For many who arrived in Moscow in recent decades, the city had an almost narcotic effect. In the vacuum created by the Soviet collapse, unabashed opportunism and a limitless sense of the possible became the closest thing the wounded country had to a collective ideology. There were few consequences and everything was pretend—except, of course, for the massive sums of money. And as long as Russia, after Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, kept up its winking nod toward modernization and democracy, it was easy enough to play along without too much of a drag on your conscience.
For Bill Browder, the American-born investor turned human rights campaigner, the high started early. Not long after the end of communism in eastern Europe, he came across his first “ten bagger,” an investment that delivers a ten-times return. “For those who don’t know,” he writes in his memoir Red Notice, a tale of financial braggadocio and moral outrage, “the sensation of finding a ‘ten bagger’ is the financial equivalent of smoking crack cocaine.” As the years went on, Browder began to scoop up shares in Russian companies and use his position as a shareholder to try to make them more efficient and transparent. He went on to build his investment company, Hermitage Capital Management, into one of the best-performing emerging-market funds in the world, which at its peak delivered returns of 1,500 percent and managed a total of $4.5 billion.
Around the same time that Browder was racking up ten baggers, Peter Pomerantsev—a Soviet-born, British-educated television producer—turned up in Moscow. In Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, his tale of descending into and eventually emerging from Moscow’s hallucinogenic reality, he writes of encountering “speeding Maybachs on the roads, swirling faster and faster in high-pitched, hypnotic fairground brilliance.” As Pomerantsev set to work, his specialty became producing reality shows on such topics as the mating rituals of “Forbeses” (rich Russian men, named after Forbes magazine’s most wealthy list) and “tiolki” (literally, “cattle”—the young, beautiful women who chase those men). He filmed the two species in Moscow nightclubs and came to realize that they were less hunter and prey than kindred spirits. They were equally adrift in post-Soviet Russia, sending each other “sweet, simple glances” that “seem to say how amusing this whole masquerade is.”
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