A pair of pudgy, hairy man’s hands draped over the back of an ornate chair; two gold rings; a gold watch on a bracelet a bit too tight for the wrist; amber cufflinks pulling together crisp white cuffs that also seem a touch tight. Everything in this picture connotes wealth and excess. To the Russian eye, the dark hair on the hands also connotes someone who is ethnically non-Russian: The hands might belong to a Jew, a Tartar, an Armenian or the representative of any number of other ethnic groups that, according to stereotype, have dark hair.
This picture of a generic Shylock appeared on Oct. 28 in Lenta.ru, one of Russia’s oldest online publications and arguably the best-read, whose enterprising editor in chief was replaced by a Kremlin loyalist earlier this year, causing the entire staff to walk out. The picture was used to illustrate an article headlined, “Who’s Got It Good in Russia?” The subtitle promised a breakdown of Russia’s richest entrepreneurs by ethnicity. The authors of the article took a list of the country’s 200 wealthiest businesspeople compiled by Russian Forbes magazine and attempted to classify the 199 men and one woman on it by ethnicity.
The authors acknowledged they were tackling “a delicate issue” — if only because “many people do not advertise their ethnicity and don’t talk about it.” They claimed to have conducted something akin to an investigation by combing through the lists of donors and honorary members of ethnic associations. One suspects they also conducted amateur analysis of the rich people’s surnames. The result was an infographic with the 22 ethnic groups the authors identified among the 200 entrepreneurs, with some helpful statistics, including: the cumulative worth of members of a particular ethnic group on the list, the percentage of the list the group represented and the percentage of the ethnic group in the general population.
It follows from the infographic that “Jews” (meaning Ashkenazi Jews) hold a disproportionate amount of wealth: They represent only 0.11 percent of the population, but 42 people on the list with a total of more than $122 billion to their names. Then come the ethnic Ukrainians: a mere 1.41 percent of the population but 12 percent of the list, for a total of over $70 billion. The Armenians, the Azeris, the Ingush, the Chechens and even the Arabs have all grabbed more than their fair share. Only the ethnic Russians — with over 80 percent of the population but a mere 44.5 percent of the list and a cumulative wealth of $165 billion — clearly have less than they ought to, statistically speaking.
The authors of the article specifically point to Mountain Jews — an ethnic group distinct from the Ashkenazi Jews who have historically lived in Russia and Ukraine, these are Jews from the North Caucasus — as being overrepresented among the rich: with six men (and over $10 billion) on the list when the total population of Mountain Jews in Russia, according to the piece, is 762 people. Predictably, the authors also point to ethnic Ukrainians as having too much money.
“Ethnicity has been and continues to be one of the key identifying characteristics of human beings,” the authors write, explaining the importance of their undertaking. “No less interesting is the question of the ethnic makeup of the ruling elite.” In other words, they are presenting the article as a social service and perhaps even an educational tool.
Those claims are not entirely absurd: Russia is casting about for new enemies, and the media appear to feel the need to contribute to the search. For two months now the state propaganda machine has been pulling back from the intense anti-Ukrainian rhetoric that dominated the spring and summer. In Moscow, city authorities have even painted over at least one Crimea-themed mural, replacing aggressive military images with video game characters. The rhetorical withdrawal from Ukraine probably has two goals: forestalling further Western sanctions and perhaps reversing some that have been imposed, and diverting Russians’ attention from a war that risks becoming too costly.
But toning things down has a side effect: Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating, which shot up in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine, started slipping as soon as the Kremlin agreed to a cease-fire. With oil prices down and the Russian economy threatened with stagflation, there is little Mr. Putin can do to try to boost his popularity. What lifted his numbers after a slump of several years was the war in Ukraine. To get another fix, he needs to wage another war, at least in the media. For that, Russia needs a new enemy.
Several candidates have been floated. Mr. Putin himself has made remarks that seemed to put Kazakhstan on warning and, apparently, threaten the Baltic states. The state media have also continued their onslaught on people and groups the president has termed “national-traitors,” such as human rights activists. One recent item that was widely republished even accused the “liberal opposition” of wanting the biggest Russian air carrier to fail — implying ill will for the entire country and its economy. Now Lenta.ru is providing ammunition to those who like to identify their enemies by their ethnicity.
It is impossible to say which enemy Mr. Putin will choose for the next stage of his war. Domestic enemies, however, offer some clear benefits: Going to war against your own people costs less, both in direct expenditures and in potential penalties. In addition, with the Russian economy shrinking rapidly, the wealth pie is getting smaller — and the desire to reapportion it is growing stronger. It is not a good time to be a moneyed member of an ethnic minority in Russia. Then again, it is never a good time to be a poor member of an ethnic minority there.
Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.