What I learned about Russia and sanctions from eating cheese with an oligarch

The restaurant empire of the Russian billionaire Arkadiy Novikov taught me that you should always pay attention to how rich people are spending their moneyIn 2017, I went to Moscow to see the empire of Russian billionaire Arkadiy Novikov. There was a new restaurant on every corner – smelling of garlic but also paint, the air thick with money – and Novikov seemed to own all of them. It wasn’t possible, in the end, to figure out what kind of restaurateur he was, a good one or a bad one, because he just owned so many, spanning such an impossible range of cuisines, that it became a numbers game. Some of them couldn’t help but be good; others could help it.Novikov told me about the abject poverty of his childhood, sharing one tomato with his mother and grandmother, making a cucumber last a week; and his apprenticeship, cooking soup for the dogs in the Russian army. There were bits missing from his origin story, specifically, how Russia after perestroika (the 1980s reformation movement) delivered him not a part of the restaurant scene but the majority of it, but for some reason I chose to focus my questions on how you make a soup for a dog. “Pearl barley,” he said. “The head of a pig; a few potatoes.” His culinary sensibility was marked by a hyper-masculine obsession with size, steaks as big as the plates they sat on, from Miratorg, a million-hectare (2.5m-acre) ranch. I took it as part of the pantomime; strongman politics were to Moscow what kombucha was to New York. Looking back I realise what he was actually describing, quite carefully, was the agricultural element of a steadily building fortress economy.Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist Continue reading…

The restaurant empire of the Russian billionaire Arkadiy Novikov taught me that you should always pay attention to how rich people are spending their money

In 2017, I went to Moscow to see the empire of Russian billionaire Arkadiy Novikov. There was a new restaurant on every corner – smelling of garlic but also paint, the air thick with money – and Novikov seemed to own all of them. It wasn’t possible, in the end, to figure out what kind of restaurateur he was, a good one or a bad one, because he just owned so many, spanning such an impossible range of cuisines, that it became a numbers game. Some of them couldn’t help but be good; others could help it.

Novikov told me about the abject poverty of his childhood, sharing one tomato with his mother and grandmother, making a cucumber last a week; and his apprenticeship, cooking soup for the dogs in the Russian army. There were bits missing from his origin story, specifically, how Russia after perestroika (the 1980s reformation movement) delivered him not a part of the restaurant scene but the majority of it, but for some reason I chose to focus my questions on how you make a soup for a dog. “Pearl barley,” he said. “The head of a pig; a few potatoes.” His culinary sensibility was marked by a hyper-masculine obsession with size, steaks as big as the plates they sat on, from Miratorg, a million-hectare (2.5m-acre) ranch. I took it as part of the pantomime; strongman politics were to Moscow what kombucha was to New York. Looking back I realise what he was actually describing, quite carefully, was the agricultural element of a steadily building fortress economy.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

Continue reading…

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