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The oligarch shuffle Add to ...

It's been many months since most of the other oligarchs have been able to relax like Mr. Prokhorov did on the basketball court. In a January interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the oligarch who controls Russia's ailing Sistema group of construction, telecoms and fashion businesses, said the financial crisis could eliminate as many as 40 per cent of the oligarchs.

"Most of the wealth of the oligarchs is in their companies, not with them personally," said a senior executive at one of Russia's leading steel companies. "When the companies lose, they lose."

But those who survive stand to gain. Mr. Prokhorov can credit lucky timing. Last spring, just before the Russian resources sector imploded, he sold his 25 per cent stake in Norilsk, the world's biggest nickel producer, to Rusal, the aluminum giant controlled by Mr. Deripaska. Mr. Prokhorov is now reportedly sitting on about $10-billion (U.S.) of cash.

Swamped with debt, Mr. Deripaska is fighting for his financial life while Mr. Prokhorov scours the wreckage for bargains. A few months ago he paid $500-million for 50 per cent of Renaissance Capital. The price valued the Russian investment bank at three-quarters less than Renaissance had valued itself a year earlier.

The empire-threatening margin calls and losses now engulfing figures such as Mr. Deripaska stand in stark contrast with the glitz of their ascent only a few short years ago. The wealth, power and extravagance of Russia's elite businessmen - the three dozen or so oligarchs who bought, bludgeoned and beguiled their way to the top of the corporate pyramid since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 - was almost unbelievable.

No one knew how to toss money around like them. Banker and art collector Pyotr Aven equipped his English mansion with a nuclear bunker. Roman Abramovich, who made his fortunes in oil and steel, bought the Chelsea Football Club and launched an armada of superyachts; reportedly more than 150 metres long, his newest maritime palace, Eclipse, will make your average navy frigate look like a dinghy. Billionaire Suleyman Kerimov had a fondness for the fastest cars. In late 2006, he suffered severe injuries when he totalled his Ferrari Enzo in southern France. The passenger, a gorgeous Russian TV presenter who was only slightly injured, was not his wife.

Last summer, in a classic case of top-of-the-market buying, a company controlled by fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev paid about $100-million for Donald Trump's 60,000-square-foot Palm Beach mansion. And then there was Mr. Prokhorov. Dubbed Russia's most eligible bachelor, he was detained by French police a year ago on suspicion of procuring Russian prostitutes for his buddies at the Courcheval ski resort (he was released without charge).

The average Russian has never liked the oligarchs. Their extreme wealth, combined with the general suspicion that some of them looted their way to billionaire status, has created resentment among workers. Former president Boris Yeltsin created an unholy alliance with Russia's emerging business elite. They bankrolled his 1996 re-election; in exchange, they moved to the front of the privatization queues and bagged entire industries at knock-down prices.

When Vladimir Putin, now Prime Minister, was campaigning for the presidency in 2000, he said the oligarchs, as they had become known, "will cease to exist as a class" under his leadership. Russia's then-richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was delivered to a Siberian prison after his conviction for tax evasion and fraud. His oil giant, Yukos, was dismantled and sold off. Other fat cats who got on Mr. Putin's wrong side, among them media baron Boris Berezovsky, went into exile.

But the oligarchs were also instrumental in overhauling Russia's decrepit economy. Big companies were beaten into shape and transformed into national champions. Before the Russian stock market collapsed in the autumn, a couple of them were on the verge of international stardom. Take Norilsk. Born in the 1920s, the company nearly collapsed in the mid-1990s when it was incapable of even paying its workers. It was privatized in 1997 and transformed by Mr. Prokhorov and his then-partner Vladimir Potanin.

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