Russia Watch: Russia wins gold for yachts, palaces and penthouses

With London’s Summer Olympics over, the spotlight and the torch now shift to Russia, host of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

Before the torch starts moving from London, Russians are grumbling about their showing in the summer Olympic tally.

Third place, with 24 gold and a total of 82 medals was not bad.

Russians naturally see themselves as heirs to the Soviet Olympic machine. But over the last two decades, Russia has slid gradually down the medals roster – from second at Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000), to third in Athens (2004) and at Beijing (2008).

For decades, the Soviet Union dominated the Summer Olympics. But today’s Russia has a population that is half that of the USSR and less than half that of the United States (46 gold and 104 total). Russia has about one-tenth the population of this year’s second place nation, China (38 gold and 87 total). Britain, with 29 gold and 65 total, had home court advantage.

If the 80 medals won by the 14 other countries that were once Soviet Republics are added to the total of Russia, athletes from the former Soviet Union would have won 60 percent more medals than the United States, and twice as many as China.

Part of Russians’ grumbling comes from the first week, when Russia was stalled in 10th place, between Kazakhstan and North Korea. First impressions are everything, and many Russians are reluctant to climb down from their initial impressions, when 70 per cent of respondents told pollsters that they were disappointed with their national teams. Also many Russians put more value on the gold, which drops their national showing to fourth place.

To cheer up the whiners, I offer three cases where Russians sweep the superlatives, nailing down Gold Medals in the World Olympics of Ostentatious Consumption.

1) Biggest Boat – Yes, size is everything. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich wins the Gold for the world’s largest private yacht. When ordering his sleek 162.5 meter Eclipse in 2009, he made sure that it would be 1.5 meters longer than the 161 meter Dubai, built three years earlier by the same company, Blohm+Voss of Germany. Construction cost estimates range from $500 million to $1 billion. The yacht sails with a crew of 70. According to Wikipedia, Abramovich, who grew up in landlocked Moscow, owns four other yachts – the Susurro, the Titan, the Umbra and the Luna.

2) Britain’s Most Expensive House – Andrei Borodin, a fugitive Moscow banker, wins the Gold for his $217 million purchase of Park Place, an 18th century country house. Sited above the Thames River, near Henley, the 80-hectare estate includes two golf courses. The house was purchased a year ago, but the name of the buyer was kept secret. Borodin may not have wanted publicity. At the same time as the purchase, July 2011, the largest bank bailout in Russian history, $14 billion, was being extended to his former bank, the Bank of Moscow. Borodin served as president of the bank since its founding in 1995 until April 2011, when he sold his share to VTB, a state-controlled bank. The public story is that in the next two months, VTB discovered a $14 billion hole in the bank’s finances.

3) New York’s Most Expensive Apartment – Here, Ekaterina Rybolovleva, a 22-year-old college student, picks up another Gold for Russia! In February, she paid $88 million for a 10-room, 627 square meter Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park. Rybolovleva is the daughter of Dmitry Rybolovlev, an entrepreneur who won control in the 1990s of Uralkali, a state-owned Russian company that is the world’s largest producer of potassium for fertilizer.

4) Some say Russia is also a contender a Olympic Gold in the field of Political Fortune. For starters, go to the Wikipedia site and type in List of Heads of State and Government by Net Worth. You will see, at the top of the page, a photo of You-Know-Who. But, mysteriously, his name is missing from the text and the list. Officially, President Vladimir Putin’s declared wealth is $150,000 in bank accounts and a 77-square meter apartment in St. Petersburg, his home town.

But some European newspapers, alleging secret ownership of Russian energy companies, have called Russia’s president “the richest man in Europe.” In February 2008, at the Kremlin’s annual, nationally televised press conference, Mr. Putin was asked about these newspaper stories. The Presidential response: “With regard to the various rumors about financial conditions, I looked at some of the reports on this subject. This is just talk, there is nothing to discuss, just nonsense. They have picked this from their noses and have smeared this across their pieces of paper.”


(Roman Abramovich’s yacht Eclipse, photo by martinvarsavsky/



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.