In the Shadow of Oligarchs

A Russian expat investigates the local clichés and assumptions about her mega-rich countrymen

To tell the truth, I find no joy at all in telling people I’m Russian these days. After various changes in international politics (which I’m sure you all know about), I see no reason to invite a waterfall of stereotyped and prejudiced questions. Even in Vienna, a city teeming with expats, people still expect answers to their “why are you Russians so…” (fill in the blank – mean, scary, moody, rich) style of interrogation.

A case in point – as I return to my Altbau in a, let’s say, quite posh district, the owner will update me about the latest ridiculous thing his Russian neighbors have been up to this week. Maybe they’ve thrown a children’s birthday party that cost €300,000, or splashed out on a brand-new BMW.

Two blocks away, there is a Croatian hairdresser who will toy with your hair and mess with your mind, offering her own theories on why Russian women are always asking for that ready-for-the-runway look. “I can easily see that my new client is Russian as soon as she enters the salon, you all have this baby face,” she will declare with full confidence, only to add: “It’s all plastic surgery though. To follow your boyfriend’s preferences.”

The Moscow Ball in Vienna, which is celebrating its 10th year, takes place at the Hofburg. Dancers, musicians and debutantes from the home country make it a unique experience, for those who can afford it. // Courtesy of Moskau Ball Wien

Mostly she ends up with the idea that those ladies are hookers for a mysterious 1st-district oligarch’s tribe. Rumor has it that these oligarchs are numerous. These caricatures straight from the 1990s who dole out endless amounts of cash on entertainment, bring hustle and bustle into prim and proper Vienna.

And it seems anyone who works in the city center is happy to share their thoughts on the big-tipping natives of the world’s biggest country.

Let the rubles roll

One can easily find Russian-speaking staff in the stores selling luxury goods, fancy groceries or small antiques in the upmarket Goldenes Quartier. And when they hear my accent, their smiles get wider and their prices get higher.

“I do respect my Russian clients, they are generous customers,” an acquaintance who works in a second-hand designer outlet once told me. “No need for discounts though, because they just can’t leave the store empty-handed anyway.”

The city center, with its imperialistic grandeur, attracts rich men from around the globe. In Vienna, even middle-class people enjoy a lifestyle of relative opulence; they can afford to go out for dinner every few days. No danger of starvation here.

It’s easy for the super-rich not to be noticed in these surroundings. And what is cherished by Russian money holders in times of political turmoil more than privacy?

Silence is gold-plated

It also helps that the Austrian media is not exactly relentless in its pursuit of stories about rich emigrants from the petroleum paradise.

Over the years, some tales have emerged – in 2014, Vienna-based weekly Profil delved into the finances of Yelena Baturina, wife of disgraced former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. The same magazine carried a report in 2008 telling us that soprano Anna Netrebko had just splashed out €2.5 million on a Vienna apartment. But such articles are rare.

This all helps facilitate Austria’s rather pragmatic foreign policy towards Russia. The government emphasizes bilateral economic relations above all – especially in the energy sector.

That attitude is not just politicians’ talk. A chat with Austrian friends over a glass of Hugo g’spritzt at an afterwork party reveals an unanimous view that they see their country as a mediator between East and West.

So it seems that as long as businessmen from “naughty states” keep investing, they are not going to be judged.

The oligarchs and the people

Let’s not forget that those Russian cosmopolites who spend one week in Vienna’s Innere Stadt, the next in London’s West End, who surround themselves with identical brand stores and go to the best gym in town (comfortably located in their very own basement), are still rare beasts.

It may surprise you to learn that Vienna has another type of Russian, the kind who happily shares a gym with thousands of others. According to the latest government data, 31,190 Russian passport holders currently live in Austria, many of them in Vienna.

Young Russians looking to start careers in research, IT and the creative professions are particularly drawn to Vienna. Anton, a recent graduate of the Technical University of Vienna, originally from Ekaterinburg, already has a year’s experience working for the energy firm OMV. He got the job after finishing an internship with Raiffeisen Bank.

Anton explains that the money he earns would give him a comfortable lifestyle and reasonable social status in Ekaterinburg, but in Vienna: “I compete for entry-level jobs with candidates from all over the post-Soviet space.”

While affluent Russian tourists have a reputation for enjoying champagne and caviar, the over 100,000 people living in Austria with Russian roots often have to make do with other canned delicacies from home. // © Shutterstock; Yana Foer

He is typical of many young Russians living in Vienna. They arrive with very little and have to be careful with their money. They quickly get to know which stores have the cheapest groceries. The Turkish takeaway at Reumannplatz will be their lifesaver – especially when they need to grab a hot meal at nine o’clock after finishing their shift in their part-time job, which helps to keep them in their university program.

And if they want to stay in Vienna longer, they will become immersed in bureaucracy. The phone number of Municipal Department 35 “Immigration and Citizenship” will be stored in their contact list, and they will spend a lot of time there, being constantly reminded that they are no longer at home.

But in the end, those precious hours waiting in the queues of MA 35 can be considered time well-spent. Only then can the budding expat enjoy the benefits of what is frequently lauded as one of the world’s most livable cities in surveys carried out by think tanks and corporate consultancies.

In this city, even Russian students can afford to catch an exhibition in the evening and go for a drink after. Though maybe going to the Goldenes Quartier and saying you are from the same country as Roman Abramovich is still not the best idea.

That is why I keep ordering a melange instead of a cappuccino, pronouncing it in a slightly French manner just in case.

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