The US, UK, and EU have introduced massive sanctions against many Russian oligarchs. These rich and powerful men are thought to have influence over Russia’s leaders and policies – but why? What is an oligarch? And what is an oligarchy? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English! 

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Vocabulary List

Sanction (n) – an official order that is taken against a country in order to make it obey international law

Trade sanctions will be lifted if they agree to stop producing nuclear weapons

State (n) – a country and/or its government

Some museums are funded by the state

To skyrocket (v) – to rise extremely quickly or make extremely quick progress towards success

Housing prices have skyrocketed in recent months 

To differ (v) – to be not like something or someone else

My views differ considerably from my parents

Defective (adj) – something that is defective has a fault in it and does not work correctly

My eyesight is defective so I wear glasses

Perverted (adj) – considered strange and unpleasant by most people

He has a sick and perverted sense of humour 

Corrupt (adj) – dishonestly using your position or power to get an advantage, especially for money

That country’s police are very corrupt – you need to pay them if they stop your car

Disproportionate (adj) – too large or too small in comparison to something else, or not deserving its importance or influence

There are a disproportionate number of girls in my class

Tycoon  (n) – a person who has become very rich and powerful

He made his fortune as a shipping tycoon

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Newspaper headlines and articles have been using similar vocabulary since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the last two days, the Financial Times has written that “US to target banks and crypto exchanges that aid sanctioned Russian oligarchs”; BBC have reported on Russia oligarchs: The mega-rich men facing global sanctions”; and the New York Times wrote about U.K. vs. Oligarchs.” 

Russia is consistently described as an oligarchy in articles, TV reports, and political speeches. And the most powerful Russian men are described as oligarchs. This phrase has been repeated everywhere recently due to the sanctions placed on Russia – So…. What is an oligarch?

According to Google trends data, a lot of people have been asking this question – what is an ‘oligarch’ and ‘oligarchy’? Over the past few weeks the number of people searching online for the word “oligarchy” has increased by over 1000%. Similar searches like “oligarch” and “Russian oligarch” have also skyrocketed

Today, I’m going to define and explain the meaning of oligarchy and oligarch, the history of the terms, and what they mean in the Russian context. I’ll also introduce a few other terms for different types of governments and political systems. I actually recorded an episode called “what is democracy?” a long long time ago (with a terrible mic) which you can also check out if you want!

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What is an Oligarchy?

Aristotle’s Oligarchy

Aristotle’s forms of government

Oligarchy is a form of government that has its origins in Ancient Greece. Aristotle, one the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world, spent a significant amount of time questioning how to organise the state and politics. He believed that the way government was organised was the key to a nation’s happiness. 

Aristotle believed that there were 6 general forms of political rule. These six differed depending on who was the ruler and for whom they ruled. What does this mean? Well, the rulers of a country could be one person (like a king, emperor, or dictator); there could be a few powerful people or families who keep the power; or the government could be formed from all people. And, whoever is the ruler of the country, they could either be “true” leaders who rule the country for the good of all people or “defective and perverted” leaders who rule only for their own interest. 

In Aristotle’s Politics, an oligarchy is a government by the few which only has “in view the interest of the wealthy.” A few powerful and wealthy individuals or families control political power to make themselves wealthier and more powerful, not to help all citizens of a state. These few powerful and wealthy people, those with all the ruling power, are called “oligarchs.”

Although the main focus of this episode is “oligarchy,” I’m going to quickly introduce a few other types of government! Aristotle named six – including oligarchy. 

For Aristotle, “oligarchy” was the “defective” form of “Aristocracy.” In other words, “aristocracy” was supposed to be governed by a small group of the best citizens who rule in the interest of all people (however aristocracy today has a slightly different meaning). The other four types of government mentioned by Aristotle were “monarchy,” “tyranny”, “polity”, and “democracy.” “Monarchy” and “polity” were governments in the common interest, while “tyranny” and “democracy” were governments in the interest of the ruler or rulers alone!

Modern Oligarchy

When Aristotle was alive, states and countries were a lot smaller than they are today – Greece was made up of individual city states with their own governments and politics. Over the past 2000 years, a lot has changed in the world. So, do oligarchies still exist? And if they do, what do they look like today? 

Well, yes – oligarchies do still exist today. In fact, some political scientists have even argued that democracies and large organisations will eventually turn into oligarchies. Most famously, the sociologist Robert Michels described the “iron law of oligarchy” – the idea that democracies will eventually become more and more corrupt as the leaders become reluctant to give up their power and wealth. 

An oligarchy can appear anywhere in the world – wherever politics is controlled by “the few” for corrupt and unjust reasons. There are countless articles online about how the USA is an oligarchy – and there is some evidence for this as the country’s politicians and leaders tend to be from similar backgrounds.

Two of the best examples of modern “oligarchies” are China and Iran. Although China describes itself as a communist, socialist, or a “people’s republic”, the leadership and rulers of China are just a few powerful individuals. In particular, members of the Chinese Communist Party who took part in the revolution in 1949 and the wealthy individuals who took advantage of China’s economic opening since the 1980s have been described as oligarchs. Only a few individuals have power, wealth, and freedom – most normal Chinese citizens will never have the opportunity. 

Iran is both a theocracy and a clerical oligarchy. “Clerical” refers to the “clerics” – members of a religious organisation. Since 1979, Iran has been largely controlled by a small group of highly influential religious clerics. The Supreme Leader (who is chosen by clerics) and clerical officials often have more power than Iran’s President. These religious figures have the ability to approve or reject laws passed by parliament, and decide who can be elected as politicians!

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Russian Oligarchy

However, the most famous oligarchy must be Russia. In fact, when we say the word oligarchy, most native English speakers will first think of Russia. All countries have rich and powerful individuals who try to use their influence and connections to change government action. But Russia is generally considered the best example of this. 

In Russia, oligarchs are the “ultra wealthy” business leaders who hold disproportionate political power! The development and emergence of Russia’s oligarchs lies in the country’s history. 

Until the early 1990s, Russia was the largest part of the Soviet Union – a self-described communist or socialist country. One of the major features of communism is state-ownership of certain industries. Especially in terms of basic goods (like energy, food, transport, water) the government owned, ran, and controlled these industries. 

Russian Oligarchs

Once the Soviet Union collapsed, these industries were quickly privatised – that is, taken from public ownership and put into the hands of individuals. Influential and wealthy Russians used their connections, influence, and power to take over these industries and become “oligarchs.” This process was associated with a high level of corruption. 

One of the infamous examples of corruption at the time was the “loans for shares” scheme. A few wealthy business tycoons in the early 1990s were given large stakes in 12 of the biggest natural resource companies in return for loans to the government. The loans were supposed to be used to help an economically struggling Russia, but the government never paid the loans back. This allowed those wealthy tycoons to sell their stakes in the companies (often to themselves for a large discount). The government of Boris Yeltsin essentially created a group of super rich and super powerful oligarchs by selling off the most valuable parts of the economy. 

From 2000, Putin came into power and created a second wave of oligarchs. Rather than through selling parts of the economy, these oligarchs gained influence, wealth, and power through state contracts. Private companies working in industries like health care and defence were allowed to overcharge the government for their work, in return for paying bribes or giving kickbacks to government officials. 

Oligarchs Under Putin

In the 1990s, Russian oligarchs had a high level of political power. Oligarchs could influence policy, often had official positions in Boris Yeltsin’s government, and regularly exchanged cash for political help. Since 2000, Putin has taken almost all political control – he essentially told oligarchs to stay away from politics, and in return he would leave their businesses largely alone. However, in some industries like media and natural resources Putin pressured oligarchs to sell or return their companies back to the state.  

Today, there are a few different types of oligarchs in Russia. The most influential are Putin’s close friends and advisors – people he has known since his time in the Soviet Union’s secret service. These people, including Yuri Kovalchuk and Gennady Timchenko, have experienced incredible wealth thanks to their connection to Putin. 

The next group of oligarchs are the leaders of the military, secret service, and the police. These oligarchs have used their connections to gain extreme wealth and are now known as the “siloviki.”  Igor Sechin is considered to be the leader of the “siloviki” and the second most powerful person in Russian.

And finally, there are outsider oligarchs. These are wealthy individuals with little connection to Putin today, but who have largely been left alone by the government. Often they made their fortunes by buying state companies in the 1990s, and have not troubled the government since that time. 

Oligarchs Under Sanctions

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US, UK, and EU have introduced some of harshest ever sanctions on Russia’s billionaire oligarchs. Across Europe, mansions have been repossessed, yachts detained, bank accounts frozen, and even Chelsea football club is no longer able to spend any money.  

I’ll leave a BBC article linked here so you can read more about the oligarchs currently sanctioned around the world. The idea is that by sanctioning the richest Russian oligarchs, Putin may be weakened and encouraged to stop his war. 

However, as previously mentioned these mega rich oligarchs are not as politically influential as they were in the 1990s and early 2000s. The “silovaki” – the oligarchs in charge of the military, security services and police – are perhaps more important and more difficult to sanction. 

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English I have tried to introduce the concept of “oligarchy” to you all. Newspaper headlines and political speeches have repeated this word countless times in recent days – but few people actually know what an oligarchy is! 

An oligarchy refers to a government controlled by a few ultra powerful and wealthy individuals, who use their influence to gain even more power! Russia is probably the most famous oligarchy in the world. 

Do you think Russia is an oligarchy? Is your country an oligarchy? Do you think sanctions against Russian oligarchs will be effective?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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