Roman Abramovich was thirty-four years old—baby-faced, vigorous, already one of Russia’s richest oligarchs—when he did something seemingly inexplicable. The year was 2000. Abramovich, an orphan and a college dropout turned Kremlin insider, had amassed a giant fortune by taking control of businesses that once belonged to the Soviet state. He owned nearly half of the oil company Sibneft, and much of the world’s second-biggest producer of aluminum. A man of cosmopolitan tastes, he favored Chinese cuisine and holidays in the South of France. But now, he announced, he was going to relocate to the remote Chukotka region, a desolate Arctic hellscape, where he would run for governor.
Chukotka, which is some thirty-seven hundred miles from Moscow, is comically inhospitable. The winds are fierce enough to blow a grown dog off its feet. When Abramovich arrived, the human population was meagre, and struggling with poverty and alcoholism. After he was elected governor—he got ninety-two per cent of the vote, his closest challenger being a local man who herded reindeer—he was confronted with the baying of his new constituents: “When will we have fuel? When will we have meat?” There was no Chinese food in Chukotka.
“People here don’t live, they just exist,” Abramovich marvelled. Shy by nature, he was not a natural politician. He pumped plenty of his own money into the region, but appeared to derive no pleasure from his new job. Nor could he explain, to anyone’s satisfaction, what he was doing there. When a reporter from the Wall Street Journal trekked to Chukotka to pose the question, Abramovich claimed that he was “fed up” with making money. The Journal speculated that he was working an angle—did he have a lead on some untapped natural resource beneath the tundra? Abramovich acknowledged that his own friends “can’t understand” why he made this move. They “can’t even guess,” he said. [Continue reading…]