A new species of global Russian has evolved with its very own private members club and in-house magazine, says Andrei Navrozov
A new species of ‘global Russian’ has evolved — with its very own private members’ club and in-house magazine, says Andrei Navrozov
THIRTY YEARS AGO I was the Russian. Along with the sense of exclusivity it afforded, this simple tag gave its owner a clear run through the 1980s and 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic.
I was the only Russian in any crowd, whether as taciturn as the scotch-drenched habitués of a club in St James’s or as boisterous as the desert sheikhs losing their camels in a casino in Curzon Street. I had gone to Yale, retched with the best of them in the Rockingham, reviewed books for the Wall Street Journal, published English poems in Encounter, drunk ombre with descendants of Venetian doges, eaten pasta with Sicilian gangsters, talked Communism with Taki, and eavesdropped on Russian hookers who had been working Chelsea long before the first New Russian businessman dipped his as-yet-unmanicured toe in the Thames.
At least as far as social life went, in the new millennium my easy eminence began to totter. Chelsea had become a Russian word. Natalia Vodyanova had become a Lady. Evgeny Lebedev had been launched as the Russian face of Tatler, and reciprocated by launching Geordie Greig as the English face of the Evening Standard.
Through circumstances over which she had not had much control, Dasha Zhukova became a much discussed patroness of the arts. A drinking club nicknamed Molton’s, owned by Andrei Leonovich and frequented by refugees from Putin, eclipsed Morton’s in Berkeley Square. The Criterion restaurant, once home to Sherlock Holmes, was in Russian hands. The name Olga Kurilenko was on every man’s salivating tongue.
A new hybrid was in evidence, and members of this mutant breed could condescend to the New Russians of old as much as I ever did. Miss Zhukova’s father, in whose company I often caroused when Aleksandr Zhukov was based in London in the late 1990s, was a classic example of the old species, making up with ursine gregariousness what he lacked in gentility and sophistication.
To Western eyes, those old New Russians were uncouth. Their wives or mistresses might tell a Kelly from a Birkin, but the men spoke no European languages and only a mangled English, and when they mentioned Harrods you could have sworn they meant the bloke in Judea who had upset all the parents.
Now at last the new hybrid has been given an official appellation, courtesy of a monumental multimedia juggernaut financed by the richest of the Forbes rich in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov, and managed by Kommersant creator Vladimir Yakovlev. At the heart of the multimillion-dollar venture are Snob, a club with an online presence for subscribers, whose current membership of 273 men and women expands at an average rate of one or two a month, and a literary review bearing the same name, somewhat along the lines of Vanity Fair.
BY BRINGING TOGETHER the most independent-minded and articulate representatives of what used to be called the Russian intelligentsia with the most cultivated and politically benign exponents of new Russian wealth, Snob wants to provide the new species, which it has christened ‘Global Russians’, with both a natural habitat and a luxurious showcase.
Suffice it to say that every member of Snob is assigned one of some twenty staff amanuenses, Boswell-like bloggers who help to keep the club’s site alive with his or her worldly doings. Lebedev has joined, as has Vasily Sopromadze, owner of the Criterion in Piccadilly. A few months ago the photographer Gusov, contributing editor of Spear’s, and myself, both indecently hung over, met the London representative of Snob for espresso at Baker & Spice in Elizabeth Street.
‘Timon of Athens’ is how the young and handsome Global Russian introduced himself, and it was true. His name really was Timon Afinsky. Gusov and I felt like the Painter and the Poet in Shakespeare’s play, desperately angling for advantage until told in plain Russian that we had been asked to join the club.
Some days later, a film crew descended on Gusov’s bachelor pad, once the studio of Sir Noël Coward, to record an obligatory interview for the Snob site with two stalwarts of the global diaspora, absent from Russia for a combined total of some 60 years and once again indecently hung over in the best tradition of whatever intelligentsia we eagerly represented.
Whatever social storms the future may hold in store for the nattering nabobs of positivism in the Kremlin, it is pretty clear that the few hundred travellers who, like myself before them, have in their youth detached themselves from the mother ship to seek wisdom and fulfillment in the outer space of London and Madrid, Bombay and Rio, can finally declare themselves a breed apart.
They are not going anywhere, because they have been on the move from the moment the Soviet border became permeable, and in the event of a political emergency each of them can at least count on being known as eminently clubbable to newspaper editors from Adelaide to Zimbabwe.
Snob is their charter of self-determination. Like White émigrés in Paris in the 1920s, they are here to tell the West their story.