Russia's newest robber barons are taking luxury to next level

MOSCOW — The billboard appears at mile 3 of the post-Soviet boulevard of big-ticket dreams that is the Rublyovka Highway. "Any house," the sign by a prestigious homebuilder proclaims. "Helicopter as a bonus."

Only in the millionaires' suburb of Rublyovka are houses so pricey that a helicopter is thrown in like a carpet upgrade.

How elite is Rublyovka? So tony that real-estate prices have streaked skyward even on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the "Rublyovka adjacent" avenue in northwest Moscow — presumably because people who drive along it, as almost anyone who is anyone in Russia does, are probably on their way to Rublyovka.

The Rublyovka Highway shuts down twice each day as President Vladimir Putin is chauffeured between work and his Rublyovka estate in his black Mercedes 600 Pullman, prompting an elite traffic jam that locals love to fume about to acquaintances consigned to lesser bottlenecks.

Russians throughout history have lived large, from the gilded palaces and Fabergé eggs of the czars to the epic miseries of World War II.

Today's prosperity is no exception. Fourteen years after the arrival of capitalism, Forbes magazine's annual survey of the wealthy last year found Moscow with more billionaires than any other city on Earth. (But a new survey shows the city dipping slightly below New York, thanks to the Yukos Oil prosecution's disastrous effect on the company's stock.)

Crass consumerism gone

The days of the profligate "new Russians" of the 1990s, famous for their maroon sport coats, gold chains and crew cuts, are largely over. In their place is a tightknit aristocracy, more discreet in its appetites and with fortunes hard to imagine even on an international scale.

The net worth of the nation's 36 richest men and women, according to Forbes' calculations, is more than $110 billion, equal to 24 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

In some cases, the new "new Russians" are the same businesspeople who got rich in the shady privatizations of the 1990s. Now, most have reached their late 30s and 40s, and they've moved their businesses toward legitimate operations. They own oil companies and huge metal mining operations, cellphone companies and real-estate development enterprises.

And after more than a decade of traveling among Paris, London, New York and Moscow, they have begun to expect at home — in districts such as Rublyovka and a growing number of other high-end Moscow neighborhoods — the kind of amenities they have long enjoyed abroad.

Rublyovka, once the exclusive retreat of Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders, has become the subject of a best-selling new novel, "Casual," the first-ever portrayal of the privileged lifestyle behind its towering, closely guarded walls.

Lots in the community are being snatched at the equivalent of $5 million apiece, and miles of forest are falling under the bulldozers to make way for $10 million homes, some with elaborate turrets, Russian Empire facade styling, private chapels and, in one case, a motorboat grotto. But the trail of Russia's millionaires doesn't end there.

Crocus City, on the north side of Moscow, bills itself as the largest luxury mall in the world — and that's before construction begins on an expansion that will double the size of the shopping center and include 15 high-rise office buildings, a yacht mooring terminal, helipad, 1,000-room hotel, 216,000-square-foot casino and 16-screen movie theater.

Meanwhile, Gucci, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Armani are ensconced fewer than 10 miles away, in a cobblestone nook off fashionable Tverskaya Street downtown. They are within walking distance of an array of high-end clubs and restaurants distinguished mainly by the scowling bodyguards standing beside cars with tinted windows outside and the jewel-and-mink-draped beauties inside — often until 5 or 6 in the morning.

Café Galleria, this year's hot spot, requires a weeklong wait for reservations to dine in its sleek, yellow-and-black-columned halls. Even then, it won't admit those who might "spoil the atmosphere," as owner Arkady Novikov puts it.

California rolls — in a city suddenly mad for sushi, not a single fashionable restaurant can afford to be without it — go for $17 each. A hunk of creamy burrata cheese with cherry tomatoes costs $24. "Practically every restaurant in Moscow has to have this cheese now. Russians can't live without it," Novikov says of the coveted mozzarella, which must be flown in fresh from Italy.

Novikov owns a network of eateries that have at one time or another been at the center of Moscow's social beehive, including the tiny but tony Vogue Cafe downtown and the popular Czar's Hunt and Veranda u Dachi restaurants in Rublyovka. He operates 15 acres of greenhouses outside the city to keep his clients in arugula and wild strawberries throughout the Russian winter.

"People are becoming more sophisticated," he says. "The attitude of people with money had changed toward many things, first of all toward the money itself. Now the money is no longer falling on your head from the sky, like before, and the culture of the people has changed for the better.

"We learned a lot of things from the West, including how to dress, how to behave and how to eat."

Poor little rich girl

Ksenia Sobchak, Russia's 23-year-old answer to Paris Hilton, grew up far from underprivileged circumstances — her father was mayor of St. Petersburg — but insists she's no spoiled debutante.

"Me myself, I never considered myself to be rich, though I get a real big salary. So how did I get this image of this golden rich girl?" wonders Sobchak, who hosts a reality television show and lives with her millionaire fiancé in an apartment on Tverskaya Street.

Then she answers her own question: "I really am a socialite. I don't like to spend time at home in a cozy armchair. I really enjoy going to cinemas, visiting friends, going to restaurants. For me, Moscow is the best city in the world. If you want to have fun for 24 hours, you can have fun."

This summer, Sobchak is preparing for the "it" marriage of the season, to Russian-American businessman Alexander Shustorovich, a Harvard graduate who helped broker a $2 billion business deal when he was 30. Sobchak is planning a "simple" and "nice" wedding, at a resort near St. Petersburg, for 300 people.

Today's wealthy Russians, she says, are sensitive to the issues that have sent thousands of pensioners into the streets to protest the partial loss of their benefits. There are 25 million Russians who live on less than $87 a month, and the average monthly wage is less than $240. Many of the well-to-do, the young celebrity says, remember what it's like to have nothing.

"I was a Pioneer," Sobchak recalls, referring to the old Communist youth groups. "I remember the songs about Lenin. I remember those huge lines. I remember buying kilos of green bananas and putting them under the bed to ripen, because you didn't know when you'd be able to get bananas again."

Russia's wealthiest classes, says Eduard Dorozhkin, editor of Rublyovka's local newspaper, Na Rublyovkye, "know they made mistakes in the past, and their mistake was to show how rich they are. It's impolite to look rich in a country with so many poor people."

At the same time, many say, the memory of penury is what inspires an abundance of wealthy Russians to spend with abandon.

"If Americans have $1 million, they're not going to spend $200,000 on a car," said Alla Verber, vice president of Mercury Ltd., which operates luxury shopping centers in downtown Moscow. "The Russians, they will. The Russians think, 'You only live once, and God knows what's going to happen in five years.' "

These days, though, most ostentation is anonymous — a phenomenon attributable as much to nervousness about government tax crackdowns and the ever-present possibility of Mafia violence as to a lingering sense from the Soviet years that being splendidly rich is anything but politically correct.

The city's many Humvees and their even-more-fortified Russian equivalent, the $144,000 Kombat, have tinted windows. Neighbors often have no idea who lives in the gated palace at the end of their street. The magazine Arkhidom, Russia's equivalent of Architectural Digest, features glossy pages of ornately decorated mansions and penthouse apartments but not a word about who owns them.

Oksana Robski's "Casual," which sold 50,000 copies in the first 10 days after publication, provided ordinary Muscovites with another peek at life in Rublyovka, which even in the Soviet era was the storied enclave of Politburo members, nuclear scientists and presidents. Today, former Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev have homes there; so does Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The world Robski portrays, however, is mostly about Rublyovka wives: the thin, carefully coiffed, Dior-clad women who were lucky enough to snag a business mogul, then spend much of the rest of their lives plotting to keep from being dumped for a younger woman.

"These women in the book, they exist," says Roman Kondratov, a stylist at the Place in the Sun hair salon in Zhukovka, one of several elite neighborhoods that make up the district known as Rublyovka.

He says, "Let's see. The typical Zhukovka woman: First, she gets up at 2 p.m. Then gym, spa, hair. They come in here and some of them look like Christmas trees, jewels everywhere. And the things they talk about, they're mind-boggling for me.

"Where they're going on vacation. What they're going to buy. Mostly, they think about clothes. What they're wearing, what their friends are wearing, where they're going to buy the clothes they want, where they're going to fly to buy them. The kind of money they talk about spending is almost incomprehensible to me. And plastic surgery, endless talk about plastic surgery. Most of them go to the States, to the guy who did all Michael Jackson's work."

"It was important for me to portray this world not as it is reflected in tabloids and magazines. It's interesting to show that these people not only go to hairdressers and get manicures, but they live there," says Robski. "They live their lives and lose their loved ones and die of incurable diseases. They fall in love and get betrayed. I think it's stupid to say that only those people who possess nothing have feelings inside."

Robski knew whereof she wrote when her heroine's husband was killed in a contract hit. Her second husband died the same way.

Her next book will deal with Rublyovka as well, but it will take readers far into the world beyond it. Robski plans to write about the female bodyguard agency she once ran, providing stylish armed protectors to wealthy businessmen throughout Russia.

Indeed, for a growing number of wealthy Russians, even Rublyovka is too confining — especially now, when tawdry new dachas are lined up on the roadside and Putin's traffic jams are simply impossible.