Hmmm, this strategy sounds familiar.
During the corrupt, chaotic process of privatization, a handful of businessmen acquired lucrative state enterprises at cut-rate prices, becoming multimillionaires overnight. To the people, they were thieves, and the oligarchs found it necessary to rebrand themselves. They did so, in part, by drawing on pre-revolutionary models of art patronage. In the later nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, industrialists like Savva Mamontov (who opened his own private opera and was said to possess “a sort of electric current that ignited other people’s energies”) and Pavel Tretyakov (whose art collection became one of Russia’s best museums) had supported artists who left a lasting mark on world culture. These patrons were called “Maecenases”: wealthy, powerful men motivated by a passion for art and the desire to bring glory to their country. They were filthy rich, but they were also the good guys.
And so, starting in the 1990s, Russia’s oligarchs made like Maecenases, collecting art, supporting the theater and sponsoring literary prizes. Many also donated large sums to charity—usually to crowd-pleasing causes like orphans, pensioners, veterans and medical aid. They came to be called “philanthropists,” although, like philanthropists elsewhere, they were motivated largely by self-interest. Businessmen often concentrated their charity work in their hometowns or in the places where their businesses were located; for those running for office, this had the convenient side effect of winning votes. Others scored political points for providing social benefits that were no longer the government’s responsibility, taking some of the sting out of the demise of the Soviet welfare state. Putin’s government has made it clear that it supports this practice; some observers say that government-approved philanthropy constitutes an unofficial tax.