What is an oligarch and what do they do?

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown Russian oligarchs and their extravagant wealth into the spotlight, but who are they, what do they do and how did they become so rich?

Russia is home to about 30 super-rich, and between 100 and 300 very rich men, who run the country’s natural resources, industries and services.

Traditionally, an oligarchy is a form of government made up of a small group that exercises control for corrupt and selfish purposes. The word ‘oligarchy’ comes from the Greek, oligarkhes – meaning ‘few to rule or command’.

The first Russian oligarchs appeared in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they bought privatized companies in industries such as banking, oil and gas, agriculture and mining.

And it made them incredibly wealthy.

Dr Anna Grosman, a Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at Loughborough University London, has researched Russian politics and the power balance between the government and business.

She said: “Oligarchs are businessmen, only men - no women, with connections to the Russian government.

“Oligarch-owned firms are often structured as pyramids or cross-shareholdings and that's why it's been extremely hard to uncover who owns what in order to be able to freeze their assets through sanctions imposed by the Western countries on Russian oligarchs.

“Essentially after the late 2000s, when Putin decided that (the oligarchs) should stay out of politics, they left the political scene and essentially the deal was that the Kremlin would also stay largely out of their businesses and leave them alone.

She added: "Of course, given that their assets are often co-owned by the Russian government their interests are very closely interlinked.”

Dr Grosman’s comments are from the latest episode of Besieged: A podcast about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

In it, she describes how targeting the richest men in Russia with sanctions could derail Putin’s advances into Ukraine.

Last month, the UK Government announced that it would freeze the assets of seven Russian oligarchs in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

These ultra-wealthy businessmen, including former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, were also prohibited from dealing with UK individuals and banned from travelling into, or remaining in, Britain.

The sanctions were designed to ensure Putin was unable to fund his invasion by crippling Russia’s economy.

Among the targets were the heads of oil and gas companies, such as Gazprom and Rosneft, as well as the bosses of two important Russian banks.

Dr Grosman said: “Some of these assets are co-owned by the government, so sanctions would have direct implications for the (Russian) government's finances.

"The majority of their profits are essentially going to government budgets and have direct implications and disruption for the budget.

"So, this is one of the key sanctions that the UK government has imposed."

To listen to the episode, visit Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, TuneIn+Alexa and YouTube.

Besieged is produced by Dane Vincent and hosted by Peter Warzynski and invites experts from Loughborough University to discuss wide-ranging issues linked to the war in Ukraine.


What is an oligarch? / E4 - Besieged: A podcast about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

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Besieged: A podcast about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, TuneIn+Alexa and YouTube.

Please credit 'Loughborough University', where possible.

For further video/audio support, please contact d.t.vincent@lboro.ac.uk


Notes for editors

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