Rich Russians meet reality in fantasy games
MOSCOW – Floating through the snow in their tinted-windowed SUVs, shrouded in baubles and whispered fears of losing it all, the Russian rich sometimes sense that their imaginations are not as outlandish as their offshore bank accounts.So they turn to Sergei Knyazev. They call him the “producer.”Knyazev loves saying that; he even embossed it on his business card. But he’s really more of a psychologist-turned-opportunist, ready to assist “the overburdened rich relieve the pressure of money and its obligations.”They just don’t know how to relax,” he says. “I help them. I’m outrageously expensive. These people don’t trust anything that’s not expensive.”This is Russia, home to an increasing number of billionaires and unbridled egos – a neurotic, champagne-scented landscape of black suits, diamonds, gadgets and guns all loose out there amid the moneyed classes with their big dogs and security men.Knyazev began conventionally enough, arranging parties and banquets several years ago for the ice-sculpture-and-caviar circuit.”I now do entertainment of all kinds, from the pretty exotic to the really indecent. What do you want to talk about?”The really indecent, of course, but let’s go slow.”Once I had a client who twice proposed to a girl and each time she turned him down. He didn’t want to be rejected a third time, so he came to me. He was very wealthy, old Russian money. The girl’s name was Olga. I found out where she lived. It was a new house, and the grounds outside had not yet been landscaped. So one night, while she was sleeping, we turned it into a big garden with beautiful flowers spelling out her name. Big letters. The `O’ was so big that you could fit two cars inside of it … In the morning the boyfriend was standing in the garden with an orchestra. They played a serenade … She looked out the window. Three months later, they married.”Charming, but how about something with a bit more edge?Knyazev smiles, a mischievous glimmer of the teeth.”I make up games. Sometimes I dress up my clients like bums and take them to the rail station. They have to beg. Whoever has the most coins in the morning wins,” he says.”The wives of these businessmen wanted their own games. So we had some of them work as waitresses in a diner. Whoever gets the most tips wins. Sometimes they’ll go as striptease dancers and see who comes away with the most cash.”He looks down, scratches his goatee, reflects: “Some very rich women want to play the part of a prostitute. I organize that. Of course, they don’t go all the way. We stop it before that … But, yes, some would go all the way.”He adds: “Why do they want to do these things? Deep down they’re driven by a fear that one day they might end up a beggar, a prostitute, because for many of them, their businesses aren’t that clean.”The guy is a wily bit of flash, a symbol of the new Russia.Knyazev came of age, economically speaking, in the late 1980s, when then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev called for reforms known as perestroika. It was a time of cigar smoke and dreams. Knyazev opened a student cafe, a private school and an advertising agency in Siberia. He later ventured to Moscow, finding the Empire of Passion strip club and hiring a former Bolshoi ballerina to teach dance steps.The thing about Knyazev, 44, is that you wonder where he draws the border between fantasy and reality. He runs with the rich, but there are no chandeliers, no Botticelli knockoffs in his chamber, which resembles a dentist’s office – long hallway, closing doors, muffled voices. His pinstriped suit is subtle, but not Armani. You get the sense of being lured into a web of meticulously constructed origami.”I know Sergei Knyazev and I’ve heard his stories about some bizarre games he invents for rich businessmen. What can I tell you?” says Konstantin N. Borovoi, a founder of Moscow’s commodities exchange and chairman of the Party of Economic Freedom.”There is no way to verify that because he won’t disclose the names of his clients. But really, some of his tales are hard to believe. All I can say is that Knyazev is surely not lacking in imagination.”Finding out who’s who, or, more important, who’s doing what, is tough anyway. This is a nation where credit cards were decades late in arriving, where money was smuggled out or funneled to foreign banks. Financial searches today often lead into mazes, and many firms rely on criminal background checks and the Web site Kompromat.ru (“Compromising Material”), a thicket of rumors and gossip about the rich and powerful.”I will not reveal the names of my clients,” Knyazev says.His potential roster brims with possibility.Russia’s richest person, Oleg Deripaska, a 39-year-old aluminum tycoon, is worth $21.2 billion, according to Finans magazine.Seven of the country’s top 10 billionaires were born in the 1960s, mostly young men who found fortune a decade or so ago in a mesmerizing privatization boom that mixed rough glamour, hidden bank accounts and brazen entrepreneurs, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who ran afoul of the Kremlin and today sits in a Siberian jail convicted of tax evasion and fraud.These days, new money seeks old-fashioned respect. Bankers still get gunned down and businessmen disappear, but the tenor is decidedly softer as a facade of legitimacy has been constructed around oil and gas companies, mining firms and other industries. Still, conspicuous consumption rules; the country’s average monthly income is about $330, but that doesn’t hinder the rich from their bejeweled eccentricities.Like Knyazev, Irina Volskaya is accustomed to extravagant requests.Volskaya heads the Russian office of Quintessentially, a worldwide concierge, make-it-happen service. With bronze-colored boots and a cameo ring with matching earrings, Volskaya is a study in calm and confidence, a woman used to dealing with big wallets and short tempers.”Once a Russian guy called on Dec. 26,” she says. “He was having a party and wanted 150 silver-plated pigs delivered to celebrate the new year. This was a problem because everything was sold out. But this was not the only problem. He also wanted 150 live pigs to give to each of his guests. Finding 150 little pink pigs on Dec. 26 is a struggle … We have no limits, though. One of our rules is never say no.”Then there was the millionaire in the plane.”The client calls: `You know I’m in my private jet just over a European country and the airport is closed. Please help me.’ But really, what do you say? The airport is closed for everybody. But we did help him. One person in one country called another person in another country. It’s all about connections.”Knyazev doesn’t like to be outdone.His favorite tale is based on the movie “The Game,” in which Michael Douglas plays a very rich man with a hollow life. His brother orders him a fantasy, a psychological thriller of a game that once started can’t be controlled or predicted. Knyazev’s game involved a construction magnate, planted drugs, a false arrest, actors, police cars, a jail, a meeting at the Kremlin and a bogus letter written by the queen of England. The cost: $300,000.Is Knyazev telling the truth? Is he not?That’s the strange, beguiling beauty of the new Russia.”My country, I must say, is rich in personality. Our people have always been interesting and original,” Knyazev says. “And now comes the epoch when such personalities can realize themselves.”
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