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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Poor Rich

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There have been periods in human history when being rich was not particularly pleasant. Take the Middle Ages, when wealth was believed to be incompatible with Christian salvation. St. Francis of Assisi, a young man from a good family, distributed his property to the poor and took a vow of poverty. There was also Enrico Scrovegni of Padua, who built a luxurious chapel and hired Giotto to paint it with religious subjects in order to expiate the sins of his father, Reginaldo, whom Dante had consigned to hell as a usurer in the Divine Comedy.

Fortunately, the Protestants were able to reconcile religious faith with the pursuit of happiness, especially of the pecuniary kind. In the United States today, being successful in business has become all but synonymous with righteousness, while having lots of money is a sure sign of divine grace. It is a great time to be rich in America. Since everything you own comes from the Lord, you owe little or nothing at all to Caesar. Not surprisingly, the pious Bush administration has been busy cutting income taxes for the richest 5 percent of the population.

On the other hand, I believe that it is difficult to be rich in Russia. In the early post-Soviet period it was actually dangerous, with gangsters, racketeers, extortionists, hired killers and other unpleasant characters. Then, in 1998, came the default, which quickly destroyed a sizeable portion of the newly accumulated wealth.

Unlike America, where you're often asked "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" the wealthy are not held in high regard in Russia. Whether it is an outgrowth of the communist mentality or reaches deeper into the collectivist past of the village commune is difficult to say. Worse, if your fortune happens to come from natural resources, you are also regarded as a thief, who somehow managed to appropriate an asset that, by rights, should belong to the entire nation. And if, as part of the bargain, you are not an ethnic Russian but a "person of a Caucasus nationality" or a Jew, you're certainly not going to win any popularity contests.

Moreover, the Russian version of Caesar is both insatiable and comes in many guises, ranging from corrupt government official to the tax police and Kremlin satraps who, at any time, can take away your business and send you packing to the Chita region. This is not yet Nikanor Ivanovich's dream from Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," where the rich are detained in a large auditorium for weeks and shaken down for gold, hard currency and other hidden assets, but it is starting to come uncomfortably close.

Then there is the existential angst. For all of its putative religious revival, Russia remains a profoundly atheistic society. Whatever can be said of the populist "McChristianity" practiced in the United States, most Americans are sincere in their religious faith. They are confident in the knowledge that the Lord has not only bestowed wealth upon them on this earth, but that He will keep taking care of them in the afterlife.

Now, imagine yourself as a wealthy Russian. You have survived the lawless early 1990s, squirreled away sizeable offshore bank accounts, moved your family to safety in London, and even paid off the voracious members of officialdom. You have everything your heart desires -- villas, expensive gadgets, beautiful women, fancy hobbies. The world is your oyster. The only thing that spoils your enjoyment is that all of it will -- quite soon -- come to an end.

A Russian friend once called me from Norilsk, asking me to bring a package from New York. He and his friends -- all young, wealthy, hard-living Muscovites -- had found an American doctor who had guaranteed to keep them active and virile into their 100s. Poor guy! As I hauled a huge suitcase full of vitamins, herbal supplements and bee pollen halfway across the globe, I just couldn't help feeling sorry for him.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.