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Washington added every Russian billionaire to its ‘list of oligarchs.’ Does that make sense? Who are these ‘oligarchs’?

6 cards
  • What Happened?
  • Who does Washington consider an “oligarch” in Russia?
  • But who are “oligarchs” really? It is just very rich business people?
  • Who are Russia’s oligarchs? Where’d they come from?
  • Is this the only definition of “oligarchy”?
  • Does Russia have “oligarchs” today?

What Happened?

The U.S. Treasury Department released its so-called “Kremlin list,” naming 210 Russian citizens Washington can target with future sanctions. The list’s key criteria are individuals’ proximity to President Vladimir Putin and their level of influence on the Russian economy. Washington included a second appendix — a “list of oligarchs” — that names 96 “Russian oligarchs.”


Who does Washington consider an “oligarch” in Russia?

The Treasury Department’s declassified document regurgitates the names of the first 96 people who appear on last year’s list of the 200 richest entrepreneurs in Russia by Forbes. In other words, Washington named everyone in Russia worth a billion dollars or more.


But who are “oligarchs” really? It is just very rich business people?

No, that’s clearly not an exhaustive definition. As you might recall from history class, the term “oligarchy” originally described a form of government in ancient Greece and Rome, where a small group of people wielded power.  According to Aristotle, “oligarchy” is something like a degenerate aristocracy, where people gain power through wealth and connections, not on merit. The Greek word “oligarchy” means “rule by the few.”

Modern dictionaries give similar definitions and highlight that oligarchs use power in their own interests, often to enrich themselves. The Oxford dictionary defines an “oligarch” as “a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence,” noting in parentheses: “especially in Russia.”


Who are Russia’s oligarchs? Where’d they come from?

Strictly speaking, there’s no one true explanation here. As a rule, however, the concept is usually spelled out like this: oligarchs in Russia are a group of the wealthiest businessmen who control a significant chunk of the country’s resources and exercise a great deal of influence on the authorities.

Oligarchs appeared during the Soviet economy’s transition to the market model of contemporary Russia. The term itself appeared in the 1990s, though nobody can agree on who coined it.

Many people say an important moment in the Russian oligarchy’s history was Boris Berezovsky’s 1996 interview with the Financial Times, when he named seven people who, in his words, effectively controlled more than half the Russian economy and dictated government politics. This led to the famous concept of the “Seven Bankers.” Here’s who made Berezovsky’s list:

Economist Leonid Polishchuk argues that Russia’s oligarchy formed because the collapse of the Soviet Union created a consensus in the state and in society that major and unpopular economic reforms (“shock therapy”) would be simpler to implement if the country’s democratic institutions were “disabled.” Institutions like independent courts existed only in name. As a result, society was underrepresented in the government, and organized interest groups — oligarchs — filled this vacuum.


Is this the only definition of “oligarchy”?

No, you can think of the term more broadly, too. In an article published in 2005, economists Sergei Guriev and Andrei Rachinskiy wrote that an oligarch is a businessman who wields enough resources to influence national politics. Their list of oligarchs considers not just entrepreneurs’ estate sizes, but also their sales volume and the number of people they employ.


Does Russia have “oligarchs” today?

That’s a tough one. On the one hand, individual businessmen don’t wield as much influence over the government as the oligarchs of Berezovsky’s heyday, which gives the authorities a reason to claim that Russia no longer has “oligarchs.” On the other hand, the same Forbes list that was used to write part of the U.S. Treasury’s “Kremlin list” names many businessmen who are considered to be “Putin’s friends” who made their fortunes thanks in part to winning government contracts. Sociological studies also show that Russians today still believe the “oligarchs” are one of the country’s key institutions — more important even than the Federation Council or the State Duma (both houses of the Russian parliament).

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Text by Alexander Borzenko and Alexander Polivanov, translation by Michael Durkin