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The Upsetting Ethnic Taxonomy of Russia's Richest Businessmen

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

One of Russia’s most popular news websites, the once vaunted Lenta.ru, finds itself at the center of a scandal today, after publishing an ethnic breakdown of Russia’s 200 richest people. According to the study, 44.5 percent of Russia’s wealthiest citizens are ethnically Russian, 21 percent are Jewish, 12 percent are Ukrainian, followed by smaller percentages of Tatars, Armenians, and a dozen or so other nationalities. “Overall,” the report concludes questionably, “it’s clear how different ethnic groups in a multiethnic country have used a collaborative solidarity and response to the beginning of the ‘capitalist era’ to build a new kind of economic and political life.”

Lenta’s study is based on Forbes’ 2014 ratings of Russia’s “200 Richest Businessmen,” though Elmar Murtazaev, Forbes’ chief editor, has already criticized the ethnic breakdown. On Facebook, Murtazaev questioned Lenta’s judgment, implying that Forbes has considered analyzing the nationalities of its “top 200” list, but rejected the idea every year for the last decade. “What was published isn’t an investigation,” he argued online, calling Lenta’s work “nothing more than pure speculation.” (Indeed, Lenta’s authors themselves admit that many individuals on Forbes’ list don’t advertise their nationality, making it difficult to assign labels.)

Murtazaev isn’t the only one upset about Lenta’s study. Nikolai Svanidze, a media personality and a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber (a consultative body within the Kremlin), says Lenta’s article is racist—even fascist. Natalia Gevorkyan, another prominent Russian journalist, also disliked the piece, asking on Facebook if its publication embarrassed Alexander Mamut, who ranks 42nd on Forbes’ list and owns Lenta’s parent group, Rambler & Co.

Maya Stravinskaya, Snob.ru.

Maya Stravinskaya, a data journalist at Rambler & Co., says she tried to pull the image in the study, after it landed on her desk in the final stages of development, but the article went ahead, regardless. “Lenta didn’t see anything xenophobic about it,” she wrote on Facebook. Stravinskaya told RuNet Echo that her team at Rambler & Co. (which recently migrated from RIA Novosti) created the infographic included in Lenta’s story, but she did what she could to stop its publication. “Ultimately, I can’t influence the site’s editorial policy,” she stressed.

As it happens, this isn't the first time a Russian news site published an ethnic breakdown of Forbes’ top-200 richest men in Russia. Two years ago, Pavel Pryanikov’s website Ttolk.ru posted a nearly identical study (with roughly the same findings) that also looked at businessmen’s class history (tracking their socioeconomic trajectories from Soviet times). On Facebook, Pryanikov reminded readers of his website’s “been there, done that” accomplishment, and pointed out that it is hypocritical for Murtazaev to attack Lenta, as Forbes itself has ranked the world’s richest Jews and Armenians.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for apprehensions about Lenta’s study. Methodologically, it’s nearly impossible to establish the ethnicity of many of Russia’s oligarchs (whose mixed heritage defies classification). Ethically, on the other hand, liberals in Russia are averse to racial taxonomies that threaten to stir ethnic tensions. Indeed, the chief finding in both Lenta’s article and Pryanikov’s study is that ethnic Russians are heavily underrepresented in the Russian elite, relative to their numbers in the general population. Presumably, and perhaps justifiably, Russian nationalists’ critics fear statistics like these could catapult their adversaries to political prominence.

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