Once Upon a Time in Russia
Kuntsevo Dacha, Fili District
THE SILENCE WAS EXCRUCIATING, the minutes ticking by thick and heavy, time itself gorging on the tension in the humid air. Even though the shades had been drawn back from the trio of windows pocking the long plaster walls of the cavernous dining room, it was impossible to tell how deep into the afternoon the day had drifted; the dense forest that surrounded the isolated, two-story compound cast deep shadows across the reinforced glass panes, shifting whatever remained of the bright summer light toward an ominous, gunmetal gray.
For the eighteen middle-aged men in dark suits shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they waited in that palpable silence around an oversize dining room table, it was hard to believe that they were still technically within Moscow’s city limits. Though, to be fair, this aging, stone house tucked in the middle of the dark woods, surrounded by a pair of chain-link fences topped by barbed wire, was a symbol of a much different Moscow than the rapidly growing metropolis beyond the wire. The men in this room had traveled
back in time more than fifty years the minute they had been ushered out of their chauffeured limousines—now parked in glistening rows behind the double fences—and led through the dacha’s front door.
The setting of the meeting was not lost on any of the men. The invitation that had been delivered by official courier to each of them in the preceding weeks had been met by everything from incredulous laughter to expressions of suspicion. Every soul knew what this place was: whose house this had once been, and what had supposedly taken place here. None of the men looked carefully into the shadows that played across the aging walls, darkening the corners of the vast, high-ceilinged room.
Even though this house had fallen into disuse a generation ago—and was now more museum than functioning dacha—the meeting’s address had meaning far beyond the invitation itself. And the longer the men were forced to wait for whatever was going to happen next, the more ominous the setting seemed.
Under the best of circumstances, these men were not accustomed to waiting. To describe them as powerful businessmen—or even billionaires—would have been a laughable understatement. Among them, they represented the largest—and fastest—accumulation of wealth in modern history. Within the Russian media, they had garnered the label Oligarchs—a term that was usually derogatory, defining them as a class apart and above. According to the popular notion, over the course of the past decade, as the former Soviet nation had lurched into capitalism through a complex, often shadowy process of privatization, this class—the Oligarchs—had accumulated insane riches, and they had used this wealth to imbed and twist themselves, like strangling vines, into the ruling mechanisms of the nation’s government, economy, and culture.
Most of the men in this room would have bristled at the designation.
If anything, they saw themselves as representatives of the new, free, and modern Russia. Almost all of them had come from poverty; many had clawed their way out of childhoods filled with deprivation and prejudice. Many at one point had been mathematicians, scientists, or academics before they had turned their ambitions to business. If they had succeeded—and yes, as a group they had succeeded to a degree perhaps unique in history—it was despite the chronic corruption and cronyism of the shifting Russian paradigm, not because of it.
Oligarchs or not, men who earned billions were not known for their patience. Eventually, the silence got the better of the room, and one of the invitees, seated closest to the door that led back into the interior of the house, cleared his throat.
“If some Chechen managed to get a bomb in here and blew us all to hell,” he asked, “do you think anyone would mourn?”
Awkward laughter riffed through the room, then trickled away into the shadows. The macabre joke may have hit too close to home. Whatever the men thought about themselves, it wasn’t exactly the best time to be a billionaire in Russia. Worse yet, the idea of a bomb going off in the dining room of such an ominous address wasn’t as far-fetched as they would have liked to believe.
Before anyone could break the silence again, there was a rush of motion—a door opening on the far side of the dining room. The air seemed to tighten still further, like a leather strap suddenly pulled taut. After a brief pause, a lone man entered through the doorway. Head down, every step and movement controlled and determined, from his forceful, athletic gait to the way his lean, muscled arms shifted stiffly at his sides. Short of stature—five foot seven at the most—with thinning hair, pinpoint eyes, a narrow, almost daggered jaw—his presence was somehow well beyond the amalgamation
of his parts. As he strolled in, warmly shaking each man’s hand in turn, none of the billionaires at the table could have turned away even if they had dared. He didn’t just project an imposing aura: he was a mystery, an unknown, and these gathered businessmen had built their lives—and fortunes—on their abilities to procure and use knowledge. Even though some of them had been responsible for their host’s ascension to power—had in fact hand-picked him for the role he now played—they had done so without knowing much about him. In truth, that had been one of his main selling points. He was purposefully obscure, a supposed nobody—a loyal cog. They had thought that a man like that would be easy to control.
There was nothing easy about him as he took position at the front of the room, facing the table.
And then he smiled.
A warm welcome, my colleagues.
He looked around the room, matching each of the gathered billionaire’s eyes.
“Some of you supported me,” he continued, his voice low and steady, as he paused on a few of the staring faces.
“Some of you did not.”
Again, he lingered on a handful more.
“But none of that matters now. You have done very well for yourselves. You have built vast fortunes.”
He waited, the room as silent and still as a pane of glass.
“You can keep what you have. Business is important. Industry is important. But from here on out, you are simply businessmen—and only businessmen.”
Before any of the men could react, there was another flash of motion—and then a group of lower-ranking officials took over, ushering
a team of butlers into the room, each carrying a tray laden with porcelain and gold tea settings. Collective relief moved around the table; at the same time, it dawned on most of the men in the room that they had made an immense miscalculation. This loyal nobody, this obscure cog had become something else. Every moment of the meeting had been choreographed, from the very moment he had invited them here, to this place, imbued with so much brutal meaning.
Just a few yards down, off the hall now bustling with servers carrying tea into the dining room, were the study and living quarters where Joseph Stalin had spent his final two decades. This house—Stalin’s Moscow home—had been the symbolic headquarters of the most infamous, powerful, and brutal regime in their nation’s history.
And Vladimir Putin—the man at the front of the room now trading niceties with the nearest of his guests, while butlers served tea up and down the dining room table—had just sent them a clear, explicit message.
Putin was not a simple cog they could twist and turn as they wanted.
The Oligarchs had been warned:
You can keep your billions.
But stay out of my way . . .