The route of riches in Putin's Moscow

When Vladimir Putin drives to work every morning from his presidential bungalow he doesn’t pass the poor, the needy or the hungry. Instead, he passes Gucci, Armani and Prada.

In the unlikely event that his presidential Mercedes breaks down, he could pop into Barvikha Luxury Village, an elite shopping complex just down the road from Putin’s dacha, and a few kilometres west of Moscow’s ring road.

Here, Lamborghini and Ferrari have a showroom. The Bentley dealership sells a car a day.
Dolce & Gabbana is here too, with a VIP fitting room decorated in mink. If this gets too much, Putin could drop into the Avenue, the centre’s chi-chi Italian restaurant where a plate of seafood risotto sets you back a mere £30.

Putin’s presidential residence is just off Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Shosse, a Swiss-style road that snakes out of Moscow down a pleasantly pastoral avenue of pines and silver birches. The area—Rublyovka—is where anybody who is anybody in Russia lives.

But behind the towering green walls that shield Rublyovka’s well-heeled denizens from the eyes of the prying proletariat there is a growing sense of nervousness.

The area is home to those who have grown rich under Vladimir Putin: oligarchs, Kremlin officials and the odd mafia boss.

In May, however, Putin steps down as president. Russia’s new president will be Dmitry Medvedev, a mildly spoken Putin acolyte. The question vexing Russia’s uber-wealthy is what if Medvedev is less nice than he seems? What if—heaven forbid—he tries to take away their billions?

Alexander Reebok, the manager of the private company that manages Barvikha Luxury Village, says that his super-affluent customers are spending as much as ever, despite fears associated with Putin’s departure.

“We thought New Year would be quiet. But we were extremely busy. We sell a Bentley a day. We don’t sell quite as many Ferraris but then they are rather low cars which are harder to drive in the snow,” he says.

Reebok shows off the centre’s five-star hotel, where Rubylovka’s billionaire residents will soon be able to accommodate visiting mothers-in-law or business guests.

At the other end of the complex workmen are building a new concrete auditorium. When finished, the venue will be a party complex—perfect, say, for the oligarch who wants to invite 5 000 people to his daughter’s 21st birthday, or fly in Sting for a private concert among friends.

Since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, oil prices have more than quadrupled, rising in January to $100 a barrel.

This unprecedented boom due to natural resources has led to a general improvement in living standards in Russia’s cities. But it has also made a few people very, very wealthy. Russia now has 53 billionaires, according to Forbes‘s 2007 survey, a list spearheaded by Roman Abramovich, whose fortune is estimated at just under £10-billion.

Publicly, Putin has decried the oligarchic system that flourished in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. In reality, though, most of the key oligarchs from this period have seen their fortunes increase during the Putin years. Abramovich; Oleg Deripaska; Mikhail Friedman; Vladimir Potanin; Viktor Vekselberg; Vagit Alekperov; and billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who owns part of Arsenal—are all better off.

The only exception is Mikhail Khordorkovsky, the former head of the oil company Yukos, now serving time in a Siberian jail.

Critics also say that Putin has created a new oligarchy based on the system of bureaucratic state capitalism. The Kremlin has swallowed up many private companies and turned them into enormous state corporations. The people who run these corporations are invariably Putin’s friends—many with backgrounds in Russia’s military and intelligence agencies.

After driving down Rubylovo-Uspenskoye Shosse, Putin turns left on his morning commute, down Kutuzovsky Prospect.

The street was traditionally home to the Soviet elite, its scientists, artists, writes and Politburo bosses. Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov lived at number 26. Halfway down Kutuzovsky is Park Pobedy, a massive Soviet-style victory park, built in the mid-1990s and topped with a giant obelisk commemorating Russia’s victory over the Nazis.

If Putin were to look out of the window, he might find himself consoled in his view that hostile enemies surround Russia. Just beyond the obelisk, which depicts a knight chopping off the head of a Nazi dragon, is a triumphal arch celebrating Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812.

After Kutuzovsky, Putin goes past the Moscow River and continues down Novy Arbat, Russia’s glitzy central shopping street. He then turns right again—just before Moscow’s Rolls Royce dealership.

Re-tracing his daily route recently we discovered little sign of election fever. Several official banners reminded voters of the presidential elections on March 2.

But there were no banners for any of the candidates: Medvedev, Russia’s first deputy PM, whom Putin endorsed in December; veteran communist leader Gennady Zyuganov; the ultra-nationalist clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and the fake democrat Andrey Bogdanov.

That there is little expectancy is hardly surprising. Medvedev’s victory is a foregone conclusion. Like his predecessor, Medvedev is refusing to campaign—citing pressure of work—and has also said he won’t take part in TV debates.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin’s vast administrative machinery, and blanket coverage by state TV of his recent far east tour, guarantee a landslide Medvedev victory.

Putin finishes his commute at the Kremlin, the office he vacates in May.

Medvedev has offered Putin the job as Russia’s prime minister. But the nature of Russia’s future political landscape is unknown.

Will Medvedev become a real president or is he merely keeping the seat warm until Putin returns as president in 2012? Will Medvedev soften Russian foreign policy or pursue the same hawkish course as Putin? Will Putin remain Russia’s de facto leader or slip slowly into retirement? Nobody yet knows.—guardian.co.uk Â

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