Working for oligarch Russians throws up some big surprises. Sometimes it just makes you throw up. But I suppose vodka does that anywhere in the world. I know how clichéd this might sound. But living in any new country is always an investigation into cliché. So, Russia – communism and oligarchs, caviar and bread, matryoshka and kalashnikovs – a contradictory, immutable place. Nothing more contradictory than the oligarch: elusive and ostentatious, explicit and endlessly subtle, they are difficult to get your head around. I certainly didn’t. However, my time working for them gave me some insight into what life is like inside the curious world of Russia’s richest.
Russian oligarchs are extraordinary for the fact of their swift rise. They are a sharp challenge to the egalitarian hopes many of us still hold for humankind. In the bun fight after Perestroika, there arose a grab-fest that had no time for the greater good. Those who got the most have kept the most, and this is looked on with a soulful fatalism by many of the working and middle-class Russians I met. Mal a dyet, they’d say. Well done them. The foreigner must adapt to their position in the new hierarchy. As a hireling to a wealthy Russian, you are definitely not on top, but as a middle-class European you are still considered worthy of some kind of respect.
The hasty Babel-like erection of this new global model was perfectly illustrated by a summer stay teaching the children of a St Petersburg industrialist. Upon arrival, I was shown to my living quarters in the guest house. Inside a pleasant wooden building I was given a room with a huge window overlooking a pretty lake. This is not luxury, I was informed. But a nice normal house, for the normal people. Next door to me the Russian nanny slept in a smaller bedroom whose normal-sized window looked over a wall. In the small flat above us slept the nanny and housekeeper from the Philippines. They had to stand on a chair to look out of their tiny windows. Above all of us, in a sweaty, windowless attic, slept the three groundsmen from Uzbekistan. Our pay was tied to our nationality, our status directly related to the size of our windows. It goes without saying that I was expected to work the least hours and was paid the most by far.
After arriving in Moscow to work for an arms dealer, I found myself at a family birthday party. I had been told this would take place at a smart local restaurant. Naturally, I was dreading the awkwardness of being a mute lemon at a family meal. Nothing could have prepared me for my arrival at a mini-version of the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party. There was a red carpet, flashing photographers, music so loud that the children’s eyeballs were trembling and a troupe of dancers dressed as silver ants. This was my first proper look at the oligarch at play. The men wore the ubiquitous tailored shirt, rolled to the elbow to show off the muscled forearm and Rolex. Women were dressed for a sophisticated ballroom dancing competition, professionally made-up faces giving some ‘blue steel’. The children were dressed exactly like their parents and there was gel and make-up everywhere. I was wearing a dress that was deemed ‘nice’ according to my eight-year-old pupil, but decidedly ‘not beautiful’.
Upon arrival, I was shown to a table to sit with the family, including the stalwart Soviet grandparents. Awkward small talk (I spoke little Russian, they little English) was soon ameliorated by several flasks of vodka. Plates of food kept being put on the table, and I politely ate my fill of creamy Russian salads, salty cheeses and smoked fish. ‘You must not eat too much,’ someone said to me. ‘We have not started the meal yet.’ I put my pickle-loaded fork down and looked at him in confusion. As if on cue, waiters surged from the kitchen carrying a trawler’s worth of seafood. ‘Just have a taste and then move on to the next,’ a stolid matron informed me, after seeing me struggling with a lobster claw. Indeed, she was right. No sooner had one course arrived then a tidal sweep would occur and the next would take its place. Fish, fowl and mammal all emerged in every style imaginable. I soon stopped trying to eat. This was a meal that made a statement far beyond food. Another time I sat in an Italian restaurant and watched an employer order two of everything on the menu.
There are many toasts at any Russian party. Vodka is served in glass flasks and downed like water. It creates a robust drunkenness that is always fortified by snacks. As I watched the glasses raised and solemn toasts uttered, I was occasionally reminded of the story of a diplomat about to have dinner with Stalin. He was advised by his aides to eat a pat of butter before leaving the embassy. The dinner ensued and to Stalin’s confusion the diplomat managed to remain standing despite all the vodka and toasts. He just about managed to say a polite goodnight before making his excuses and escaping to a loo to be sick. Thankfully, I never had to resort to butter, as being a woman, I was expected to stick to champanski. The men drink and sing and sway, while the women mince and pout.
As most people know, Russians do not mince their words, and teaching Russian children English really highlights the amount of utter guff we speak. ‘Excuse me, would you very much mind handing me that pencil… thank you so much’ literally translates as ‘give me pencil’. This is why English people think Russians are rude and why Russians think English people are a bit wishy-washy. One child I taught actually corrected me when I complimented her work. ‘This is not good work,’ she said, looking at me as though I were an idiot. ‘I did not try at all.’
For the first time in my life I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what someone was thinking. They simply tell you. This piercing directness (it stings!) shows up a cultural flaw of the West. Our famous manners are built on lies. The Russians are on to this and even have a phrase, Americanskaya ublika, – the American smile – to describe the hypocrisy of our niceness.
My friend’s young charge was quite a tricky child who had managed to reduce all her previous teachers to gibbering wrecks (bar the previous Italian tutor who had been fired after she’d managed to seduce another wealthy resident of the building, by doing evening laps of the Olympic pool in a tiny bikini). Every morning my friend would arrive at work to join the family for breakfast. The mother would be making pancakes (she didn’t actually prepare the batter, just ladleled it into the hot pan) wearing a revealing silk mini dressing gown, watched over by her father-in-law. ‘All very weird,’ my friend reported. The mostly absent husband eventually left the beautiful pancake-ladling wife for a young Azerbaijani girl. ‘Very fat,’ I was informed by another employer who knew the family well, ‘and from Azerbaijan,’ she sniffed, as she made a face like she’d found something unpleasant in her Chanel handbag.
During my time in St Petersburg, I would accompany the driver to a snazzy supermarket called Babylon Super, which had tiny trolleys adorned with tall red flags. I’m not sure why. There was something tender about seeing this leather-jacketed heavy, who had fought a darkly violent war in Chechnya, wheeling the tiny cart around the marble aisles. One day, I came home to a house I worked in and found the Versaillesque fountain in the garden full of crayfish. ‘There are crayfish in the fountain,’ I said, slightly unnecessarily, to one of the girls who worked in the house. ‘Sir wants them in the banya,’ she sighed. I had a David Lynch image of a sauna, with the crayfish and oligarchs sweating it out together, until I realised that they were being kept as a future snack.
The famous Russian sauna is a tradition that has much to recommend it. Every week I would visit a local one hired by a group of friends for a few hours on a Sunday night. It was the perfect way to sweat out a weekend’s worth of vodka. Soviet in style, it also worked as a brothel, and when I look back at the plunge pool, I feel a wave of horror at the standard of hygiene. Still, I survived, even thrived: not much compares to the rejuvenation that comes from being whipped with birch branches in an oven. Complement that with snacks of dried fish and beer and you have the whole caboodle. That is, unless you compare the experience of an oligarch’s banya. Think specialised masseuses, opulent food, being scrubbed with various substances until even your soul shines. One particularly awkward memory surfaces: sitting almost naked with my employer in a silent sauna while watching a woman pole dance on a floor-to-ceiling television.
One tutor I met had begun an affair with the young and very beautiful wife of an elderly and corrupt politician. The man had lost interest in his new wife and preferred spending time with his rejected old wife in Moscow. Models are all well and good but sometimes a man just needs a comforting bowl of bortsch. The poor/rich girl was bereft and took a shine to the sparky tutor who had landed in her home. They bonded over the little boy, and things soon became hot and heavy, ending up with them finally giving in to their passion in the nursery against a giant stuffed panda. ‘Best sex I ever had,’ he told me. And then, looking quite worried, ‘I think I love her’. I didn’t want to alarm the guy but it did seem likely that he might end up in the Moskva wearing a pair of concrete boots.
I saw a mass of dead flowers being carried out of an unvisited room in the London ‘crash pad’ (read: Number One Berkeley Square) of the man who owns Smirnoff vodka, only to be immediately replaced with another array of immaculate bunches. ‘What’s that room used for?’ I asked my pupil. ‘Nothing,’ he shrugged, ‘No one even goes in there.’
Those flowers were carried by someone, of course, and these silent workers are the unsung heroes of every wealthy household. The army of women and men who raise the babies and keep the homes and gardens scarily immaculate and who travel the world but do not get to see any of it. They are generally treated as invisible unless they put a foot wrong. I have never felt lazier than when comparing my own understanding of work against theirs.
Oligarchs don’t like to lose a member of staff. One Filipino member of staff was being threatened with deportation. In the process of applying for her visa, she somehow had her passport stolen by an unlucky swindler. The forces of hell were sent forth with immediate effect, and the hapless crook was ‘given a lesson’ in Gorky Park that ‘he will not forget’. It was unfortunate for this man that he’d robbed the servant of an oligarch who owned a private security firm. The whole thing was appalling and quite exciting and summed up my mother’s favourite adage, ‘If you’re gonna play with the big boys, you’re going to get hurt.’
On a gentler tack, one little boy that I taught on and off during his long summers staying with a brisk English family in Wiltshire had almost entirely disappeared into a gaming world sustained by an awesome level of violence. The poor child had been literally left to his own devices for so long that he had trouble separating out the comforting world of online terror in which he was building a life, and the strange cultural desert of England. Travelling between jam tarts and lemon squash and shooting strippers in the head on Grand Theft Auto, he was, understandably, struggling to make sense of reality. One day I managed to succeed in getting him to come on a walk with me. He stared at the grass and birch trees as though he had just unwillingly ingested psilocybin.
In the lead-up to a three-week job for Moscow mega-oligarch Oleg Deripaska, I found myself on an email thread with 12 adults seriously discussing the ‘strategy’ for the SATs of a 12-year-old. There was a feverish sense of wasps around a honey jar. In the event, the work was of limited importance (the child was perfectly capable of passing her exams) and in between rounds of hangman, she and I discussed career options. The doe-eyed and slightly withdrawn child had decided that she wanted to be a teacher ‘because then you could do something helpful for other kids’. It strikes me that almost all the pupils I ‘taught’ (I use the term loosely) had a desire to do something helpful (make documentaries about orangutans in Borneo, start an NGO, be a nurse) that sat in direct opposition to the path their parents had set them on, and which they by proxy also wanted. ‘I’d like to work as a marine biologist, but I’m also gonna run my dad’s steel mining company. Can I do both?’ ‘Yes,’ I nodded.
Given that these kids are likely to be tomorrow’s high rollers, I hope, for all our sakes, they can do both.