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Living Large

Too much is never enough for Russia's new moneyed class.

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Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 05/09/2008

Too much is never enough for Russia’s new moneyed class. 

There’s a subset of Moscow women—wealthy, pampered, cordoned off from the rest of the world—who have emerged out of the post-Soviet murk and who now define what it means to be beautiful. Twenty years ago, of course, no one knew so much untapped beauty lurked behind the Iron Curtain. Ten years ago, Russia was still more over the top—more garish and theatrical—than it was fashionable.

But that is of the past.

Today, Moscow’s elitny dyevushki (elite girls) are an international force. They’ve achieved this status by dint of their gene pool, their bank accounts, their unabashed desire to spend as much money as possible in this lifetime (and  possibly the next) and their phenomenal attention to detail. They devote hours attending to every pore, every potential wrinkle, every last square inch of their physique. They shop in Milan, Paris, London, sometimes New York. They always look perfect, be they picking up groceries at one of the city’s ultra-expensive Globus Gourmet supermarkets, strolling down Tverskaya Ulitsa, Moscow’s main drag, or dining at Pavilion, the five-star cafe overlooking Patriarch’s Ponds. They are always on display.

Exhibit A: Alina Rottenberg.

We are in Rottenberg’s bathroom, not the bathroom she shares with her husband, Igor, a railway magnate, but the other bathroom, the bathroom where Rottenberg spends two or three hours daily preparing herself for the outside world. It is her sanctuary.

“There is, in Moscow, a cult of beauty,” says Rottenberg, 32. “It is very strong. It’s everywhere.”

The bathroom is not big for a nearly 2,700-square-foot apartment in an exclusive Moscow enclave—the Rottenbergs live in a high-security community in the Sokol region rife with oligarchs, mini-garchs and expatriate investment bankers—but it contains  almost every beauty-enhancing product imaginable.

First off, there’s La Mer face cream. Very important. Then there’s La Mer moisturizer. La Mer is part of her everyday routine. Three or four times a week, Rottenberg applies a La Prairie deep-cleansing mask. She’s also a big fan of Carita’s hydration mask and Givenchy’s Black For Light mask. “It makes your skin shimmer.” And once or twice a week, she takes a Thal’ion seaweed bath (although this is time-consuming, requiring 20 minutes in the bath followed by another 20 minutes of lying in bed).  

Then there’s an array of second-tier products that weave in and out of her daily regime: a Dior micro-peel, any number of masks and exfoliators and eye and lip creams, an Aveda spray-on shine for the hair. (“You can’t get this in Moscow. You have to go to Europe.”) On top of this is the Aldo Coppola shampoo that Rottenberg swears by. Every three weeks, when she gets her hair done by her personal stylist for 21,000 rubles ($850), she takes her shampoo with her.

But Rottenberg is not simply a mannequin. She’s a Russian woman, which means she’s expected to have strong opinions. True, Russia has some fairly backward ideas about women—the 19th-century “woman question” dealing with things like voting and the right to own land seems somehow unresolved—but this is a country that is not averse to female power. Catherine the Great, who came to define enlightened despotism, remains part of the national mythology, and the Russian woman is still the queen and lord of her household.

Without a doubt, Alina Rottenberg has no trouble making decisions. She’s currently helping coordinate the finances and interior design of the soon-to-be-finished Four Seasons hotel adjacent to Red Square.

Nor is she a trophy wife or much of a homemaker. Sitting in her French country-style kitchen, Rottenberg quips: “I never cook. I use [the kitchen] to make eggs, sometimes, on Saturdays.” Her favorite books include Eric Burn’s An Introduction to Psychiatry, and anything by Agatha Christie and the Russian novelists Boris Akunin, Vladimir Nabokov and Mikhail Bulgakov. She was a huge Balzac fan “when I was little.”

Before marrying Igor Rottenberg, formerly the number two at Russian Railways, the country’s equivalent of Amtrak, Rottenberg studied at the London School of Economics and has traveled widely in Europe, Israel and the U.S. She prefers Italy to France. (“In France, I didn’t feel comfortable.”) New York, she says, was “very attractive.” Connecticut was “boring.” California, Rottenberg pouts, was “disappointing. We went to that boulevard with the Chinese theater, and I thought, ‘Is that all?’”

Like others of her ilk, Rottenberg’s dream weekend away revolves around Rome: two nights at the Hotel du Russe, dinner at a little known place near the Spanish Steps and plenty of shopping at Brioni and Fendi.

Her apartment reflects her particular tastes: There’s a huge saltwater fish tank, a staple of Nineties “New Russian” money. There’s a vase and a silver tea set from the Caucasus, an antique drum from Zimbabwe, a Tunisian dining table and chest and a chandelier from Italy. The center of attention is a Roy Lichtenstein painting, Crying Baby, which a friend Rottenberg declines to name gave her for her 32nd birthday.

But it’s Rottenberg’s personal appearance—her unfailing obedience to the cult of beauty—that seems to take precedence over everything else. This is hardly limited to her bathroom. It includes daily, two-hour sessions at the World Gym, off supertony Romanov Lane, where clients are said to pay as much as $10,000 for yearly membership. (“You have to be fit. You can’t afford to be fat,” says Rottenberg. “I don’t know a lot of Russian women who are fat or even a little overweight.”) It also means regular trips to the Chiva-Som spa in Thailand. (“Kate Moss, I think, says it’s her favorite place,” Rottenberg says of the spa, which runs as much as $7,000 to $8,000 for a week.) And it means having all the right clothing and accessories. (“My two weaknesses are handbags and shoes.”) And the right lipstick (dusty pink or classic red by OPI), the right nail polish (dark red or dark purple) and “frequent” trips to the salon for 1,000-ruble ($40) manicures and pedicures.

Far more important than buying things is a certain attitude, a way of looking at material goods, money and beauty in a way that is largely foreign to Westerners. In the U.S., the wealthy are sensitive to accusations of ostentatiousness or pretension. To show off is to be newly rich, to broadcast that you know nothing about how to spend money, only how to make it. Those with money in Moscow are unencumbered by the same sensitivities. The only reason Russia’s rich make money is to spend it, not to save or donate but to devote as much money to the present as possible, to making themselves look good and to making sure that everyone knows they have the means to do it. In this way, the old Russian fatalism, the fear that tomorrow you may die, has helped reinforce contemporary thinking about money. To defer gratification isn’t just self-righteous; it’s stupid.

There are signs that the cult of beauty is evolving. Last year, Chanel, in conjunction with the Pushkin State Museum, launched a commemorative exhibit, including everything from little black dresses to old fragrance bottles. The stated reason for the exhibit was to celebrate the life of Coco Chanel. The underlying reason was that Chanel believes there’s a big market waiting to be tapped in Russia. “We think it’s about time the Russian consumer starts to know what fashion really is,” one Chanel staffer said privately, not wanting to offend any of Chanel’s Russian hosts. “Enough with all this Italian nonsense.”

But for now, an Italian sensibility is what’s hot in Moscow. It is about glitz and shiny skin and gyms that cost more than gyms anywhere else in the world and the most expensive bottled water (from the Italian Alps, of course) and weekend shopping sprees in Rome and Milan. It is about over-the-topness and spending as much money right now and hoping there will be enough tomorrow to spend some more. “The most important thing,” Rottenberg says of Moscow at this time, “is looking good. Looking good is extraordinarily important.”

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