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By John Helmer, Moscow

Oligarchy versus democracy is a very old game, and so are the seven deadly sins. Why exactly men like Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Prokhorov, Alisher Usmanov, Andrei Melnichenko et al. should calculate that advertising their standard of living should help them keep it is difficult to say. Maybe their pockets are under better control than their appetites. Maybe they believe that advertising profligacy will boost the accounting of their net worth and stave off margin calls.

That’s the point the ancient Athenians grasped with conviction. It’s the point of many of Plato’s and Socrates’s dialogues; of the comedies of Aristophanes; and of the records of the Athens law courts which have come down to us. To those Greeks, if a man displayed an excess of money, or what he did with it – by eating, drinking, betting, having sex, bejewelling his body, house, slaves, children, wives — he was by that very fact to be suspected of a crime against the democracy. The Athenian judgement was both retrospective and prospective: spending money intemperately was evidence that it had been too easily (dishonestly) earned. It was also evidence that state policy (investment, tax, war) would be corruptly influenced to serve such oligarchs’ material and personal interests, to the loss of everyone else.

No Russian disagrees with the Athenians — there are many precedents of men convicted of playing the oligarch from the time of Greek civilization, and from the time of the Russian civilization since 1991. Why then, cautious to an extreme as he usually is, did Potanin arrange recently with a New York city restaurateur by the name of Nello Balan to buy a white truffle weighing four pounds (1.8 kilogrammes)?

The size of the Tuber magnatum pico rather than its taste – the black (Tuber melanosporum) is famously tastier, if less odoriferous than the white, at least across the Piedmont border in France – has contributed to the price demanded of, and reportedly paid by Potanin of $95,000. But did he pay to eat it on the spot in Balan’s eat-house, shaved into omelettes for a dozen or so of Potanin’s feasting friends? Or did the control shareholder of Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company, get the truffle bagged for takeaway, so that he could share it with a dozen or more of his business and political associates in Moscow?

At this point, before the Athenian curse and penalty on oligarchs should be brought down on the heads of those Russians who, according to ancient-type democrats, warrant mistrust and condemnation, Potanin’s defence is that there is no evidence he did to the truffle what the New York Post claims. According to Potanin’s spokesman, Zoya Mischenko, Norilsk Nickel doesn’t comment on rumours.

Then there is the reputation of Balan the seller. Food vendors in ancient Athens were notorious blabbermouths. In Balan’s case, London evidence suggests he does a great many things which are exaggerated for the press in order to advertise his line of trade. He reportedly overcharges, for one thing, to attract those who want to appear in public to be indifferent to price.

Balan has been leaking the eating bills of Russian oligarchs before. According to this version from the London Telegraph, Balan spilled the beans on a £29,000 lunch eaten by Roman Abramovich, except that Abramovich denies the bill was his. Note the familiarity of the anonymous Balan employee who calls Abramovich, not only a big spender, but Roman, his first name. If indeed a £4,468 gratuity greased the waiter’s palm, he seems to have mistaken it for intimacy with the rich man.

Balan is currently into advance advertising of a new eatery he’s opening in London. So, modus operandi, plus motive. When his barman and night manager refused to confirm the truffle deal, and referred to their boss, Balan responded by email; “I am at an event now. I will get back to you tomorrow. Very Truly Yours, NELLO.” Then despite the intimacy of his first name, he went silent. So Balan is no longer saying what the New York Post claims he did, and Potanin isn’t either.

Now the New York Post – prop. Rupert Murdoch — is famously unreliable when it comes to Russian oligarchs, or at least those targets of the oligarchs whom the Post can be induced to misreport. Oleg Deripaska, for example – his cuisinary taste has been reported by a fanzine writer in Canada as including self-grown apples. For Deripaska’s interest, the New York Post planted a story about Deripaska’s patron, then his enemy in court, Michael Cherney (Chernoy). That story, now almost two years old, intended perhaps to intimidate witnesesses in the court case, can be read here.

Deripaska also has motive for attempting to blacken Potanin’s name and using the Post to send a message back to the Kremlin, where the fate of both of them will be decided in December. That’s when President Vladimir Putin will supervise how the secret group of control shareholders in Rusal, the redeemable-share holders, will be paid out. For that group, it may be trebles and tubers all round on December 6.

Mikhail Prokhorov, whose investment position in local basketball and real estate has made the New York media his patsy, also has modus operandi and motive for trying to hurt Potanin by hanging a $95,000 tuber round his neck in public. That might be revenge for Potanin’s role, if he played one, in blackening Prokhorov at Courchevel in January of 2007. That story, and the role played at the time by Nicolas Sarkozy – then in need of cash for his election campaign – can be read here. According to one of the nubile women who were nabbed, Prokhorov was as innocent as Courchevel’s driven snow. The women did nothing more, the eyewtitness claimed, than send Prokhorov to sleep by reading to him from Turgenev, whose novels he kept under his pillows.

Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, a Russian’s privacy has been the jealously guarded constitutional right of everyone. So whether he puts large tubers in his mouth, or his organs into other mouths, is not quite what the Athenians meant by calling him katapugon (κατάπυγον), meaning profligate, intemperate, debauched, degenerate. The US courts have ruled that the Russian oligarchs are public figures, allowing their privates to be speculated about in public print. The Russian view is that so long as they don’t advertise, the oligarchs have the same constitutional right to innocent privacy as everyone else, according to Article 23, section 1. It is worth re-reading what that says: “Everyone shall have the right to privacy, to personal and family secrets, and to protection of one’s honour and good name.”

Advertising is a different story, not because of the purported sinning in private, but because of what this signifies when it is made public.

Then there’s the matter of price. The record for a white Piedmont truffle is $330,000 for a specimen of 1.5 kgs, paid by the Macau casino boss, Stanley Ho, in December 2007. The Guinness Book of Records is a little out of date on this score, finding their big one in Croatia, and way below the Ho price. Ho and other self-advertisers like Damien Hirst and the Hambro family have also paid premiums of comparable amounts, albeit for charity plus publicity.

By that standard, at $52.78 per gram Potanin’s truffle – if indeed he bought it – is, er, a steal.

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