Originally Answered: How did the Russian Oligarchs come about and get chosen?
The Russian oligarchs are business entrepreneurs who started under Gorbachev during his period of market liberalization. Rare goods, such as PCs and jeans, were smuggled into the country and sold on the black market for a hefty profit, an unforeseen consequence of partial market liberalization with still-excessive trade restrictions. In the 1990s, the oligarchs emerged as well-connected entrepreneurs who started from nearly nothing and got rich through participation in the market via connections to the corrupt, but democratically elected, government of Russia during the state's transition to a market-based economy. The oligarchs became extremely unpopular with the Russian public, and are commonly thought to be the cause of much of the turmoil that plagued the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Guardian described the oligarchs as "about as popular with your average Russian as a man idly burning bundles of £50s outside an orphanage".
Post-Soviet business oligarchs include relatives or close associates of government officials, even government officials themselves, as well as criminal bosses who achieved vast wealth by acquiring state assets very cheaply (or for free) during the privatization process controlled by the Yeltsin government. Specific accusations of corruption are often leveled at Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, two of the 'Young Reformers' chiefly responsible for Russian privatization in the early 1990s. According to David Satter, author of Darkness at Dawn, "what drove the process was not the determination to create a system based on universal values but rather the will to introduce a system of private ownership, which, in the absence of law, opened the way for the criminal pursuit of money and power." In some cases, outright criminal groups in order to avoid attention assign front men to serve as executives and/or 'legal' owners of the companies they control.
Although the majority of oligarchs were not formally related with the communist party of the Soviet Union, there are allegations that they were promoted (at least initially) by the communist apparatchiks, with strong connections to Soviet power structures and access to the monetary funds of the communist party. In official media, oligarchs are usually pictured as the enemies of "communist forces". The latter is a stereotype that describes political power that wants to restore Soviet-style communism in Russia.
During Yeltsin's presidency, oligarchs became increasingly influential in politics and played a significant role in financing the re-election of Yeltsin in 1996. With the insider information about financial decisions of the government, oligarchs could easily increase their wealth even further. The 1998 Russian financial crisis hit some of the oligarchs hard, however, and those whose holdings were based on banking lost much of their fortunes.
In the Putin era, other oligarchs have come under fire for various alleged illegal activities, particularly tax evasion in the businesses they acquired. However, it is widely believed that the charges are politically motivated, as these tycoons have fallen out of favour with the Kremlin. Vladimir Gusinsky (MediaMost) and Boris Berezovsky both escaped justice by running out of Russia, and the most prominent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Yukos oil), was arrested in October 2003, and sentenced to 9 years.
Their defenders (often associated with Chubais's party—the Union of Right Forces) argue the companies they acquired were not highly valued at the time because they were still run on Soviet principles, with non-existent stock controls, huge payrolls, no financial reporting and scant regard for profit. They turned the businesses—often vast—around and made them deliver value for shareholders. They obtain little sympathy from the Russian public, though, due to resentment over the economic disparity they represent.
In 2004, Russian Forbes listed 36 billionaires of Russian citizenship, with an interesting note: "this list includes businessmen of Russian citizenship who acquired the major share of their wealth privately, while not holding a governmental position". In 2005, the number of billionaires dropped to 30, mostly because of the Yukos case, with Khodorkovsky dropping from #1 ($15.2 bln) to #21 ($2.0 bln).
Billionaire, philantropist, and art patron Alexander Lebedev has criticized the oligarchs, saying "I think material wealth for them is a highly emotional and spiritual thing. They spend a lot of money on their own personal consumption." Lebedev has also described them as a bunch of uncultured ignoramuses, saying "They don't read books. They don't have time. They don't go to exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht." He also notes that the oligarchs have no interest in social injustice. According to Lebedev, some members of this exclusive list - known as the golden 100 - are now down to their l