This week Russian oligarchs like Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich will have yet another opportunity to spend astronomic sums of money buying art. In May alone, Abramovich spent a total of £60.2 million on two paintings – one by Lucien Freud, the other by Francis Bacon. Sotheby’s auction house is holding a three-day auction of paintings by top Russian artists, including all-time favourite Marc Chagall, and noted modernist Natalia Goncharova, many of them from the period leading up to the October 1917 revolution.
Apparently the previous, long-term owners of these works could no longer afford the insurance premiums as the price of art rises at unprecedented rates, which is why they are now on the market. A Sotheby’s spokeswoman said that prices have gone from £20,000 a few years ago to between £200,000 to £500,000 in just a few years. Russian art offers a superb status symbol for the new class of billionaires who preen at the top of Russian society, as well as sending their children to Britain’s top public schools. In addition, art has come to be seen as safe investment at a time when property prices have become unstable, and the global economy lurches into deeper crisis.
Over the weekend, Abramovich berthed his £152 million yacht on the city centre riverside in St Petersburg so he could join politicians and super-rich oil and mineral company executives meeting at St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. He will have heard Russia’s new president Dimitry Medvedev, who was inaugurated last month, warn that the world might be in the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In a speech aimed at impressing Russian nationalists, Medvedev said his country could play an ever bigger role in the global economy. What he really meant was that it would be on Russia’s terms. For example, BP’s giant Russian venture, TNK-BP, which pumps a quarter of the company’s oil, failed to reach a hoped-for deal at the St Petersburg summit. The Kremlin prevented an agreement being reached so it could satisfy nationalist pipe-dreams of making Russia into a modern super-power by insisting that non-Russian operators would be excluded. With the price of a barrel of oil soaring by $11 in one day’s trading at the end of last week, Russia’s manoeuvres are bound to increase global tensions and instability.
Significantly, the man who oversaw Russia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Anatoly Chubais, told the gathering that the Russian state could not function properly unless there was a political opposition. Chubais’ remarks were clearly a criticism of the oppressive regime set up by Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, open political opposition was virtually silenced, with many journalists and rights campaigners assassinated or jailed. Virtually all the media is under government control. Forlorn hopes that Medvedev would be different from Putin are rapidly being dashed. In fact, Medvedev is a puppet president. Before he left office, Putin switched all key powers away from the Kremlin to the office of prime minister, which he now occupies.
From within the country itself, voices are being raised against the wealth-crazed autocrats who preside over the chasm between the super rich and poor. In particular, Russia’s recent history has come back to haunt its leaders. Many were angered by Putin’s statement that no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about the Great Terror. A teacher's manual published during his presidency suggested that Stalin's actions were justified by the need to modernise the economy.
Last week, former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev called for a national museum-memorial to honour the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Gorbachev and 25 others, including poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, signed a statement announcing the initiative, saying that "the current and future generations need memory and knowledge of the repressions of the Stalin regime" which had left few families untouched. Russia’s present leaders are, however, much more interested in the price of oil – and works of art – than anything remotely connected with democracy and historical truth.