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From left: Alexander Reebok, general manager of the Mercury Group, Leonid Friedland, and Leonid Strunin, 2001Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy
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The Dance of Time

A dispatch from the Russia of the recent past

Dana Vachon
June 29, 2023
Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy
From left: Alexander Reebok, general manager of the Mercury Group, Leonid Friedland, and Leonid Strunin, 2001Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy

Moscow, 2012

In Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, a world or so ago, two dozen reporters and six film crews gathered in a Bentley showroom for the Chopard Classic Car Rally, Chopard watches were displayed in glass boxes, waiters served champagne and salmon tartare, all of it paid for by two of Russia’s more endearing oligarchs, or mini-garchs, to be specific. They are known to Russian society as Leonchiki, the Little Leonids.

Born into the Soviet Union’s persecuted Jewish minority, they’d planned emigration to America before rising to control Russia’s fashion and luxury markets through insanely valuable real estate trophies: St. Petersburg’s former Leningrad House of Trade, and Red Square’s belle epoque TSUM, pronounced like zoom. More, they’d filled their holdings with Western luxury beyond all Soviet imagining: Gucci, Cavalli, Zegna, Ferrari, Bugatti—you name it.

“No one really knows how much money they have,” said one Russian fashion editor, insisting on anonymity; “Or how they make it, really. That is the mystery of Leonchiki.”

This is why I’m in Moscow, at the Chopard rally, even though I find cars and watches desperately boring: The Leonids are backing it. The co-president of Chopard sat at a dais with the rally’s reigning champion, who in real life plays a real estate executive; headsets connected everyone to translators.

“How many cars will be participating in this year’s rally?” asked the reporter from Automobile Abroad.

“Eighty-two cars.”

“What were the toughest conditions you’ve ever witnessed?”

“I once drove the Mille Miglia in rain for two days.”

“Dana Vachon, Vanity Fair,” I said, then asked the question that had been with me since I landed in Russia; it seemed a fair one for a watchmaker: “Why does time haunt us so?”

No country is haunted by time like Russia, torn between the mystical past of its interior and the Enlightenment future in neighboring Europe. With no strong natural borders, Russia exists in tormenting eternal recurrence, expanding for want of security, then, ruined by the costs of empire, contracting again before the whole nightmare starts over.

I revisited this scene from my archives after Elizabeth Gilbert pulled her novel set in Russia, fearing insensitivity to Ukrainians, as if 100 million Russians could be honestly ignored: Do they not also eat and pray and love? As if literature could ever ignore the land of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. As if anyone could ignore 5,977 nuclear warheads.

That was a week ago. Last weekend, an armed column of 25,000 Wagner mercenaries occupied the city of Rostov, an apparent mutiny, maybe a coup? Video of rogue tank columns rolling past a KFC (her banners wave in the day, the eternal Fried Chicken Republic) delighted the poets on Twitter. The scenes were reminiscent of the fall of Gorbachev, the coup against Yeltsin. Putin was on TV, invoking World War I like it happened yesterday: “In 1917 the result of the war was stolen which resulted in the collapse of our country and loss of land; we will not repeat the same thing again.”

He’s at war with the results of a war that ended over a century ago, and it’s on his mind, at least in part, because of the fate of another Russian autocrat after that defeat. And as suddenly as the past reappeared, it was mothballed, and everything returned back to abnormal.

“No other revolution attempted so vigorously to provoke an absolute break in continuity between the past and the present,” writes Djurdja Bartlett in FashionEast, her masterful history of Soviet fashion. Under Lenin the avant-garde designer Varvara Stepanova conceived of prozodezhda, an ideal worker’s fashion drawn from pure geometry. But it never went beyond theory.

Stalin created Dom Modelei, the House of Prototypes, in whose windows Russians could see styles the state had no means of mass producing. He sealed the Russian people off from fashion as a measure of time, the surest way to gauge one decade from the next, miniskirts tick-tocking into bell-bottoms, until two gifted childhood friends rose through the wreckage of the Soviet dream: The Little Leonids.

They began selling watches from the lobby of a Moscow Radisson in 1993. Bought a pair of humble shops that made them overnight moguls when the 1998 Russian financial crisis drove all their competitors under. In 2004 they bought the Russian Harrods, TSUM; in 2005, out in Barvikha, Moscow’s Aspen, they built Luxury Village—a whole town dedicated to shopping. By that day, a world ago, they even owned an auction house, Phillips de Pury, and were moments away from giving Moscow a gorgeous parade of all the cars the Soviet Union’s intelligentsia had decided Russians need never see, cars as a record of lost times: A ’26 Rolls Royce Phantom; a ’33 Mercedes roadster; a ’49 Chrysler Town & Country, a ’62 Corvette—this was the 20th century’s aesthetic memoir, written in fiberglass and steel.  

I was assigned to a red Jaguar, but across the way was something more compelling, a 1941 Nazi-made Horch whose team all wore authentic World War II Red Army battle uniforms. They told me the car had been seized from the Nazis on the Eastern front in 1943, then used throughout the war by General Georgi Zhukov, the Red Army marshal who broke the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad.

“I think I’d rather ride with you guys.”

After some debate (it really could have gone either way) I was invited into Georgi Zhukov’s Horch on the grounds that, while America had betrayed Russia terribly after Gorbachev, Georgi’s jeep was an enchanted space, a steely bubble within which, they slowly agreed, it was always and forever 1943, and Americans and Russians therefore allies fighting Hitler. They said this with grave, sincere faces, the same with which they told me, “World War II is the only real identity we have.”

Outside of the car our driver, Maxim, was an IT executive, but inside, he was a Red Army Air Force colonel. I sat in the back, wedged between Georgi, dressed as a proto-KGB agent, and the beautiful Natalia, who wore a field medic’s uniform. Our navigator, Daniel, was dressed as an artillery captain.

The author, center, at the 2012 Chopard Classic Car Rally
The author, center, at the 2012 Chopard Classic Car RallyCourtesy the author

I wore a navy blazer and buttery loafers, a perfect evocation of the American technocrats who, 20 years before, had cruised these same Moscow streets restructuring the Russian economy, preaching market gospel whose flaws were first gleaned in the botched privatizations that birthed Putin and his oligarchs in the ’90s, then created the 2008 financial crisis which, it’s now clear, created America’s own oligarchy at home. As I write this piece, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are planning a cage fight, a scene straight out of Thunderdome; or a bare-chested Vladimir Putin propaganda fantasy. Barricades held back paparazzi. An elderly woman waved at us like we were headed off to the front.

“This is where CIA spy was caught,” said Georgi, as we crossed Krymsky Bridge. “Then he poison himself.”

He shrugged as if to say, That’s the life he chose. I shrugged as if to say, So it goes. We drove for a while, then cruised alongside a pair of leather-jacketed KGB reenactors in a black Moriah. Georgi glowered at them from beneath his own KGB cap, a look of pure contempt. He was the Russian intelligence officer who’d fought Nazis and birthed a new world where miracles would abound; they were the ones who’d drag your grandmother off in the night.

Why were they dressed this way? Why had Maxim bought this car? Growing up in Russia, they told me, they’d all feared failing exams and being sent to Chechnya, being made worm’s meat for Putin’s army, his first attempt to restore the Soviet empire. Some friend would bomb a math test and off he’d go, unlikely to return the same.

The memory seemed to rupture the Horch’s exemption from time. Right after it was shared, the car broke down. Turned out we’d been puttering along on an 80-horsepower engine taken from a compact sedan, or even an alpha leaf blower. Whatever its first life had been, its second life was over.

A Volvo towed us along the Rublyovka road from Moscow to Barvikha.

“This is major artery in and out of Moscow,” said Georgi, “So we are safe from aerial bombing.”

“Bombing by who?”

“The Chinese have been encroaching along the southern border.”

We were towed to Luxury Village, the Leonids’ greatest creation. Glass-box stores and skyways, immaculate lawns, Prada, Gucci, the full pantheon. We unhitched from the Volvo and groaned onto the grandstand, our faces suddenly up on twin Jumbotrons facing Luxury Village’s central square, where rich Russians drank Moët and watched the finish.

Russia’s Howard Cosell is a man named Mark Podolsky, and he’d been hired to do postgame interviews just like a sportscaster at a real sporting event.

“How was it out there?” he asked Maxim.

“A mechanical disaster,” Maxim admitted, but then, this warms my heart now, he said that, with a New Yorker along, that didn’t matter; together we’d paid tribute to the fact of Russo-American teamwork killing lots of Nazis not too far from here, not so long ago.

“Let’s have a word from that American.”

“It was a wonderful day,” I told the Luxury Villagers, grinning like a smug twit. Obama was still in office, printing away the ’08 crash with reams of easy money; our own fine linear view of the future, and our fate, had not yet been laid low by plague, inflation, insurrection; I was different then, reader, I was happier; I was benighted, is what I’m saying.

“We’ve learned a lot about Russian history, haven’t we?”

The quieter of the Leonchiki, Leonid Strunin, is married to a ballerina and keeps an aquarium full of piranhas. He let his general manager talk for him as vodka flowed in the VIP section.

“We imported all the cedar siding on the storefronts from Canada,” he nodded to the wood slats adorning the glass boxes housing luxury brands like exotic pets, “We have good wood outside Moscow, but the grain isn’t perfect. In Canada we found the very best wood.”

“The bricks of the walkways you see here are all made in Holland,” he drew attention to the gray-black paths making frazzled homage to Copacabana beach; “These Dutch bricks are the very finest bricks. Amazing, isn’t it?”

The Russian Revolution dreamed of everything reborn through pure forms. The project was beautiful and doomed. So they’d rebuilt, something lesser, still a wonder: a Babel of all they’d ever gone without. Once the supermarket shelves were bare. Now, waiters delivered porterhouse steaks as the second of the Leonids approached, Leonid Friedland, hair close-cropped like Caesar, eyes like fragile robins’ eggs. We did a vodka shot, ate some tiny pickles. Asked about his astonishing rise, he bared himself in a way I hadn’t expected, stuttering faintly, even sweetly:

“Our first time out of Russia I was 19 years old. West Berlin. Fantastic. When we saw 300 kinds of cheeses in a store, I was just amazed. In Russia there was four kinds of cheese and never more than one in one store ...”

I’d laughed at Luxury Village, silly consumerism. Back then, I’d never known a busted supply chain. It wasn’t the paradise of Marxist dreams, but it was something even finer: a town built from dreams by two of history’s great survivors, friends whose families had come through pogroms, Hitler and Stalin to adorn, perhaps enchant, a neck of forest outside of Moscow.

Why then, I wondered, back in New York, would no one in the fashion world go on the record to acknowledge even knowing them? Some mixture of moral vanity and outright hypocrisy: Western brands wanted access to Moscow’s superrich, but the men who provided it, the costs of their ascent and the very grayness of the Russian economy, made an outright avowal undesirable. Anything is possible, in the late world, but pickles and cheese-rationing have yet to form a Met Gala theme.

Who made the Leonids? The architects of the privatization: Americans. And so Westerners used the men while disavowing them as “dirty,” making the Leonids ghosts of a kind: You could visit them, drink their vodka, but you would never get enough on-the-record material for the article to run and threaten the racket. I didn’t know this, then. My editor left Vanity Fair for Tesla; I got paid a nice kill fee and went to dinner in Brooklyn.

Time palsied, buckled, flew.

One night, in 2020, at an auction held by Phillips in Zurich, several watches sold suspiciously well. When a Patek Phillipe brought $3.6 million people whispered money-laundering.

Oligarchs were fleeing Russia, even dropping like flies, a spate of mysterious deaths, a real-life slasher film. Not the Leonids. Phillips came out early against the Ukraine war with a $7 million donation to Ukrainian charities. They’ve avoided sanctions against boycott calls from collectors and artists, Anish Kapoor among them. Why? Some say that the art market was too useful for the global rich, too essential for moving cash undetected. Let the masses winter without Russian oil; the rich require Russian auctions.

Leonid Strunin has relocated to Cyprus; Leonid Friedland has gone to Monaco. Good for them, I think now, writing this from my own place beyond the American Thunderdome, appreciating what Don DeLillo meant when he said exile compensates the banished with opportunities, for rest, reflection. A seat out on the edge of time. I hope they’re making the most of things, preparing for when Babel again needs rebuilding, and all is forgiven.

Dana Vachon is the author of the novels Memoirs and Misinformation (Knopf) and Mergers and Acquisitions (Riverhead). His essays and journalism have appeared in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. He writes from Lisbon.