A Look Inside the Life of Billionaire Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the New Community of New York Russians — New York Magazine

Photo-illustration by GluekitPhoto: James Hill/Contact Press (Prokhorov); Getty Images (Women)

The Russian Samovar, a recent evening, 10 p.m. Green-shaded lamps throw unappetizing light on platefuls of chicken Kiev; the theater across the street has just disgorged the Jersey Boys crowd. The first of the restaurant’s two floors is hosting a “writers’ cabaret” sponsored by a Moscow-based magazine called Snob. At the white grand piano gifted by Mikhail Baryshnikov, writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is belting out a Russian rendition of “Blue Canary.” Venture capitalist Alex Fridlyand, novelist Lara Vapnyar, and software mogul Stepan Pachikov look on between bites. On the second floor, in an unrelated celebration, half the masthead of Moscow’s anti-Putin newspaper Novaya Gazeta (in town for an award) is getting soused with the daughter of the late émigré novelist Sergei Dovlatov. At the upstairs bar, Moscow publisher Andrew Paulson is schmoozing with PR man Ilya Merenzon. A few feet away, n+1 editor Kostya Gessen—you may know him as Keith—and his girlfriend, Emily Gould, are chatting with Very Short List editor Alex Abramovich. Samovar’s owner, Roman Kaplan, bisects the crowd with a carafe of cranberry vodka. By the end of the night he will have drunk a dozen shots of it himself.

The total conflicts of interest I have counted in the above scene: nine. I have worked for three of these people, tried to curry promotional favor with two, publicly feuded with three more, and competed for a woman with one, and that’s not counting all the free vodka from Roman. Such is the very essence of the Russian experience in New York: high-end striving mixed with Appalachian incest.

Then again, it all pales before the main, unspoken bias permeating both floors of the restaurant. Almost everyone at the Samovar tonight owes a little something—from a steady salary to a bite of the chicken to something more abstract—to a man who isn’t here. He is the one footing the night’s bill through Snob—a relatively new entity, set to launch its first New York marketing campaign this fall, that is both a private club uniting some of New York’s most ambitious Russian arrivistes and, in its magazine iteration, one of the world’s most lavishly funded editorial projects. He’s bought us all, to some extent, and a chunk of New York to go with us. At this point, I suspect, you even know his name.

When Mikhail Prokhorov—gangly, boyish, 45, and a billionaire seventeen times over—announced his purchase of the New Jersey Nets and a majority stake of their yet-unbuilt arena at the Atlantic Yards, he leaped into the city’s collective consciousness with a speed unusual for any foreigner, let alone a Russian. The Nets are not a trophy skyscraper, whose ownership ultimately matters only to the kind of people who keep track of trophy skyscrapers. They are a ticket to instant popular-culture importance. By becoming the first foreign owner of an NBA team, Prokhorov simultaneously established himself as a major figure in one of the world’s most glamorous businesses (in the world capital of the sport, no less) and a central player in New York’s biggest real-estate drama after ground zero. The scale of his trick didn’t really hit home until a May 19 breakfast photo op with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Jay-Z: a perfectly orchestrated tableau of New York relevance. The only other Russian I can think of who has managed to slip into the city’s cast of notable characters as effortlessly is Mikhail Baryshnikov. But that’s where the comparison ends. Prokhorov is the face of an altogether new kind of Russian—newer, even, than the so-called New Russians of the late nineties—that’s recently been proliferating in town. Through Snob, he’s also the group’s chief benefactor and facilitator, both a member of the tribe and, in a critical sense, its creator.

The Russian community in New York used to come in four distinct varieties, arrangeable, like single malts, by casking date. There were heirs of exiled Czarist-era blue bloods, paper-skinned, cradling their titles; you’ve probably met one if you ever took a ballet class. Next up were Soviet immigrants of the seventies, the generation of Joseph Brodsky that would never let you forget their plight. Then came the “sausage immigration” of the nineties, mostly Jewish, mostly provincial, seduced less by freedom than by comfort yet squeaking in on political-refugee papers: More than 60,000 came to the U.S. in 1992 alone. Finally, there were the latest arrivals, treating New York as a prize for having made it in Moscow: the cocky, scowling post-Soviet oligarchs and Fifth Avenue shoppers with their endlessly mockable excesses.

The Global Russians, as Snob calls the group, are crystallized from all of the above. Broadly speaking, the term indicates a combination of Russian culture and language with Western education, a well-stamped passport, and liberal Western views. The category is big enough to encompass a second-generation novelist, a fashion designer who arrived here at the age of 5, a businessman swinging by for a conference, and an NBA team owner. They’re not interested in the Russian ghetto of Brighton Beach or the Russian assimilated culture in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. They’re dismissive of the nouveau riche shoppers and clubbers. They think they’re better than those others are. They’re consumed by cosmopolitanism and all it entails. They strive, they snub; they are, by any definition, snobs. By the way, I am kidding no one with this “they” business. I’ve been here since 1998, English is my second language, and simple honesty prevents me from pretending I don’t want some small version of the same.

The Global Russian influence is all over contemporary New York, in motley variations. In real estate, diamond mogul Lev Leviev, a reputed friend of Putin’s, owns the lion’s share of the old New York Times Building, the citadel-like Apthorp apartment complex, and the MetLife clock tower. Vassily Anisimov leased dormitories to NYU. Tamir Sapir, who was born Temur Sepiashvili in Georgia and made his first fortune in New York selling VCRs and other electronics (and also securing oil contracts from former Soviet diplomats), has $2 billion in active development projects; his hard-partying son, Alex Sapir, and daughter, Zina Sapir-Rosen, have bankrolled a few of Donald Trump’s latest ventures, including the Trump SoHo condo-hotel. Hotels seem to be especially appealing: The Gansevoort and 60 Thompson, as well as some of André Balazs’s properties, are rumored to have Russian backing. Muscovites have made their homes or pieds-à-terre at the Plaza, the Time Warner Center, and 15 Central Park West. Edward Mermelstein, a Ukrainian-born real-estate lawyer specializing in massive deals for Eastern European clientele, handled about 120 Russian closings in New York over the last three years. Before the financial crisis, the average price was between $7 million and $10 million, with the top end in the stratospheric $30 million to $40 million range. Then, of course, there’s airport mogul Valery Kogan, whose ultimately aborted attempt to build one of the largest mansions in Greenwich (complete with 26 toilets) fueled the Connecticut enclave’s gossip mill for years. As for the Russian contributions to Wall Street, they tend to be low-profile: There’s an enormous number of people with Soviet math educations who work on the analytical side at places like Goldman Sachs. Some, like Ruvim Breydo, parlay their skills into hedge-fund fortunes. Others toil anonymously, and when we do hear about them—like computer programmer Sergey Aleynikov, who allegedly swiped Goldman’s proprietary trading software—it’s rarely good news.

In the world of art, the main seat of Russian influence is the Guggenheim. Moscow-based oligarch Vladimir Potanin sits on its board of trustees. So did socialite and developer Janna Bullock, until recently. Phillips de Pury, the world’s third-largest contemporary-art auction house, is now owned by the Russian luxury retailer Mercury Group. It is currently getting ready to move into a 25,500-square-foot space at 450 Park Avenue, to compete more directly with Sotheby’s and Christie’s—both of which have dedicated Russian-art divisions. So does Larry Gagosian’s empire, which has recently added a sophisticated operation devoted to Russian outreach.

‘Snob’ is “a multistep strategic game by Prokhorov, who wants to feed and domesticate a certain kind of Establishment to lean on it for support later.”

With the exception of the modernist Ilya Kabakov, the Russians in the gallery game tend to crowd on the buyers’ side; in the performing arts, however, they’re the product. The American Ballet Theatre company is 25 percent Russian (four out of sixteen). Russian names dot the program notes at the New York Philharmonic, where conductor Valery Gergiev has been a regular presence. In pop, there are Regina Spektor and Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz, of the Bronx and the Lower East Side respectively, both plying very different but very Russian good-girl and bad-boy personas.

The literary scene is a fiefdom ruled by novelist Gary Shteyngart, 37, probably the most successful New York novelist in the under-40 bracket. (His main rival for that title, Jonathan Safran Foer, can be seen as an interesting case of a wannabe Russian, an Updike to his Roth.) Shteyngart came to Queens from what was then Leningrad at the age of 7 and, by his own recollection, lost the last trace of his accent by 14. He could have easily disappeared into the American workforce, he says, and nearly did. “Once we figure out the dress code, we look like everyone else,” he tells me over a vodka-and-tonic, the ultimate Russian-American drink if you think about it. “Plus most of us are Jewish anyway.” He parlayed this identity tension into two best-selling novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan. His upcoming third, the futuristic satire Super Sad True Love Story, marks a tentative step away from the Russianness (although the protagonist’s name still ends in -ov).

Shteyngart’s ascent opened the floodgates for Russian-identified New York writers of every possible pedigree, age, and talent level. In a literary climate that puts a premium on authentic immigrant experience, they had the best of both worlds. They were sufficiently exotic but easily relatable. Russia gave them mystery, New York (and Jewishness) gave them a place on the Roth-Malamud-Lethem continuum. The flood of Russian names recently released into American letters includes Gessen and his sister Masha, Vapnyar, Olga Grushin, Anya Ulinich, Irina Reyn, Mark Budman, Sana Krasikov, Sofka Zinovieff, Elena Gorokhova, Ilana Ozernoy, Alina Simone—and the book deals keep coming. At the same time, Russian-born writers began popping up on the other side of the equation, as book reporters and reviewers (Alexander Nazaryan, Leon Neyfakh, this magazine’s Boris Kachka), lit-mag publishers (Keith Gessen again), and agents (Jim Rutman of Sterling Lord). It’s as if there were a whole colony of Russian writers biding their time until the industry deemed them worthy. I’m going to switch from “them” to “us” once again, because I am myself a beneficiary of this development. I published a novel last year. It was blurbed—like Ulinich’s and Vapnyar’s—by Shteyngart.

Each of these groups has found its own watering hole. The art collectors roost at Sant Ambroeus on Madison. The finance crowd took a liking to Mari Vanna on 20th, near Park (the only restaurant in New York that’s actually a franchise of a Russian eatery). The barely-of-drinking-age set descends on Keith McNally’s Pravda, the only Russian-themed spot in town they deem unembarrassing (the nearby KGB Bar and the theater district’s FireBird are inexplicably regarded as “fake”). And assorted oligarchs have discovered the Waverly Inn: On a recent evening, former mining magnate Oleg Baibakov (with a young date) and Alexander Lebedev, the Aeroflot mogul who owns London’s Evening Standard and the Independent, were seen there independent of each other. (Ten years ago, this would have been a clear sign that the spot is toxic. It’s a testament to the Global Russians’ status that it’s not.) Online, groups of Global Russians are forever forming semi-secret societies. A few recent attempts included Nash Krug (Our Circle); CluMBA, catering to Russian banker types (its name means “flower bed” but also puns on both club and MBA); and Baby v Zakone, a female-lawyer group with a name roughly translatable as “Broads in Law.” The Samovar is as close to a clubhouse as this disparate, roving band has, but lately the role of the virtual clubhouse is being assumed by Snob. All sorts of people named in the last several paragraphs either belong to the club, contribute to the magazine, or have been profiled by it.

It was the girls, in a way, that made Mikhail Prokhorov into Russia’s second- richest man. Back home, his reputation as a playboy had been sealed in the mid-aughts. He was known for descending on Moscow’s wildest nightclubs with Gosha Kutsenko, a bald-headed, mildly freakish Russian film star he had befriended, with packs of coltish young things in tow. “It used to be that you go to certain clubs,” recalls one Muscovite, “and if at some moment about fifteen barely legal girls show up all at once, you could tell that Prokhorov is about to stop by.”

In January 2007, partying in Courchevel, he was briefly detained by the French police on suspicion of having flown in a planeful of alleged prostitutes for the party’s guests. Prokhorov was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the incident apparently upset Vladimir Potanin, Prokhorov’s longtime partner in his primary cash cow, Norilsk Nickel. In April 2008, the now-former friends split, and Prokhorov sold his Norilsk shares to another oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. His timing was downright charmed. Less than three months later, the financial crisis hit Russia. When the dust cleared, Norilsk’s stock had dropped 80 percent, Deripaska was $24.6 billion poorer, and Potanin lost a fortune, too. Prokhorov, meanwhile, was sitting on billions in uninvested cash—the best kind of investment in the chaos of late 2008.

Since then, Prokhorov’s interests have varied wildly. He has invested in low-cost hybrid cars, nanotechnology, and banks. He seemingly flirted with the governorship of a far-flung Russian province (Russian governors are appointed by the Kremlin, not elected), establishing tax residence in a tiny Siberian village. In 2009, Russia’s then-richest man paid his income tax—16 billion rubles, or roughly $550 million—out of snowy Yeruda, population 2,300.

Prokhorov’s interest in the Nets appears sincere enough. His father was a Soviet sports official, and Prokhorov is the head of the Russian Biathlon Union (he attended the Vancouver Olympics in that capacity). He played basketball himself in high school—because he was six-eight, it was practically an imperative—and invested in Moscow’s CSKA professional team before turning his attention westward. Prokhorov has already floated a $12 million to $15 million offer to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, openly plans to court LeBron James and other top free agents, and during his recent visit to the city promised to bring the team a “championship in five years.” He also hopes to raise the sport’s profile back in Russia and perhaps groom future stars there.

And yet buying the Nets and their arena was clearly a real-estate play as well. Prokhorov had already established himself as a major figure in the New York property market before the Atlantic Yards deal. In 2008, after developer Harry Macklowe defaulted on a $513 million loan from Deutsche Bank AG, the super-liquid Prokhorov swooped in and offered to buy the Park Avenue site in question for $250 million. “Guys like Prokhorov,” says a source who’s seen the bid, “are always looking to get in at opportunistic prices. They make extremely low offers that also happen to be all cash, which locals don’t do.” By the time Prokhorov turned his attention to Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards, the project was in almost as much trouble as Macklowe’s. Only the infusion of Russian cash raised it from a coma.

Not all of Prokhorov’s investments can be explained by rational self-interest. Another set of projects invariably bears the hallmark of his older sister, Irina, a patron of arts and literature. In private life, Mikhail and Irina form an unusual, closed-off unit. Until recently, they lived together in a relatively small Moscow apartment, well after Mikhail had become a billionaire. “He’s got one overriding complex,” says a person familiar with both. “He’s not as smart as his sister, and he wants her approval.” Most likely at Irina’s urging, Mikhail has endowed a lavish literary award, a publishing house, an arts festival, and, finally, Snob. “WHAT CAN RUSSIANS do for the rest of the world?”

Gregory Kegeles, Snob’s director of U.S. business development, wearing wire-rim glasses and a brown corduroy blazer, sips chamomile tea and lets the phrase sink in. We’re at Think Coffee on Mercer, his favorite place in his favorite city.

The pithy question is Kegeles’s idea for the centerpiece of Snob’s New York marketing campaign, set to hit the city in September. In London, the only place outside Russia where Snob has attempted such a promotional effort, the push was a bit of a disaster. Snob simply bought up billboards in the Underground and elsewhere and slapped Russian-language ads on them, perplexing Brits and embarrassing local Russians. It looked exactly like something a dizzy nouveau riche would do. For New York, Kegeles imagines something that New Yorkers could actually use, something that speaks to Snob’s globalist brand, and something that shows that the Russians actually understand contemporary New York (and in English this time). A giant video chat, set up right on the street, that lets New Yorkers, Londoners, and Muscovites speak to one another? Sponsoring some benches in the High Line park? Free Nets tickets?

Even by the pre-crash standards of magazine publishing, Snob is an extravagantly well-funded undertaking. Prokhorov financed its launch with $150 million. By comparison, Condé Nast’s Portfolio, the splashiest magazine launch of the last decade, had about $120 million to play with. Snob employs about 120 people and keeps offices in Moscow and London as well as a so-far more modest New York outpost, in a “green” rent-an-office building in Dumbo. The magazine itself might as well be printed on dollar bills: The stock is luscious, the photo stories ripped from the walls of the prestigious Yossi Milo and Yancey Richardson galleries, the editorial purse big enough for pre-U.S.-publication exclusives like a chunk of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura or of Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, for that matter. Each issue has three covers and comes locked inside a cardboard shell readers are supposed to rip off in a process the magazine’s staff calls “defloration.” U.S. club members get it hand-delivered by DHL.

When Snob’s creation was announced in 2008, the world assumed it would be a glossy paean to the world’s longest yachts or something, a Slavic striver’s version of the Robb Report with the barest hint of self-awareness in the title. In reality, it was more of a Monocle: a thoughtful, moderately smug house organ of the Global Russian community. snob was actually an acronym of sostoyavshiisya, nezavisimyi, obrazovannyi, blagopoluchnyi (accomplished, independent, educated, thriving). Only the last word of the four hinted at wealth. Lately, under deputy editor Masha Gessen, the project even made a turn toward social activism, battling, for instance, the Putin administration’s revisionist sugarcoating of Joseph Stalin.

The Global Russian “aggressively adopts traits of other cultures without betraying his own. He cooks like a Frenchman, entertains like an American, and forms friendships like a Russian.”

The magazine’s idea was not Prokhorov’s. To hammer it out, he tapped Vladimir Yakovlev, the legendary former editor of the business daily Kommersant and, back in the early nineties, the coiner of the term New Russians, which, Yakovlev tells me, was meant as a compliment, before it came to signify a boor in a burgundy club jacket demanding colder vodka in St. Barts. Yakovlev was fresh off a multiyear stint seeking enlightenment in various exotic locations. His travels seem to have helped him come up with the idea to target the worldwide Russian diaspora as a sophisticated, interconnected demographic. The Global Russian is “a particular breed shaped over the last fifteen years,” says Masha Gessen, from a treadmill, in flawless English (she is the author of four American nonfiction books). “It used to be that when you left Russia, you left forever—to become a proper American, a proper Englishman, etc. The Global Russian aggressively adopts traits of other cultures without betraying his own. Two years ago, when I was writing up a portrait of our imaginary ideal audience member, I wrote that he ‘cooks like a Frenchman, entertains like an American, and forms friendships like a Russian.’ ”

The masterstroke of the original concept was that Snob would simply create this audience as it went along, by pumping money into club members’ own projects: exhibits, films, even mild political activism. Among Russians, even those connected with the project, this largesse bred instant suspicion. Stepan Pachikov, creator of the popular idea- and photo-archiving app Evernote and a member of the club’s New York chapter, sums up the prevailing conspiracy theories: “It’s either a Kremlin initiative designed to get all the liberal opposition types in one place and have them let off steam in controlled conditions, or else it is a multistep strategic game by Prokhorov, who wants to feed and domesticate a certain kind of Establishment to lean on it for support later.”

It’s unclear whether Prokhorov wants to be a media mogul per se; he’s emphatically not interested in competing with any of his Western counterparts or entering the English-language publishing fray. If he wanted to, he’d probably do what Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, did. There are certainly enough distressed media properties to choose from.

But turning a profit—something Snob isn’t likely to do anytime soon—seems far from Prokhorov’s mind (the money expended on Snob, as one New York club member acidly points out, is “just a rounding error” for him). But profit isn’t everything. Prokhorov’s endgame is to buy himself cultural and intellectual credibility on a massive scale and to will into existence, and lead, a group of the globalized world’s Russian-speaking elites.

My own involvement with Snob began in the summer of 2008. The phone rang at an ungodly hour, as it always seems to when Moscow is on the line. “We’re starting a club for distinguished Russians around the world,” said a chipper young woman, “and we immediately thought of contacting you.”

“Oh, wow,” I said, taken aback. “I am really flattered. Wow. No, really.”

The woman held a pause. “Because you seem to know a lot of them,” she concluded. “So we thought you’d make a good New York scout.”

I said something horribly snooty and hung up. Only this seems to have intrigued someone, not put them off, because two months later I was offered membership in the club. In another year, my wife was on the magazine’s staff. By then, Snob had become an inescapable conversation topic in my world. They seemed to have contacted everyone around me at once. Photographers, reporters, fashion designers, advertising people, poets. The weird thing was that they knew everyone. For the first time in who knows how long, Russian New York felt like a legitimate outpost of Moscow, not some sort of fun-house mirror of it. Before long, I had a column on snob.ru, waxing New York–y about things like the High Line and Woody Allen’s latest.

Have I sold out to Prokhorov? Sure I have. And not just by joining his club or working for his magazine. Simply by writing these lines, I’m helping him accomplish his trick by promoting the group he’s so bent on creating. But then I think of that picture of Prokhorov with Mayor Bloomberg and Jay-Z, and it brings to mind a similar photo, one that I apparently committed to memory. It’s a seventies shot of Baryshnikov lolling on a Studio 54 couch, sandwiched between Steve Rubell and Mick Jagger. In most respects, Prokhorov and Baryshnikov couldn’t be more different. But seeing the two Russians flanked by such iconic New York figures had the same effect on me. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit—maybe even a little snobby. But both pictures helped make me feel like I belong in New York, like my life, and those of my countrymen, is bigger somehow than it was back home. Isn’t that why we all seem to end up here?

See Also:
A Selective Survey of
Russians in New York

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