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On Becoming An Oligarch
by Michael Guinzburg

Among many other fine qualities – blonde hair, blue eyes, and legs from Murmansk to Minsk, to name just a few – my girlfriend the Russian Concussion is entirely practical.

“If you can’t write anymore,” she says, eating another piece of sushi washed down with champagne, “you must get a job.”

“Job,” I say with horror. “What kind of job?”

“Oligarch,” she says seriously. “It’s the best job there is.”

This explains what I am doing in Moscow. I’ve moved to Russia to become an oligarch. I’m a bit cloudy about what the job entails, but I’m quite sure that once I do become an oligarch the girlfriend will be happy.

I imagine future conversations with strangers.

“What do you do?” they will ask.

“Oligarch,” I will answer. “I am an oligarch.”

But wait, when I am an oligarch, I’ll be too busy spending money to answer the questions of strangers. I’ll have to hire someone to answer for me, some clever fellow – a novelist or screenwriter with writer’s block like I used to be. I will hire this clever fellow – he will be thin and hungry and he will drink too much -- but he’ll be quick with the answers.

“What does an oligarch do?” he’ll respond to the stranger’s next question. “An oligarch makes money! Makes money and spends money! The faster he makes it the faster he spends it. It’s a bit like breeding blind rabbits. Money rubs up against the money and voila: more money! Look at his shoes – hand-crafted from pampered Venezuelan ostriches! Look at his car – which one? Look at his woman!”

I was thinking all this as I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport the other day. (The Russian Concussion took an earlier flight.) I was standing in the passport control line behind an elderly couple holding Uruguayan passports. There were only two booths working. The old couple waited patiently behind ten very tall Chinese young men -- the national volleyball team I concluded. So I nipped off to sneak a cigarette in the corner with a few other unfortunate slaves to the nicotine habit – a Russian girl showing a bit too much belly, an airplane mechanic from France who rattled on about the price of cheese in Moscow. I smoked slowly, gracefully, as an oligarch should, but when I returned to the line the Uruguayan couple were in the exact same spot, and now, somehow, in front of them, instead of ten tall Chinese and their twenty fans, there were nine tall Chinese and close to three hundred of their fans.

“What happened?” I asked the kindly Uruguayan couple.

They smiled sheepishly, shook their heads regretfully, shrugged their shoulders majestically – every action seemed to say: “What can one do?”

What can one do? What can one do? I may be new to the oligarch game, I may be a bit vague about what an oligarch actually does, but I know damn well what an oligarch doesn’t do – an oligarch doesn’t stand in line!

“Excuse me,” I said to the Uruguayans. “I’ve got work to do.”

I didn’t actually shove anyone. I used hips, shoulders, two or three “excuse me’s” and a few sharp elbows to make my way to the front. I was – I am – a man on a mission, persistent… At one point a middle-aged Chinese man blocked my way and shook his head as if to say: “You’re not getting in front of me, buddy.” I wagged a finger at him and with an authoritarian tone I uttered the magic phrase from every Chinese martial arts movie I have ever seen: “My kung fu is better than your kung fu!” And in the blink of an eye, like a fast cloud rolling in from the west, I moved past him, elbowing his wife for good measure. As I said, I’m a man on a mission. In no time I made it to the front.

That’s when I smiled. And sweet miracle, the Russian woman stamping passports smiled back. She smiled! Like a brilliant rainbow after a storm, like a sign from heaven, she smiled and stamped my passport.
I grabbed my bags. I walked through the terminal. I hopped in a taxi. I negotiated a good price.

Of course, there was only one gate working and it took half-an-hour for the cab to squeeze out of the airport.

Add helicopter to the list of things I will buy when I am an oligarch. A jet, a helicopter and maybe, just for the hell of it, a Chinese volleyball team.

Published: Aug 27,2008 00:07
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