Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Oligarch’s Entourage

Saturday night found me standing at Domodedovo Airport with 18 kilos of luggage and more than a few butterflies in my stomach. Just as I was contemplating hightailing it back to Moscow, I spotted Vanya in the crowd. He was making a beeline for the bathroom, and told me to wait with “that bald guy.” As helpful as his description was, I think I would have found Nikita faster if Vanya had just said “the guy with a tower of suitcases and two Caucasian shepherds.”

I cobbled together a brief explanation of who I was, and Nikita introduced himself, Knyaz and Graf. The latter two (Prince and Count, respectively) are six-month old puppies, but that doesn’t mean they are puppy-sized. They are both larger than any dogs I’ve ever seen, and most wolves as well. When I voiced the concern that they might make a meal out of me, Vanya promised that my fears were unfounded. “No, they won’t eat you. They might kill you, but they won’t eat you.”

The remaining members of my travel party are Gennadiy (a ghost writer), Dasha (his 16-year-old daughter), and Lilya (their Dachshund). They are all veterans of the Altai, but Gennadiy immediately welcomed me to “наша семья” (our family). I hope he meant that with a lowercase “f” and not in a Godfather-esque way, but anything’s possible at this point.

When we landed in Siberia at 6am, the sky was still dark and snow was falling in fistfuls on the runway. We were met by four drivers and three cars, which took us on the 5-hour drive through the mountains to the stone fortress we’ll be calling home for the next week. Chez Billionaire is just as over-the-top as one might expect. While its architecture is meant to be in the vein of a Viking lodge, the décor is a cross between Russian bachelor pad and Central Asian Buddhist with a healthy dash of oligarch ostentation. There is a wine cellar, an indoor lap pool and banya, a guard’s tower flying the Russian tricolor, and poster-sized photos of Putin and the oligarch.

Upon arriving, we sat down to lunch, which was not the feast I had hoped to find. It turned out the fortress has been shut for most of the winter, meaning that there was nothing in the house but a fridge full of sausages and meats. Though I had warned the oligarch’s office I was a vegetarian, no one seemed to have forwarded the message along. Yesterday I subsisted on three eggs, two pieces of toast, and buckwheat groats. I’ve exhausted the egg supply, and may have to barter with the locals for fruits and vegetables, assuming I can figure out how to get out of the fortress. Thank god I brought Vitamin C with me to fight a cold—I may be the only member of this party who escapes without scurvy.

The oligarch and his girlfriend are meant to arrive today, and my excitement to speak some English is palpable. I have been speaking more Russian in the last 36 hours than I do in a normal week in Moscow, and while it’s great practice, I think my brain is ready for a break. But maybe that’s just starvation setting in.

1 comment:

  1. I now think malnutrition is the biggest threat to your safety. That, or the dogs.