Oligarchs Have Shaped Our View of Russia, But It’s Putin’s Corrupt Elite That has Hobbled Him in Ukraine War

Photograph Source: Andrew Russell – CC BY 2.0

Painted Russian wooden dolls of decreasing size one inside the other used to be a symbol of Russia as a mysterious and menacing place. This was the unmistakable message carried by the dolls in the opening credits of the original television version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

But this symbol of Russia is now being replaced by a picture in which an oligarch’s giant yacht rides at anchor off some Mediterranean resort. This provides an easily recognisable visual sign of the vast wealth obtained by the oligarchs, often corruptly acquired through looting the Soviet state of its most valuable assets after its collapse in 1991.

Putting their great fortunes so blatantly on display in the shape of yachts, mansions and football teams reflects a need on the part of the Russian super-rich to highlight their elite status, while obscuring the semi-criminal means by which they acquired their wealth.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).