, we focused on the lives of six influential Russian businessmen and their social media-savvy families, from the old timer Mikhail Fridman, to the beneficiaries of Putin’s brand of state-anointed oligarchy like Leonid Mikhelson, Alisher Usmanov and Oleg Deripaska, to billionaire geeks and innovators like Arkady Volozh and Oleg Tinkov.
A year on, the impact of the oligarch-targeted sanctions remains debatable. Many oligarchs and their families still live comfortably in Moscow, Dubai, Tel Aviv or London. Their billions are frozen or hidden rather than seized or confiscated, their children are free to travel on multiple passports and carouse as before. Sophisticated company structures, relying on family members and an array of international banking techniques, provide some safe haven for their fortunes.
So, too, the wider Russian economy — while impacted by sanctions — has hardly collapsed. In March 2022, the Institute of International Finance predicted that the Russian economy would contract 15%, but this January, the IMF outlined growth projections for Russia of 0.3%, not much slower than those of the EU.
Meanwhile, condemning the war has offered the oligarchs no relief. Oleg Tinkov, a flamboyant entrepreneur whose name, like Heinz in the West, was once a household brand in Russia, renounced the war and his Russian citizenship and exited his Russian business. Nevertheless, he remains on the U.K. sanctions list. Fridman, who was born in Lviv, has offered Ukraine financial support and described himself as “in shock” over being sanctioned, but he remains on the hook in the EU and U.K.
EU sanctions last June forced Arkady Volozh to bid farewell to Yandex, a search engine he grew into a Russian super-app, in December 2022. In November, a Dutch court ruled in favor of squatters who occupied his lavish Amsterdam apartment.
Meanwhile, aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Putin who, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, has ties to organized crime (a claim he denies), had his hotel complex in Russia reportedly seized soon after he referred to the Russian invasion as a “war” — a word Putin has banned from being associated with his invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s richest — even those who first grew wealthy in the 1990s — owe everything to Putin. He provided the path for the 30 or so wealthiest Russians to consolidate and grow their wealth to astronomical proportions, turning their millions into many billions.
A series of economic shocks, like the 2008 financial crisis and the Western sanctions that followed the 2014 annexation of Crimea, have made the oligarchs ever more dependent on Russian state support and placed them under Kremlin control, said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy minister of energy under Putin turned opposition political figure.
“The Russian super-rich are not self-made. They are Kremlin-made oligarchs, reliant mainly on siphoning government money via the cash flows of state corporations or milking the exclusive licenses to operate monopolies in strategic state sectors. The result is a system that looks like a powerful oligarchy on the facade, but in reality Putin can destroy their wealth in, like, 20 seconds,” Milov said.
By 2012, when Putin was re-elected to his third term as president, the oligarchs had been cowed into submission, according to Andrei Movchan, an investment manager who moved in wealthy social circles at that time. “They had become less accessible, more fearful of expressing any opinions,” he recalled.
Movchan, a former nonresident scholar with the highly-regarded Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, which the Kremlin closed down in 2022, says he started planning his own exit from the country in 2013 and shuttered his Russian business there for good after Putin invaded Ukraine last year.
Many of Russia’s uber-wealthy have been keeping their suitcases packed for years, parking their money in London real estate and the U.S. stock market, while others responded by bear-hugging the Kremlin even tighter.
This was the precarious situation that Russia’s oligarchs faced in February 2022, on the eve of the war, when Putin summoned the titans of business to the Kremlin for a briefing about what would happen next. Some oligarchs have since emphasized their powerlessness in this moment, claiming that this was the first inkling they had that Putin was about to order a full-blown war with Ukraine and embark on his epoch-defining confrontation with the West. Others may have suspected this moment would always come.
The tragedy of the oligarchs, and of Russia, said Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization established by opposition politician Alexey Navalny, was that when Putin came to power in the early 2000s, when he was not as powerful as he is now, “if the business elite had pushed more for democracy, inclusion and the rule of law, then Russia could have been a very different place” and the fortunes of the oligarchs might have been even bigger, more legitimate and more secure.
Instead, since the war, most, though not all, of their fortunes have shrunk. Russia’s pre-war billionaires lost a combined $67 billion during the first year of the war, Bloomberg reported. Fridman lost $700 million. Mikhelson hemorrhaged $800 million. Volozh and Tinkov have fallen off the billionaires’ list entirely, their net worths obliterated by the implosion of their companies’ stock prices in New York and London. Only Usmanov — who owns 49% of Russia’s biggest iron ore producer — is up.
In March, on the one-year anniversary of the war, Russia’s oligarch families maintained a low profile. Only Tinkov fired off an Instagram post, musing whether Putin was “a reflection of its Russian folks or the other way around,” while simultaneously showing himself skiing in Switzerland.
Tinkov is in many ways emblematic of the predicament of many of Russia’s oligarchs in 2023: sanctioned in a patchwork of jurisdictions, a few billion dollars worse off, but still accessing the best of what life in the open, democratic West has to offer.
Putin addressed the oligarchs directly in February 2023 in his state of the nation address: “They must understand, they are second-class there,” he said, referring to the West. “But there is another choice: to be with your homeland, to work for your compatriots.” After a year of sanctions, international condemnation and high-wire jurisdiction hopping, Putin told his oligarchs it is time to come home.
Essay by Ilya Gridneff & Lionel Faull.