A quarter of a century ago, when I started writing for this magazine, I was the Russian. Along with the sense of exclusivity it afforded, that simple tag gave its owner a clear run through the 1980’s and 90’s on both sides of the Atlantic. I was the only Russian in any crowd, whether as taciturn as the Scotch-drenched habitués of a club in St. James’s or as boisterous as the desert sheiks losing their camels in a casino in Curzon Street. I had gone to Yale, retched with the best of them in the Rockingham, reviewed books for the Wall Street Journal, published English poems in Encounter, drunk ombre with descendants of Venetian doges, eaten macaroni with Sicilian gangsters, argued about communism with Taki, and eavesdropped on Russian hookers who had been working Chelsea long before the first New Russian businessman dipped his as-yet-unmanicured toe in the Thames.
At least as far as social life went, in the new millennium my easy eminence began to totter. Chelsea had become a household Russian word. The fashion model Natalia Vodyanova had become a lady. Evgeny Lebedev had been launched as the Russian face of the British glossy Tatler, and reciprocated by launching Geordie Greig as the English face of the London Evening Standard, which his dad had bought from Lord Rothermere of the Mail. Through circumstances over which she had not had much control—such as acquaintance with Roman Abramovich—a fair maid by the name of Dasha Zhukova became a hotly discussed patroness of the arts. The Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly, where Dr. Watson first came across Sherlock Holmes, was in Russian hands. Olga Kurylenko was on every Englishman’s salivating tongue.
A new hybrid was in evidence, and members of this mutant breed could condescend to the New Russians of old as much as I ever did. Miss Zhukova’s father, in whose company I often caroused when Aleksandr Zhukov was based in London in the late 1990’s, was a classic example of the old species, making up with ursine gregariousness what he lacked in gentility and sophistication. To Western eyes, those old New Russians were uncouth. Their wives or mistresses might tell a Kelly from a Birkin, but the men spoke no European languages and only a mangled English, and when they mentioned Harrods you could have sworn they meant the bloke in Judea who had upset all the parents.
Now at last the new hybrid has been given an official appellation, courtesy of a monumental multimedia juggernaut financed by the richest of the Forbes rich in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov, and managed by Kommersant creator Vladimir Yakovlev. At the heart of the multimillion-dollar venture is Snob, a club with an online presence for subscribers at www.snob.ru, whose current membership of 283 men and women expands at an average rate of one or two per month, and a thick literary review, somewhat along the lines of Vanity Fair, bearing the same name. By bringing together the most independent-minded and articulate representatives of what used to be called the Russian intelligentsia with the most cultivated and politically benign exponents of new Russian wealth, Snob wants to provide the new species, which it has christened “Global Russians,” with both a natural habitat and a luxurious showcase.
Suffice it to say that every member of Snob is assigned one of some twenty staff amanuenses, Boswell-like bloggers who help to keep the club’s site alive with his or her worldly doings. The Evening Standard’s Lebedev has joined, as has Vasily Sopromadze, owner of Holmes’ watering hole in Piccadilly. A few months ago the photographer Gusov and I, both indecently hung over, met the London representative of Snob in an outdoor Belgravia café famous for the loucheness of its clientele.
“Timon of Athens,” the young and handsome Global Russian introduced himself, and it was true. His name really was Timon Afinsky. Gusov and I felt like the Painter and the Poet in Shakespeare’s play, desperately angling for advantage until shouted at in plain Russian that we had been asked to join the club. Some days later, a film crew descended on Gusov’s bachelor pad in Gerald Road, once the studio of Sir Noel Coward, to record an obligatory interview for the Snob site with two stalwarts of the global diaspora, absent from Russia for a combined total of some 60 years and once again indecently hung over in the best tradition of whatever intelligent-sia we eagerly represented.
Whatever social storms the future may hold in store for the nattering nabobs of positivism in the Kremlin, it is pretty clear that the few hundred travelers who, like myself before them, have in their youth detached themselves from the mother ship to seek wisdom and fulfillment in the outer space of London and Madrid, Bombay and Rio, can finally declare themselves a breed apart. They are not going anywhere, because they have been on the move from the moment the Soviet border became permeable, and in the event of a political emergency each of them can at least count on being known as eminently clubbable to newspaper editors from Adelaide to Zimbabwe.
Snob is their charter of self-determination. Like White émigrés in Paris in the 1920’s, they are here to tell the West their story.