Inside the sociology of sanctioning Russian oligarchs
The West was quick to impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs, freezing overseas bank accounts and seizing yachts and luxury real estate. The UK yesterday expanded its list of sanctioned elites to include former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. Some senior Russian brass have, in turn, urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his invasion of Ukraine. Yet critics have questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions and their impact on the course of the war.
Dartmouth sociologist Brooke Harrington argues in a new article for The Atlantic that the sanctions pose an existential threat to Russia’s elite — and, by proxy, the Kremlin itself.
“The sanctions take away both their ability to maintain their social status among their jet-set peer group, but [they] also mark them with a kind of stigma. And those things together create a kind of social death for them,” Harrington said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancacio: The oligarchs are not just rich people. We have those; Warren Buffett, Bill Gates – but Gates and [Elon] Musk and Buffett don’t have any particular ties to the Kremlin, which is part of the definition here.
Brooke Harington: There are oligarchs all over the world, and the difference between a billionaire and an oligarch is that oligarchs don’t just have money – they have the political clout and influence to change the way their government doing business or to represent the interests of their government. abroad, a bit like informal ambassadors.
Brancacio: As a sociologist, you look at these sanctions applied to Russia, Russians and oligarchs, and you get the impression that they will be particularly hard to swallow for those who are targeted?
Harington: Well, you can judge by what they started doing as soon as the sanctions were even announced. They were already on TV, really angry that they had been denied access to their Italian villas. And then you had the truly amazing spectacle of well-known oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska publicly pleading with Putin to end the invasion. Obviously they didn’t end the invasion, but the fact that they felt the need to do so is unprecedented as far as I know.
Brancacio: They will not starve, however, under these sanctions. What do you think makes it so difficult for them to process this particular set of sanctions?
Harington: Part of the payoff you receive as an oligarch – especially if you advance Vladimir Putin’s interests in Western democracies – is that you become a major player in the competition for international status among the world’s jet set. And if the sanctions take away your toys – your yachts, your access to your villas, your private planes – you don’t just lose the money those things are worth; you’re cut off from the main pleasure of being an oligarch, which is flaunting it all and hanging out with other rich and famous. These Russian oligarchs are now being stigmatized for being Russian oligarchs, and this is going to hit them hard. The other thing is that what the Panama Papers showed is that a lot of these oligarchs hold assets that really belong to Vladimir Putin personally. But Putin himself is smart enough to know that he shouldn’t hold billions of dollars or expensive real estate in his own name, because then he could be punished by having those assets seized. So he somehow places them in different accounts abroad, on behalf of his closest circle of oligarchs. But these assets don’t really belong to the oligarchs, they belong to Putin. And the sanctions take away Putin’s wealth by this means.
Brancacio: For those who don’t remember, the Panama Papers were a huge dump of data from a Panama-based law firm that helped many people hide money – often illegally, but not always – all over the the world. Now you use this expression: “social death” – that when the reputation of the oligarchs has been damaged by their inability, now, to flaunt their wealth, it really comes at a cost to them.
Harington: It does. And it’s a term that goes back to a famous sociologist writing in the early 1950s, Erving Goffman. He described what happens to people who have been publicly humiliated or otherwise stigmatised, and that deep shame and embarrassment that means you can’t show your face in public and even your friends don’t want to be seen with you – he describes that as social death. This similar phenomenon can be observed in almost everyone, including oligarchs. You’d think someone who’s a billionaire couldn’t care less what other people think of them, but in my 15 years of research offshore, one of the most surprising things I’ve discovered is that, if anything, the richer you are, the more thin-skinned you can afford to be. Many of us who aren’t wealthy – if we’re insulted or somehow lose face in our social circles, we just have to accept and negotiate. But if you’re an oligarch, you can sue people for defamation, or you can hire full-time staff to keep your name out of negative stories. But it’s out of their control, even as oligarchs. And the sanctions both take away their ability to maintain their social status among their jet-set peer group, but it also marks them with a kind of stigma. And those things together create a kind of social death for them, relative to their jet set status group.
Brancacio: It is reported that, for example, the United Arab Emirates remains open and welcoming to Russian tycoons. So maybe they will change their base of operations and it doesn’t matter if it’s a luxury home in London or a luxury home in Dubai – or is it different?
Harington: It is important. Because, just like among, say, college kids, a pair of sneakers isn’t just a pair of sneakers, offshore assets for the oligarchs aren’t just offshore assets. They don’t put them just anywhere. And the oligarchs of certain countries have particular ways of using offshore to compete with each other. There’s a reason London is colloquially known as “Londongrad” – because all the cool kids among the Russian oligarchs must have their homes in Mayfair and Belgravia. So just going to the UAE can solve a legal and economic problem, but it doesn’t solve the social problem. And that’s something that’s really important to them.
Brancacio: We see that havens like Monaco and Switzerland will cooperate on these sanctions. And that’s interesting, given the work you’ve done on your book. They stood to attention.
Harington: When I first saw this news about Monaco I was speechless as they were alienating some of their most lucrative clients. [For] in the United States and the United Kingdom, nothing terrible will happen if the Russian oligarchs stop having their money in these jurisdictions, but Monaco is a very small place; they need those lucrative Russian customers. So it really is an extraordinary gesture. And that’s important, I think, because in the past, sanctions have been applied by individual countries against individual oligarchs. But as long as other attractive tax havens didn’t sanction them, they could still compete for status and get away with it. That’s what’s new here, the united front. So I think that’s really going to give these sanctions some teeth in a way that the previous ones haven’t.