From Russia, with Money

Among the city’s contingent of vastly wealthy international students, well-heeled Russians—their parents flush with the spoils of the post-Communist carve-up—have become the new kids on the bloc.

It’s a Friday afternoon at the Armani Café, and a young, dark-haired woman sitting at one of the circular booths appears to be having a problem.

“Find out how much money they make and call me back,” she says into her cell phone, sipping from a flute of Moscato d’Asti and picking at a caesar salad. “We’ll pay whatever it costs.”

At first glance, Elena (not her real name) looks like a hotshot PR exec, or possibly a fashion model. In fact, she’s a student, a 21-year-old double major at Boston University—studying art history and international relations. Right now, she’s less concerned with trade tariffs than with her efforts to rent an upscale lounge in the Fenway for a graduation party she’s planning. The promoter is saying no-go because the lounge will lose money. Elena argues the point in Russian-accented English.

“Fifteen grand? Tell them we’ll guarantee twenty, no problem,” she says. “I mean c’mon, there are four of us.”

THE IDEA OF serious wealth in Boston evokes visions of New England bluebloods, descendants of Mayflower money shuttling between Louisburg Square brownstones and Nantucket cottages, dining at the Oak Room clad in boat shoes and no socks. But there is an entirely different subset of wealth here, occupied by people of a less decorous nature, people for whom the word “blueblood” most likely calls to mind danger on the high seas. You’ll see these people bearing down on pedestrians in their BMWs, shaking their preternaturally trim behinds at the city’s chic nightclubs, secure in the knowledge that the tab is being picked up by a distant, unremittingly generous benefactor. Namely, Daddy.

We refer, of course, to the city’s contingent of international students.

While there are youths from just about every country on earth attending Boston’s schools, the society of international rich kids here has traditionally been dominated by two groups: kids from Western Europe and kids from the Middle East. Now, the Russians have gotten in on the action. The number of Russian students here hasn’t risen in recent years, but their disposable income certainly has. Their parents flush with the spoils of the post-Communist carve-up, wealthy Russian students enjoy an increasingly visible presence in Boston’s upscale nightclubs and high-end retailers. And though their academic credentials may not always be top-notch, these kids have proven themselves to be world-beaters when it comes to frittering cash.

Foreign students enrolled in Massachusetts schools contribute something like $890 million to the state’s economy, or about $30,000 a head, according to the Institute of International Education. For some students, though, 30 grand barely covers the year’s champagne expenditure. In this academic environment, success is measured less by grade point average than by monthly allowance. “European parents usually give their kids $3,000 a month and that’s a good life,” says Elena. “But for Arab and Russian parents, it’s $10,000.” She pauses to swallow a forkful of risotto. “It’s not about money.” She pauses again. “Well, maybe it’s about money.”

Much of the disposable income of Boston’s international students finds its way into the city’s exclusive, don’t-even-think-about-wearing-a-baseball-cap nightclubs: Caprice, Rumor, Gypsy, Venu. The elite of the elite, meanwhile, secure their own venues for their own private parties, as Elena has finally managed to do. “We’re going to Cristal the place,” she says, meaning that large amounts of expensive champagne will be consumed, and possibly sprayed about, during the celebration. She lights up and calls one of her friends. “Oh my God, it’s so on!” she says. “Poppin’ bottles!” She hangs up and adds, “Fifteen grand? On a Friday? I was expecting a lot more than that.”

Over at the Sunset Cantina, Alina Pliatskovskaia is in a less sanguine mood. Scanning the menu at the Brookline restaurant, she suddenly assumes an expression of distaste, the kind of face one might pull upon discovering that the chef’s special is calf-hoof quesadilla. The problem, it turns out, is nothing quite so dramatic.

“All people ever eat in Russia is soup,” Pliatskovskaia says, eyeing the soup of the day. “And I am not a fan of soup.”

Daughter of a well-known Russian songwriter and granddaughter of a famous Russian poet, the 21-year-old BU student doesn’t really need to tell you she’s not the type to tuck into a hearty bowl of soup. With carefully tousled hair, perfectly arched eyebrows, and high cheekbones, she has the sudden Slavic look suited to Bond films and vodka ads. Everything about this woman says class—and not in the academic sense.

Even the fact that Pliatskovskaia and her peers have chosen to go to college here seems to be a matter of taste. “Boston’s considered the top place in the world to send your kid to school,” says Elena. “It doesn’t matter what school; all the parents brag about their kid being in school in Boston.”

DESPITE THEIR conspicuous wealth, some students in the Boston scene still sneer at the Russians in their midst—at the women for having predatory sexual appetites and no fashion sense; at the men for attempting to hide their boorishness behind expensive cars and cheap cologne. Occasionally, the Russians will sneer at themselves. “Most of the Russian girls can’t dress,” says Elena. “I mean, they’ll wear Pucci with Cavalli with whatever, but it’ll be like from five or six seasons ago.” Russian guys, she says, aren’t as bad. “The guys have expensive and classy clothes, but they dress like old men, with high-waisted pants with big belts and tight shirts. They’ve got all the names and money, but they don’t know how to use it.”

According to Elena, the Russian student community in Boston falls into three distinct groups. The first of these are the Russian-American kids, those who grew up in Brookline and Brighton, in Russian communities with parents born in Russia. These students tend to be middle class, and largely conform to the traditional college lifestyle: drinking beer, skipping classes, and making out in shitty dorms around lower Allston.

The second group is more of a jet-setting crew, Russian kids who attended boarding school in Europe or New York City, who have at least one parent living in the West, usually a mother who likes to shop. These kids are part of the in crowd and have no problem strolling over to Newbury to pick up a pair of $1,200 handstitched jeans from EVISU or a custom-ordered $190 silver jewelry cap for their KY Jelly tube at Riccardi.

Still, the jet setters don’t touch the London Russians, the offspring of those who prospered in the post-Soviet era, the often shady oligarchs who escaped their legal woes and political foes by moving to London. These guys have serious, Forbes magazine money. “They are the biggest crew,” says Elena, “the most stylish, and they party the most.”

Judging from her outfit at Armani, Elena is London Russian material. Decked out in a plum cashmere sweater, jeans “from Barneys or something,” knee-high Stella McCartney boots, and a snakeskin bracelet from Bottega Veneta, she looks like a Russian Penélope Cruz: petite face, dark hair, sly smile. She’ll allow that her father works in “the oil business… and now the real estate business and a few other things,” and that she grew up in Moscow and went to high school in New York City. Elena speaks with the tumbling velocity of a typical college girl and the upward inflection of someone who spends a lot of time in Europe.

Elena is a harsh critic of the international scene, unforgiving of those who violate its standards of taste. And, like any critic worth her salt, she makes facile use of her chosen field’s jargon. She speaks, for instance, of “Christmas Trees”—a term that refers to girls who over-accessorize: “Everything hangs off them at the same time.” Then there are “Traffic Lights”—boys who lack color coordination: “They’ll wear a red jacket with a green shirt and yellow shoes. They literally look like traffic lights.”

A few years ago, when Russia was still coming to grips with capitalism, when the lucky few who came into money seemed stupefied by their own wealth, there was much to make fun of in their Boston-bound offspring. “The first wave of kids here tried to outdo the Arabs in having the most expensive things and being very flashy,” explains Elena, adding that the situation has since calmed down. “The Russian guys here now don’t care about those things as much,” she says. “They all live outside of the city in these townhouses, and they’re very demure and low-key and drink vodka alone and have barbecues and hang out.
“The boys go crazy when they’re back in Moscow, but girls have more fun partying and going crazy here.”

IT’S NEARLY 1 a.m. in the Theater District, and the international rich kids are out in force. Outside the nightclub Rumor, a black S500 Mercedes sits idling, parked in front of a Jaguar and a Porsche Cayenne. Nearby, bouncers keep the nobodies at bay. “Just give me a fucking name!” a girl in a black tube top shouts into her phone. “I don’t care, any fucking name I can use!” A few Russian guys make it inside, despite being dressed in pants with high waists, tight shirts, and big belts. Even the Traffic Lights get in, a true testament to the power of wealth. Elena, of course, breezes past the bouncers without pause.

“Who the fuck are they?” the tube top girl yells. “Why the fuck are they getting in?”

Inside, Rumor looks like a movie-set mansion—white pillars, sheer curtains, extravagant chandeliers. This is the beating heart of the scene, and it beats to the bass of house and hip-hop and Latin dance. There is skin on display, girls in strapless shirts and big beaded necklaces. Their purses, draped in sequins, glittering like the disco ball above. All the girls have big hair, and most of them can dance, really dance, and the club accommodates this by putting boxes up above the floor so the girls can dance and everyone can be seen.

The Russians are—it seems almost too obvious to point out—drinking vodka.

But this bacchanalia won’t last forever. For most of the kids here, graduation means moving on to responsibility and jobs, the roles of power they’ve been primed for for their entire lives. Back at Armani, as Elena finishes a cup of Earl Grey tea, the sun setting below the brownstones, she speculates about where she might go after Boston. “Everyone wants to end up in London or Paris or New York,” she says, fiddling with her snakeskin bracelet. “But I can’t think about that right now. I’ve got to plan this party and study for finals.

“Besides,” she adds, flashing her Penélope Cruz smile, “we’ve already got apartments in all those places.”