The Global Russian influence is all over contemporary New York, in motley variations. In real estate, diamond mogul Lev Leviev, a reputed friend of Putin’s, owns the lion’s share of the old New York Times Building, the citadel-like Apthorp apartment complex, and the MetLife clock tower. Vassily Anisimov leased dormitories to NYU. Tamir Sapir, who was born Temur Sepiashvili in Georgia and made his first fortune in New York selling VCRs and other electronics (and also securing oil contracts from former Soviet diplomats), has $2 billion in active development projects; his hard-partying son, Alex Sapir, and daughter, Zina Sapir-Rosen, have bankrolled a few of Donald Trump’s latest ventures, including the Trump SoHo condo-hotel. Hotels seem to be especially appealing: The Gansevoort and 60 Thompson, as well as some of André Balazs’s properties, are rumored to have Russian backing. Muscovites have made their homes or pieds-à-terre at the Plaza, the Time Warner Center, and 15 Central Park West. Edward Mermelstein, a Ukrainian-born real-estate lawyer specializing in massive deals for Eastern European clientele, handled about 120 Russian closings in New York over the last three years. Before the financial crisis, the average price was between $7 million and $10 million, with the top end in the stratospheric $30 million to $40 million range. Then, of course, there’s airport mogul Valery Kogan, whose ultimately aborted attempt to build one of the largest mansions in Greenwich (complete with 26 toilets) fueled the Connecticut enclave’s gossip mill for years. As for the Russian contributions to Wall Street, they tend to be low-profile: There’s an enormous number of people with Soviet math educations who work on the analytical side at places like Goldman Sachs. Some, like Ruvim Breydo, parlay their skills into hedge-fund fortunes. Others toil anonymously, and when we do hear about them—like computer programmer Sergey Aleynikov, who allegedly swiped Goldman’s proprietary trading software—it’s rarely good news.
In the world of art, the main seat of Russian influence is the Guggenheim. Moscow-based oligarch Vladimir Potanin sits on its board of trustees. So did socialite and developer Janna Bullock, until recently. Phillips de Pury, the world’s third-largest contemporary-art auction house, is now owned by the Russian luxury retailer Mercury Group. It is currently getting ready to move into a 25,500-square-foot space at 450 Park Avenue, to compete more directly with Sotheby’s and Christie’s—both of which have dedicated Russian-art divisions. So does Larry Gagosian’s empire, which has recently added a sophisticated operation devoted to Russian outreach.
‘Snob’ is “a multistep strategic game by Prokhorov, who wants to feed and domesticate a certain kind of Establishment to lean on it for support later.”
With the exception of the modernist Ilya Kabakov, the Russians in the gallery game tend to crowd on the buyers’ side; in the performing arts, however, they’re the product. The American Ballet Theatre company is 25 percent Russian (four out of sixteen). Russian names dot the program notes at the New York Philharmonic, where conductor Valery Gergiev has been a regular presence. In pop, there are Regina Spektor and Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz, of the Bronx and the Lower East Side respectively, both plying very different but very Russian good-girl and bad-boy personas.
The literary scene is a fiefdom ruled by novelist Gary Shteyngart, 37, probably the most successful New York novelist in the under-40 bracket. (His main rival for that title, Jonathan Safran Foer, can be seen as an interesting case of a wannabe Russian, an Updike to his Roth.) Shteyngart came to Queens from what was then Leningrad at the age of 7 and, by his own recollection, lost the last trace of his accent by 14. He could have easily disappeared into the American workforce, he says, and nearly did. “Once we figure out the dress code, we look like everyone else,” he tells me over a vodka-and-tonic, the ultimate Russian-American drink if you think about it. “Plus most of us are Jewish anyway.” He parlayed this identity tension into two best-selling novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan. His upcoming third, the futuristic satire Super Sad True Love Story, marks a tentative step away from the Russianness (although the protagonist’s name still ends in -ov).
Shteyngart’s ascent opened the floodgates for Russian-identified New York writers of every possible pedigree, age, and talent level. In a literary climate that puts a premium on authentic immigrant experience, they had the best of both worlds. They were sufficiently exotic but easily relatable. Russia gave them mystery, New York (and Jewishness) gave them a place on the Roth-Malamud-Lethem continuum. The flood of Russian names recently released into American letters includes Gessen and his sister Masha, Vapnyar, Olga Grushin, Anya Ulinich, Irina Reyn, Mark Budman, Sana Krasikov, Sofka Zinovieff, Elena Gorokhova, Ilana Ozernoy, Alina Simone—and the book deals keep coming. At the same time, Russian-born writers began popping up on the other side of the equation, as book reporters and reviewers (Alexander Nazaryan, Leon Neyfakh, this magazine’s Boris Kachka), lit-mag publishers (Keith Gessen again), and agents (Jim Rutman of Sterling Lord). It’s as if there were a whole colony of Russian writers biding their time until the industry deemed them worthy. I’m going to switch from “them” to “us” once again, because I am myself a beneficiary of this development. I published a novel last year. It was blurbed—like Ulinich’s and Vapnyar’s—by Shteyngart.