Putin and the oligarchs

We are all watching the Russian invasion of the Ukraine with great empathy for the Ukrainians and the hope that the Russians are repelled. The west is providing weapons and has introduced sanctions against the Russian nation, its banks and Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs. The oligarchs are central to the west’s response but what exactly is an oligarch?

What is an oligarch?

Oligarchy is rule by a few, with power exercised by a small-privileged group. Oligarchies have existed throughout history but the groups in charge have not usually been known as oligarchs. However, these in Russia have come to be known as THE oligarchs.

The ancient Greek city states, such as Athens and Sparta, were oligarchies run by small groups of aristocratic men. Similarly, the Roman Empire was controlled by a few families in Rome. The US has been accused of being an oligarchy ruled by families such as the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons.

Word origin of oligarch

Oligarchy comes from the Ancient Greek word “oligarkhia”—”oligos” means few and “arkho” means to rule or command.

Oligarchy belongs to a family of words ending in ‘archy’, describing how people are ruled. Many are well known, monarchy (rule by a king or queen), matriarchy (ruled by women), and patriarchy (ruled by men). Also anarchy (without rule) and hierarchy (ruling members ranked according to status).

Other “archies” are less well known. Squirearchy (i.e. the squires of England) is where landowners collectively rule (the Squattocracy in Australia).

Autarchy is a system of government ruled by one person with absolute power (better known as autocracy). Another, synarchy, technically means “joint rule” or “harmonious rule” but has also been used to mean rule by a shadow elite (similar to an oligarchy but covert).

The Russians

The Russian oligarchs are businessmen who accumulated huge wealth in the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the privatisation of major industries. Russia is home to 117 billionaires (equating to 0.67 billionaires per million people). They own a vast amount of wealth and have considerable influence in Russia. Putin hides his money well but is thought to be immensely wealthy with one estimate by a US financier, Bill Browder, suggesting $200 billion. Bowder suggests that 50 or so “oligarch trustees” manage and obscure Putin’s wealth (this is a kleptocracy, a post for another day).

The sanctions against the oligarchs continue to be imposed to make their support of Putin a liability , if Bowder is correct, attack his wealth.

President Joe Biden said the US would work to seize the yachts, luxury apartments and private jets of wealthy Russians with ties to Putin. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he said.

The EU imposed travel bans for more than half a dozen of Russia’s most prominent businessmen and froze their assets.

So being an oligarch in Russia is not what it was.