The news of Putin owning a collection of wristwatches worth about £500,000 made a brief splash in the British press. Much joy was found in drawing comparisons between that little treasure and Col. Putin’s official salary of £72,000 a year.
The comparison is spurious: it’s like comparing apples and condominiums. Since Soviet times the worst curse known to Russians has been ‘May you live on your salary only!’ In light of that folk wisdom, half a million quid in Swiss and German timepieces should be weighed not against Putin’s salary but against his reported 4.5% holding in the world’s largest gas producer Gazprom, his 37% of Surgutneftegaz and, by proxy, 50% of Russia’s largest oil trader Guvnor.
Do some quick sums, and Col. Putin’s combined wealth nears £100 billion, comfortably making him the world’s richest man. Suddenly, his timepieces begin to look the way a £10 genuine imitation Swatch would look to you and me.
Commenting on the good colonel’s affection for flaunting his wealth on his wrist, British reporters left out some local colour, a lacuna I shall now try to fill. The Russians, you see, are given to extremes, and this applies to the behaviour of their nouveaux riches. Everywhere people who fall into this category tend to live by the first commandment of poor taste: if you got it, flaunt it. But the Russians outdo Western nouveaux, and Westerners in general, in this character trait, as they do in most others. They swing within a much wider emotional and behavioural amplitude than any Westerners, and any quirk is in them multiplied by 10.
So how would a Russian nouveau flaunt it? He may own any number of gaudy palaces, but he can’t take them with him when shopping in Sloane Street or, for that matter, Red Square. He may have garages filled to the gunwales with Ferraris and Bentleys, but he can’t drive them into a party. How can he then scream at the world that he has just made it?
Women have it easy. They can wrap themselves in sable or lynx, but not so tight as to conceal millions’ worth of jewels hanging off them like baubles off a Christmas tree. Thus no matter where they go, everyone will see they’ve arrived. But what are their poor rich husbands supposed to do?
In the past, rich Russian merchants solved the problem in all sorts of baroque ways. They’d light their cigars with 100-rouble notes (about £3,000 in today’s inflated cash), bust up restaurants and pay 10 times the damage, give a waiter a small fortune for the privilege of smearing his face with mustard, defecate into grand pianos. Some or most of these excesses are still practised by the oligarchic small fry, but the really big fish, and certainly leaders of the world’s second largest nuclear power, have to be a tad more temperate.
Nor can they emulate their women and wear emerald necklaces, diamond tiaras and ruby rings, at least not in public. Now you understand that a £100,000 watch, tastefully half-covered by a cuff with competing, but not clashing, cufflinks of similar value, emerges as the only option.
Half a social step down from Putin you may see such messages of human worth as prison tattoos and two-inch-long fingernails, proving to all interested parties that their proud possessor doesn’t demean himself by physical toil. But that is a matter of style only: in substance, today all of Russian society is widely and deeply criminalised, which affects not just its morality but also its aesthetics.
Yet I can say one thing for Col. Putin: unsavoury he is, but at least he has never taken monastic vows. So if he wishes to amass untold riches and display their tiny particle on his wrist, more power to him – though it’s unclear how he can grab more power, at least not until he has rebuilt the old Soviet Union de jure, not just de facto.
Alas, even some Russians who have taken such vows can’t resist wearing a fortune under their cassock cuffs. Enter Patriarch Kiril, head of the Russian Church, who was recently photographed sporting a £30,000 Breguet at a press conference. Since all Russian senior clergy have to be monks, an outcry followed, and the Patriarch’s PR men came out fighting. They accused everyone who had commented on the timepiece of Russophobia, atheism and lies. The Patriarch, they claimed, had never worn the offensive item – and as proof they showed a doctored version of the same photograph, with no watch anywhere in sight.
Alas, meticulousness not being the dominant Russian virtue, their Photoshop artist overlooked an important detail: the reflection of the watch on the tabletop in front of His Beatitude. The picture became supernatural, as befits a prelate: only the shadow of an object, not the object itself, was in evidence.
The scandal became more virulent, and juicier details came to light. It turned out the monastic gentleman shares his palatial apartment with a woman first identified as his sister, then his cousin, then his distant relation, a progression that was bound to lead to salacious speculation.
Moreover, the Patriarch and his sister-cousin-relation recently filed, and won, a lawsuit against their downstairs neighbour. The chap had had some renovations done to his flat, and the resulting dust allegedly caused $1.7-million worth of damage to the Patriarch’s quarters. The lawsuit raised many questions, but one was particularly pointed: how could a monk who has taken a vow of poverty have amassed so much property that even a small damage to it is estimated in seven digits?
As I drew a distinction between the Patriarch and Col. Putin, it would now be only fair to point out a similarity. Putin’s rank was earned in the KGB, of which Kiril has been a lifelong agent, complete with a codename. That criminal organisation has converged with the criminal underworld to rule Russia in its own image. And power always cries out for its symbols, those communicating unassailable authority. In the past, that function was performed by raspberry-coloured stripes on KGB officers’ epaulettes. Not it’s watches.
So if you bump into an obviously well-heeled Russian at a party, ask him the time. He’ll be only too happy to oblige.