May 2004 Journal

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From Karl's prophecy to repatriated eggs

According to Marx, the evolution of capitalism inevitably culminates in monopoly - in other words in a small number of large firms dominating the entire economy. Anthony Sampson's classic study of the oil industry was entitled The Seven Sisters because that was the sum total of the US petro-giants.

However, it appears that post-Communist Russia has driven the process towards single-digit ownership of the economy even further. No matter which sector one looks at - whether it is oil, natural gas or aluminium - the same small handful of names comes up: Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky, Abramovitch, Vekselberg.

The immediate cause of the over-concentration of economic power into ever fewer hands is, of course, Yeltsin's privatisation - but the long-term cause was the Soviets' addiction to huge monolithic structures. By a perverse quirk of history socialist state control has provided a shorter short-cut to 'perfect' monopoly capitalism than private enterprise.

This particular paradox mirrors several others. All the above listed oligarchs are Jewish - yet Soviet Jews felt so discriminated against that a million of them uprooted themselves when aliyah became possible.

In the interim, some of the oligarchs have also left amid charges of fraud brought by Putin's agents. They, in turn, allege that Putin targets them because of their support for liberal opposition parties.

Other oligarchs are half-in, half out - with Boris Abramovitch combining the governorship of the sub-Arctic Yakutka Region with ownership of Chelsea FC.

The aluminium tycoon Viktor Vekselberg meanwhile devoted his not inconsiderable fortune to repatriating the Fabergé eggs - those prize specimen of Tsarist-sponsored art - to their country of origin, a move that must have endeared him to every Russian patriot.

It seems that 60 years after Churchill uttered his famous dictum, Russia is still a riddle wrapped up inside an enigma.
Richard Grunberger

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