Moscow millionaires living the high

By Alex Rodriguez MCT

MOSCOW – The first batch of millionaires who emerged from the Soviet era with briefcases full of cash had curious, if not comical, ways of flashing their newfound wealth.

At lavish banquets they organized for no particular reason, they bought bottles of Cristal champagne not to drink, but to shake and spray. If their omnipresent bodyguards didn’t give them away, their burgundy blazers and coaxial cable-sized gold chains did.

Today’s Moscow millionaires have simmered down somewhat, though they still can’t resist accumulating new badges of wealth. The latest toy: the helicopter.

Sergei Shmakov, a 38-year-old developer who builds summer homes for other millionaires, bought a sleek, black $450,000 Robinson helicopter to flit between construction sites, but he freely admits his new toy serves as a calling card of sorts.

“It’s a matter of prestige and image,” Shmakov says. “Few people have helicopters. When you fly somewhere, the attitude other people have toward you changes immediately.”

As Moscow’s upper crust evolves and grows, so do its spending habits. And with every zig and zag that the millionaire market makes, there’s a cluster of Moscow-based enterprises that make it their business to anticipate the next status symbol.

Sergei Filonov’s Aviamarket helicopter dealership opened its doors in 2003 and has sold 75 helicopters, at prices ranging from $300,000 to $8 million. There’s a waiting list for clients who want models made by the Fort Worth, Texas-based Bell Helicopter.

“This trend began two years ago, and it’s on the rise,” says Filonov. “These people already have the Bentleys and the Cartier jewelry.”

“Our developers are not just creating infrastructure, they’re building a whole new world for our clients,” Sherstobitova says.

A growing number of newly built dachas are coming with helipads – a reflection of the millionaire set’s latest indulgence. The trend is particularly startling, given that it’s illegal to fly a helicopter over Moscow. Filonov says many of his customers use their helicopters to fly to hunting grounds along the Volga River or to get to other dachas ringing the city. Or, as is the case with much of what happens in Russia, they simply skirt the rules.

“Sometimes we take unauthorized flights,” says Shmakov, the developer. “The authorities, they just shut their eyes.”