Not all of Prokhorov’s investments can be explained by rational self-interest. Another set of projects invariably bears the hallmark of his older sister, Irina, a patron of arts and literature. In private life, Mikhail and Irina form an unusual, closed-off unit. Until recently, they lived together in a relatively small Moscow apartment, well after Mikhail had become a billionaire. “He’s got one overriding complex,” says a person familiar with both. “He’s not as smart as his sister, and he wants her approval.” Most likely at Irina’s urging, Mikhail has endowed a lavish literary award, a publishing house, an arts festival, and, finally, Snob. “WHAT CAN RUSSIANS do for the rest of the world?”
Gregory Kegeles, Snob’s director of U.S. business development, wearing wire-rim glasses and a brown corduroy blazer, sips chamomile tea and lets the phrase sink in. We’re at Think Coffee on Mercer, his favorite place in his favorite city.
The pithy question is Kegeles’s idea for the centerpiece of Snob’s New York marketing campaign, set to hit the city in September. In London, the only place outside Russia where Snob has attempted such a promotional effort, the push was a bit of a disaster. Snob simply bought up billboards in the Underground and elsewhere and slapped Russian-language ads on them, perplexing Brits and embarrassing local Russians. It looked exactly like something a dizzy nouveau riche would do. For New York, Kegeles imagines something that New Yorkers could actually use, something that speaks to Snob’s globalist brand, and something that shows that the Russians actually understand contemporary New York (and in English this time). A giant video chat, set up right on the street, that lets New Yorkers, Londoners, and Muscovites speak to one another? Sponsoring some benches in the High Line park? Free Nets tickets?
Even by the pre-crash standards of magazine publishing, Snob is an extravagantly well-funded undertaking. Prokhorov financed its launch with $150 million. By comparison, Condé Nast’s Portfolio, the splashiest magazine launch of the last decade, had about $120 million to play with. Snob employs about 120 people and keeps offices in Moscow and London as well as a so-far more modest New York outpost, in a “green” rent-an-office building in Dumbo. The magazine itself might as well be printed on dollar bills: The stock is luscious, the photo stories ripped from the walls of the prestigious Yossi Milo and Yancey Richardson galleries, the editorial purse big enough for pre-U.S.-publication exclusives like a chunk of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura or of Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, for that matter. Each issue has three covers and comes locked inside a cardboard shell readers are supposed to rip off in a process the magazine’s staff calls “defloration.” U.S. club members get it hand-delivered by DHL.
When Snob’s creation was announced in 2008, the world assumed it would be a glossy paean to the world’s longest yachts or something, a Slavic striver’s version of the Robb Report with the barest hint of self-awareness in the title. In reality, it was more of a Monocle: a thoughtful, moderately smug house organ of the Global Russian community. snob was actually an acronym of sostoyavshiisya, nezavisimyi, obrazovannyi, blagopoluchnyi (accomplished, independent, educated, thriving). Only the last word of the four hinted at wealth. Lately, under deputy editor Masha Gessen, the project even made a turn toward social activism, battling, for instance, the Putin administration’s revisionist sugarcoating of Joseph Stalin.
The Global Russian “aggressively adopts traits of other cultures without betraying his own. He cooks like a Frenchman, entertains like an American, and forms friendships like a Russian.”
The magazine’s idea was not Prokhorov’s. To hammer it out, he tapped Vladimir Yakovlev, the legendary former editor of the business daily Kommersant and, back in the early nineties, the coiner of the term New Russians, which, Yakovlev tells me, was meant as a compliment, before it came to signify a boor in a burgundy club jacket demanding colder vodka in St. Barts. Yakovlev was fresh off a multiyear stint seeking enlightenment in various exotic locations. His travels seem to have helped him come up with the idea to target the worldwide Russian diaspora as a sophisticated, interconnected demographic. The Global Russian is “a particular breed shaped over the last fifteen years,” says Masha Gessen, from a treadmill, in flawless English (she is the author of four American nonfiction books). “It used to be that when you left Russia, you left forever—to become a proper American, a proper Englishman, etc. The Global Russian aggressively adopts traits of other cultures without betraying his own. Two years ago, when I was writing up a portrait of our imaginary ideal audience member, I wrote that he ‘cooks like a Frenchman, entertains like an American, and forms friendships like a Russian.’ ”
The masterstroke of the original concept was that Snob would simply create this audience as it went along, by pumping money into club members’ own projects: exhibits, films, even mild political activism. Among Russians, even those connected with the project, this largesse bred instant suspicion. Stepan Pachikov, creator of the popular idea- and photo-archiving app Evernote and a member of the club’s New York chapter, sums up the prevailing conspiracy theories: “It’s either a Kremlin initiative designed to get all the liberal opposition types in one place and have them let off steam in controlled conditions, or else it 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.”
It’s unclear whether Prokhorov wants to be a media mogul per se; he’s emphatically not interested in competing with any of his Western counterparts or entering the English-language publishing fray. If he wanted to, he’d probably do what Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, did. There are certainly enough distressed media properties to choose from.