We first met years ago in an Irish bar in Moscow. My highly intelligent colleague Lyuba and I were celebrating the end of two weeks of on-the-ground research and interviews for one of my novels. Sasha had just dragged some dead mafia from a swamp and was in no mood for fictional heroes. Now that he is married to Lyuba, he is forced to endure my constant questions, although he gripes that my Investigator Renko should be a regular detective like him.
Racing began across the boulevard. Competitors were a blur between spectators, the smaller bikes accelerating with a whine while the heavyweights produced a roar that made the ground tremble. The finish line was negotiable, anywhere from a hundred meters to a circuit of the Garden Ring, the peripheral road around the center of Moscow, where bikes could reach 120 miles an hour, depending on traffic. Car races also took place, or did until the crackdown after YouTube featured videos of drivers weaving in and out of Ring traffic at three times the speed limit.
A biker in a padded leather outfit—more a belief system than actual protection—mounted a Kawasaki, maybe 750cc. What did I know? I once rode a Vespa scooter from Rome to the south of Spain; that's the extent of my expertise, and I worried when a teenage girl wearing little more than a helmet hopped on behind. As soon as she had a grip, they glided toward the race lanes. The girl looked so frail I had to ask, Who is in charge? Where are the police?
Sasha pointed at a group of militia officers who stood bashfully to one side.
"It's out of their control."
The bikes blasted off the mark. In seconds the kids were taillights that faded away.
WHO IS IN CHARGE? Vladimir Putin? His successor, Dmitry Medvedev? The legendary oligarchs? The KGB disguised as a kinder FSB? (There does seem to be an active or former secret agent on the board of every major company.) Well, as they say in Russia, "Those who know, know." What is certain is that Moscow is afloat in petrodollars; there are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world. More than New York, London, or Dubai. Millionaires are as common as pigeons. Together the rich and mega-rich constitute a social class who were loosely called New Russians when they first appeared in the 1990s. Half of them are survivors of industrial shake-ups like the "aluminum war" of ten years ago, when executives were killed left and right. Half have discovered that starting a bank is more profitable than robbing one. Half are young financial trapeze artists swinging from one hedge fund to another. (You can have three halves in Russia.)