The Russian Samovar, a recent evening, 10 p.m. Green-shaded lamps throw unappetizing light on platefuls of chicken Kiev; the theater across the street has just disgorged the Jersey Boys crowd. The first of the restaurant’s two floors is hosting a “writers’ cabaret” sponsored by a Moscow-based magazine called Snob. At the white grand piano gifted by Mikhail Baryshnikov, writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is belting out a Russian rendition of “Blue Canary.” Venture capitalist Alex Fridlyand, novelist Lara Vapnyar, and software mogul Stepan Pachikov look on between bites. On the second floor, in an unrelated celebration, half the masthead of Moscow’s anti-Putin newspaper Novaya Gazeta (in town for an award) is getting soused with the daughter of the late émigré novelist Sergei Dovlatov. At the upstairs bar, Moscow publisher Andrew Paulson is schmoozing with PR man Ilya Merenzon. A few feet away, n+1 editor Kostya Gessen—you may know him as Keith—and his girlfriend, Emily Gould, are chatting with Very Short List editor Alex Abramovich. Samovar’s owner, Roman Kaplan, bisects the crowd with a carafe of cranberry vodka. By the end of the night he will have drunk a dozen shots of it himself.
The total conflicts of interest I have counted in the above scene: nine. I have worked for three of these people, tried to curry promotional favor with two, publicly feuded with three more, and competed for a woman with one, and that’s not counting all the free vodka from Roman. Such is the very essence of the Russian experience in New York: high-end striving mixed with Appalachian incest.
Then again, it all pales before the main, unspoken bias permeating both floors of the restaurant. Almost everyone at the Samovar tonight owes a little something—from a steady salary to a bite of the chicken to something more abstract—to a man who isn’t here. He is the one footing the night’s bill through Snob—a relatively new entity, set to launch its first New York marketing campaign this fall, that is both a private club uniting some of New York’s most ambitious Russian arrivistes and, in its magazine iteration, one of the world’s most lavishly funded editorial projects. He’s bought us all, to some extent, and a chunk of New York to go with us. At this point, I suspect, you even know his name.
When Mikhail Prokhorov—gangly, boyish, 45, and a billionaire seventeen times over—announced his purchase of the New Jersey Nets and a majority stake of their yet-unbuilt arena at the Atlantic Yards, he leaped into the city’s collective consciousness with a speed unusual for any foreigner, let alone a Russian. The Nets are not a trophy skyscraper, whose ownership ultimately matters only to the kind of people who keep track of trophy skyscrapers. They are a ticket to instant popular-culture importance. By becoming the first foreign owner of an NBA team, Prokhorov simultaneously established himself as a major figure in one of the world’s most glamorous businesses (in the world capital of the sport, no less) and a central player in New York’s biggest real-estate drama after ground zero. The scale of his trick didn’t really hit home until a May 19 breakfast photo op with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Jay-Z: a perfectly orchestrated tableau of New York relevance. The only other Russian I can think of who has managed to slip into the city’s cast of notable characters as effortlessly is Mikhail Baryshnikov. But that’s where the comparison ends. Prokhorov is the face of an altogether new kind of Russian—newer, even, than the so-called New Russians of the late nineties—that’s recently been proliferating in town. Through Snob, he’s also the group’s chief benefactor and facilitator, both a member of the tribe and, in a critical sense, its creator.
The Russian community in New York used to come in four distinct varieties, arrangeable, like single malts, by casking date. There were heirs of exiled Czarist-era blue bloods, paper-skinned, cradling their titles; you’ve probably met one if you ever took a ballet class. Next up were Soviet immigrants of the seventies, the generation of Joseph Brodsky that would never let you forget their plight. Then came the “sausage immigration” of the nineties, mostly Jewish, mostly provincial, seduced less by freedom than by comfort yet squeaking in on political-refugee papers: More than 60,000 came to the U.S. in 1992 alone. Finally, there were the latest arrivals, treating New York as a prize for having made it in Moscow: the cocky, scowling post-Soviet oligarchs and Fifth Avenue shoppers with their endlessly mockable excesses.
The Global Russians, as Snob calls the group, are crystallized from all of the above. Broadly speaking, the term indicates a combination of Russian culture and language with Western education, a well-stamped passport, and liberal Western views. The category is big enough to encompass a second-generation novelist, a fashion designer who arrived here at the age of 5, a businessman swinging by for a conference, and an NBA team owner. They’re not interested in the Russian ghetto of Brighton Beach or the Russian assimilated culture in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. They’re dismissive of the nouveau riche shoppers and clubbers. They think they’re better than those others are. They’re consumed by cosmopolitanism and all it entails. They strive, they snub; they are, by any definition, snobs. By the way, I am kidding no one with this “they” business. I’ve been here since 1998, English is my second language, and simple honesty prevents me from pretending I don’t want some small version of the same.