The basketball arena at Moscow State University was packed with chanting, clapping fans. Flags were waved, the Russian national anthem was sung and cheerleaders in fishnet stockings gyrated provocatively. The noise became almost deafening when the guest of honour, former Chicago Bulls all-star Scottie Pippen, strolled to centre court and thanked his hosts for the invitation to play in the celebrity game.
Mr. Pippen, one of the NBA's most decorated athletes, wasn't the only remarkable name on the celebrity squad cobbled together on the last Sunday in January. At 6-foot-7, the same height as Mr. Pippen, another lanky figure towered over his teammates - Mikhail Prokhorov.
Most oligarchs are avoiding public appearances as their rubles, euros and dollars disappear like vodka at a Russian funeral wake. Not Mr. Prokhorov, the president of Onexim Group, one of Russia's largest investment funds, and chairman and 30 per cent owner of Polyus Gold, the country's top gold producer. He's still worth billions (of dollars, that is, not devalued rubles), making him the stand-out winner among the depleted ranks of billionaires as the recession shreds the Russian economy.
Mr. Prokhorov's rise, relatively speaking, and the fall of most of the other oligarchs is leading to a profound reordering of the financial and corporate power structure in one of the world's biggest economies.
As fortunes vanish and as the recession goes from mild to punishing, Corporate Russia seems on the verge of a seismic shift.
For a decade, the success of the oligarchs and their companies was more than a Russian economic and financial miracle. Their wealth and power was felt everywhere, from London's high-end housing market, whose values were propelled to absurd levels by the oligarchs' damn-the-price tag spending, to enormous chunks of the North American steel industry, which the Russians made an extension of their own. Through their mining and oil and gas holdings, the oligarchs established outposts throughout Africa and Asia. Imperial Russia was back in business, especially in the resources game, competing with the best that the North Americans and Western Europeans could throw at them.
Now, Russia's economy has been hard hit by the global crisis, as prices for energy and other commodities have plummeted. The ruble has fallen to its lowest point in more than a decade, despite efforts by the Kremlin to halt its spiral. The government predicts the economy will contract by 0.2 per cent this year - a number some economists say doesn't factor in low resource prices.
Once-powerful oligarchs such as Oleg Deripaska, who spread his tentacles into Canada with an ill-fated investment in auto parts giant Magna International Inc., are fighting for their survival. And that means entire Russian industries will come under new control, led by new executives and owners with different ideas, allegiances and strategies.
As the restructuring gathers momentum, the Russian government may emerge as the biggest oligarch of them all. Russian state loans are being used to save or prop up the hardest-hit players. A slow-motion re-nationalization seems to be under way, though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claims the state has no intention of rolling back the clock to the Soviet era by owning and micromanaging the economy.
"The oligarch mess is an opportunity for the state to get some control of these companies," said analyst Michael Kavanagh of Moscow's Uralsib Capital.
For the West, Russia's industrial overhaul is a high-stakes game. As the oligarchs fail, and as others, or the government itself, take their place, tens of billions of dollars of foreign loans, investments and joint ventures will be affected in some way, perhaps for the worse.
Empires under siege
Mr. Prokhorov loves basketball and played well. He made almost half of his foul shots and graciously avoided using his height and skills to deprive his shorter, chunkier teammates of ball time. While he didn't grin constantly like Mr. Pippen, he clearly enjoyed himself.