What is a Russian Oligarch? Meaning of term, how oligarchs made their money and why they are being sanctioned

Boris Johnson has imposed a range of sanction on Russian banks and oligarchs who are said to be close with Vladimir Putin

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Russian oligarchs have been hitting the headline of late after countries across the world imposed sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The UK was among those to restrict the finances of several billionaire with ties to President Vladimir Putin as conflict continues in the region.

So far, 18 oligarchs have been targeted with strict economic sanctions.

But what exactly is a Russian oligarch, what is an oligarchy and how much influence do they have?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a Russian oligarch?

An oligarch is an individual who makes incredible amounts of money through family ties and inheritance or through industry.

They also have a defining characteristic such as political power, military power, religious control, fame or notability.

An ‘oligarch’ is a member of an ‘oligarchy’ - a power structure in which very few people hold a huge amount of power.

The word comes from Greek - meaning ‘few’ and ‘to command’

A Russian oligarch is commonly referred to as such if they rapidly amassed their mass wealth immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and during mass privatisation in the country.

As a result, wealthy Russian businessmen who would be classed as oligarchs would have made their money through industry.

What is an oligarchy?

An ‘oligarch’ is a member of an ‘oligarchy’.

An oligarchy is a power structure in which the power sits with a small number of people.

It can exist in politics and in an absolute monarchy.

How much influence do Russian oligarchs have?

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Russian oligarchs we know today began to amass their wealth in post-communist Russia.

Many are tied to Vladimir Putin, with assets of some oligarchs closely linked to the Russian president.

While there is a relationship between Putin and the Russian oligarchs, the Russian leader still very much has control over them.

After the US imposed sanction in Russia in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, former US diplomat Daniel Fried said: “[Putin] can jail them, or kill them, and the notion that the oligarchs can assert influence over Putin is foolish.”

While they don’t have much influence on Putin from above, the oligarchs can put pressure on him to change policy if their financial situation - and in turn Russia’s international trade - is put in peril.

How many Russian oligarchs in the UK?

There are several oligarchs who have property in the UK and reside mainly in London.

Russian oil tycoon Oleg Deripaska, former Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov and Alfa-Group co-founder Mikhail Fridman are among those who own multi-million pound properties in some of London’s most expensive districts.

One of the best well-known examples of a Russian oligarch in UK culture is Roman Abramovich.

Mr Abramovich made headlines after buying London football club Chelsea in 2003, however he does not live in the UK.

On 2 March, he announced that he was selling the team.

However, the UK announced a new raft of sanctions on Russian oligarchs, which included Roman Abramovich, putting the potential sale into disarray.

Another UK football-linked oligarch is Alisher Usmanov.

Mr Usmanov had close commercial ties with Everton FC until the Premier League club cut these ties after the invasion of Ukraine.

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