Kim Murphy (Los Angeles Times), “Moscow’s anonymous new elite”
[an article which reflects on the real-life basis of Oksana Robski's popular fiction Casual]

[SAC editor has introduced hypertext links to SAC and modified transliteration of Russian words in conformity with scholarly usage]

Only in the millionaire's suburb of Rublevka  are houses so pricey that a helicopter is thrown in like a carpet upgrade. [“Rublevka” is pronounced “rooblYOvka” and located west of downtown Moscow, north of Kutuzovskii prospekt, along Rublevskoe shosse.]

How elite is Rublevka? So tony that real estate prices have streaked skyward even on Kutuzovskii prospekt, the “Rublevka adjacent” avenue in northwest Moscow — presumably because people who drive along it, as almost anyone who is anyone in Russia does, are probably on their way to Rublevka.

The Rublevskoe shosse shuts down twice each day as President Vladimir Putin [ID] is chauffeured between work and his Rublevka estate in his black Mercedes 600 Pullman, prompting an elite traffic jam that locals love to fume about to acquaintances consigned to lesser bottlenecks.

Russians throughout history have lived large, from the gilded palaces and Faberge eggs of the tsars to the epic miseries of World War II [ID]. Today's prosperity is no exception. Fourteen years after the arrival of capitalism [ID NB! political collapse of Soviet government here called "arrival of capitalism"], Forbes magazine's annual survey of the wealthy last year found Moscow with more billionaires than any other city on Earth. (But a new survey with a Friday publication shows the city dipping slightly below New York, thanks to the [arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii and] Yukos Oil prosecution's disastrous effect on the company's stock [ID].) [Linkage to more recent Forbes estimates in final paragraph below.]

The days of the profligate “new Russians” of the 1990s, famous for their maroon sport coats, gold, chains and crew cuts, are largely over. In their place is a tight knit aristocracy, more discreet in its appetites and with fortunes hard to imagine.

The new “new Russians”

The net worth of the nation’s 36 richest men and women, according to Forbes’ calculations, is more than $110 billion, equal to 24 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

In some cases, the new “new Russians” are the same businesspeople who got rich in the shady privatizations of the. 1990s. Now, they have reached their late 30s and 40s, and they've moved their businesses toward legitimate operations. They own oil companies and huge metal mining operations, cell phone companies and real estate development enterprises.

And after more than a decade of traveling among Paris, London, New York and Moscow, they have begun to expect at home — in districts such as Rublevka and a growing number of other high-end Moscow neighborhoods — the kind of amenities they long have enjoyed abroad.

Rublevka, once the exclusive retreat of Stalin, Brezhnev [ID] and other Soviet leaders, has become the subject of a best-selling new novel, Casual, a Russian version of “Desperate Housewives”. The book is the talk of Moscow because of its … portrayal of the privileged lifestyle behind Rublevka's towering, closely guarded walls.

Lots in the community are being snatched at the equivalent of $5 million apiece, and miles of forest are falling under the bulldozers to make way for $10 million homes, some with elaborate turrets, Russian Empire facade styling, private chapels and, in one case, a moter-boat grotto. But the trail of Russia's millionaires doesn't end there.

Crocus [krokus, shafran ??] City, on the north side of Moscow, bills itself as the largest luxury mall in the world — and that's before construction begins on an expansion that will double the size of the shopping center and include high-rise office buildings, a yacht mooring terminal, a helipad, a 1OOO-room hotel, a 216,000-square-foot casino and a 16-screen movie theater.

Shoppers at this “city within a city” spend an average of $560 on clothes and shoes per visit.

(Lest Crocus City be dismissed as an enclave only for the wealthy, says co-owner Emin Agalarov, “We've got a store which positions itself as an everything-here-is-around-$100 outlet. So anyone could theoretically come and buy something here”.)

Meanwhile, Gucci, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Armani are ensconced fewer than 10 miles away, in a cobblestone nook off fashionable Tverskaia Street downtown. They are within walking distance of an array of high-end clubs and restaurants distinguished mainly by the scowling bodyguards standing beside cars with tinted windows outside and the jewel-and-mink-draped beauties inside — often until 5 or 6 in the morning.

From Pioneer to penthouse

Ksenia Sobchak, Russia's 23-year-old answer to Paris Hilton, grew up in far from underprivileged circumstances -- her father was mayor of St Petersburg [ID] -- but insists she's no spoiled debutante.

“Me, myself, I never considered myself to be rich, though I get a real big salary. So how did I get this image of this golden rich girl?” wonders Sobchak, who hosts a reality television show and lives with her millionaire fiancé in an apartment on Tverskaia Street.

Then she answers her own question: “I really am a socialite. I don't like to spend time at home in a cozy armchair. I really enjoy going to cinemas, visiting friends, going to restaurants. For me, Moscow is the best city in the world. If you want to have fun for 24 hours, you can have fun”.

This summer [2005], Sobchak is preparing for the “it” marriage of the season, to Russian American businessman Alexander Shustorovich, a Harvard graduate who helped broker a $2 billion business deal when he was 30. Sobchak is planning a “simple” and “nice” wedding, at a resort near St. Petersburg, for 300 people.

Today's wealthy Russians, she says, are sensitive to the issues that have sent thousands of pensioners into the streets to protest the partial loss of their benefits. There are 25 million Russian who live on less than $87 a month, and the average monthly wage is less than $240. Many of the well-to-do, the young celebrity says, remember what it’s like to have nothing.

“I was a Pioneer”, Sobchak recalls, referring to the old Communist youth camps. “I remember those huge lines. I remember buying kilos of green bananas and putting them under the bed to ripen, because you didn't know when you'd be able to get bananas again”.

Russia's wealthiest classes, says Eduard Dorozhkin, editor of Rublevka's local newspaper, Na rublevkye, know they made mistakes in the past, and their mistake was to show how rich they are. It's impolite to look rich in a country with so many poor people”.

At the same time, many say, the memory of penury is what inspires an abundance of wealthy Russians to spend with abandon.

“If Americans have $1 million, they're not going to spend $200,000 on a car. The Russians, they will”, says Alia Verber, vice president of Mercury Ltd., which operates luxury shopping centers in downtown Moscow. “The Russians think, 'You only live once, and God knows what's going to happen in five years'.”

Anonymous ostentation

These days, though, most ostentation is anonymous — a phenomenon attributable as much to nervousness about government tax crackdowns and the ever-present possibility of Mafia violence as to a lingering sense from the Soviet years that being splendidly rich is anything but politically correct.

The city's many Humvees and their even-more-fortified Russian equivalent, the $144,000 Kombat, have tinted windows. Neighbors often have no idea who lives in the gated palace at the end of their street. The magazine Arkhidom, Russia's equivalent of Architectural Digest, features glossy pages of ornately decorated mansions and multimillion-dollar penthouse apartments but not a word about who owns them.

Oksana Robski's Casual, which sold 50,000 copies in the first 10 days after publication, provided ordinary Muscovites with another peek at life in Rublevka, which even in the Soviet era was the storied enclave of Politburo members, nuclear scientists and presidents. Today, former Presidents Boris Yeltsin [ID] and Mikhail Gorbachev [ID] have homes there; so does Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn [LOOP].

The world Robski portrays, however, is mostly about Rublevka wives: the thin, carefully coiffed, Dior-clad women who were lucky enough to snag a business mogul, then spend much of the rest of their lives plotting to keep from being dumped for a younger woman.

“The book was perfect. I loved it”, says Roman Kondratov, a stylist at the Place in the Sun hair salon in Zhukovka, one of several elite neighborhoods that make up the district known as Rublevka:

“These women in the book, they exist”, he says.

Let's see. The typical Zhukovka woman: First, she gets up at 2 p.m. Then gym, spa, hair. They come in here and some of them look like Christmas trees, jewels everywhere. And the things they talk about, they're mind-boggling for me. Where they're going on vacation. What they're going to buy. Mostly, they think about clothes. What they're wearing, what their friends are wearing, where they're going to buy the clothes they want, where they're going to fly to buy them. The kind of money they talk about spending is almost incomprehensible to me. And endless talk about plastic surgery. Most of them go to the States, to the guy who did all Michael Jackson's work.

Write about what you know

Over green tea at the elegant Prichal restaurant near her Rublevka home, Robski says, “It's my world. I need to write about what I know”.

And the author's age? “Let's say 28”.

“It was important for me to portray this world not as it is reflected in tabloids and magazines. It's interesting to show that these people not only go to hairdressers and get manicures, but they live there”, says Robski, wearing a powder blue sweater set and an 11-karat diamond teardrop pendant.

“They live their lives and lose their loved ones and die of incurable diseases. They fall in love and get betrayed. I think it's stupid to say that only those people who possess nothing have feelings inside”. [Hot tip.]

Robki knew whereof she wrote when her heroine's husband was killed in a contract hit. Her second husband died the same way.

Her next book will deal with Rublevka as well, but it will take readers far into the world beyond it. Robski plans to write about the female bodyguard agency she once ran, providing stylish armed protectors to wealthy businessmen throughout Russia.

There goes the neighborhood

Indeed, for a growing number of wealthy Russians, even Rublevka is too confining — especially now, when tawdry new dachas are lined up on the roadside and Putin's traffic jams are simply impossible.

Portrait artist Nikas Safronov, who for a $70,000 fee has painted portraits of many of the leading women of Rublevka society (“The shape of the nose, their eyes, look as if they have emerged from the same lab”, he confides. “Special, exquisite, elite and expensive”), recently bought a castle in the Scottish Highlands.

Oil oligarch Roman Abramovich [ID#1] [ID#2], believed to be Russia's richest man with a net worth of $13.3 billion, spends more and more time in Britain, where he recently bought the Chelsea soccer team along with a $9.5 million flat in London and a 450-acre estate in Sussex.