Back then, a Russian businessman told me it felt like “the day before Pompeii,” with everyone stealing as much as they could as quickly as possible—and then whisking it out of the country. “The Chinese feel that time is on their side, probably because of their long history,” former CIA director John Brennan told me on the sidelines of last week’s Aspen Security Forum. “The Russians don’t feel that time is on their side.” Indeed, the generation of officials around Putin are known as the vremenshchiki, “the temporary ones,” the ones whose meager salaries couldn’t have possibly paid for that house or that car or that watch, who steal as much as they can and squirrel it away in some tropical offshore account. The families of the Russian elite often don’t live in Russia. They live in Paris, in London, Geneva, New York, Los Angeles. That’s where their money lives, too, and where their children go to school and where their families seek medical treatment—which is one of the reasons the Russian education and medical systems are falling apart, robbed by corruption of what little resources they had.
And even after 2014, when Russia got hit with American and European sanctions and Putin commanded prominent Russians to bring their wealth and families back. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did (his daughter had lived in New York), but many didn’t. One high-ranking member of Putin’s United Russia party recently complained to me how hard life was in Paris, where his wife and youngest son lived. His older son was studying in the U.K.
What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?
Worse, it looked for a while like the Europeans were going to pass a similar law—because Russians stash far more money in Europe than in the United States. And then 2014 hit. Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, and the United States and European Union teamed up to slap sanctions of some of Putin’s closest lieutenants, freezing their assets and keeping them away from their beloved seaside villas and city condos. In a rare public interview, the banker and close Putin friend Gennady Timchenko, complained of his life under Western sanctions. “Now, I basically can’t leave the country,” he told the TASS state news agency. “My family is spending the summer in the south of France, where we traditionally spend every summer, and I am cut off from all of it. From my family, from my beloved dog, a labrador.” (The labrador, Romy, is the daughter of Connie, Putin’s dog whom he has used to scare German Chancellor Angela Merkel.) Now, with the sanctions, Timchenko, a French and Russian citizen, can’t visit Romy, who lives in Switzerland with his son.