Monday, July 03, 2006

The Strange Tale of German Sterligov

German Sterligov is an interesting man. In some ways this Russian is the embodiment of all American wingnuts in one package:

German Sterligov was one of post-communist Russia's first multi-millionaires. By the age of 24, he had built up a financial empire with offices in London and New York. He is now 39 - but no longer a jet-setting financial whizzkid. With his wife and five children, Sterligov decided to adopt a traditional peasant life-style deep in the Russian countryside. And on one of his now rare trips to Moscow, he told Fred Dove why he could not be happier.

This is from the BBC program(me) Outlook. I listened to the interview with Fred Dove in the middle of last night (it's hot and humid here and my scales itch), and found out that Sterligov is also a religious fanatic, of the Russian orthodox type. Inbetween making millions and turning into a peasant he also tried to run for political offices:

A member of the Orthodox church with strong nationalist views, he entered politics, running on an anti-abortion and pro-death penalty ticket for governor of a Siberian region in 2002 and then for mayor of Moscow. Both attempts ended in failure. Three years ago he tried to run for president but the Kremlin barred him.

Sterligov said he had lost a fortune on his three doomed campaigns but denied this was the reason for his radical change of lifestyle. "I moved not because of financial problems but because I don't want my children to be exposed to the morally bankrupt society we used to live in," he said.

Doesn't he sound like all the wingnuts packed into one? All that greed for money and shady relations to the Russian Maffia, being pro-life and pro-death at the same time, and then the decision to pack it all in and live isolated from the morally bankrupt society in some sort of a fundy idyll.

And what is this idyll like? This is a fairly close description of what I heard on the BBC:

AFTER becoming one of post-communist Russia's first millionaires at the age of 24, German Sterligov lost no time building a financial empire with offices in Wall Street and Mayfair. Now, at 39, he has tired of life in the fast lane.

He has given up the two private planes and the fleet of luxurious cars, the four-storey Moscow mansion and the Manhattan penthouse.

In their place he has acquired a horse and a tractor, and moved his wife and five children into a three-bedroomed wooden house with no electricity or gas on a patchwork of fields surrounded by forbidding forest. Sterligov the international whiz-kid has become a humble peasant.

Until recently he brokered lucrative deals and tended a fortune which, at its peak, stood at hundreds of millions of dollars. Last week he was looking after pigs and sheep.

The family bakes its own bread and instead of champagne, Sterligov and Lena, his wife of 17 years, drink milk from their own cows, and kvas, a brown alcoholic brew made with birch-tree juice.

In summer their small corner of countryside 100 miles south of Moscow is infested with mosquitoes and in winter, when temperatures can drop to
-45C, the house is heated by a wood-burning stove and lit with candles.


His quest for a simple life is uncompromising. There is no road to the Sterligovs' house — only sprawling fields and dense fir and birch. It is so remote that in snow it can be reached only by horse sleigh. A fence surrounds the house and three stables to keep out wolves.

In a muddy garden where geese and chicken roam, Sterligov has had a lavatory built. There is no radio in the house, let alone television. The floor is made of dusty planks.

"It's been quite a change," said Lena Sterligova, 38, her hair covered by a scarf as she toiled in the kitchen. "When German was a millionaire I was the wife of a millionaire, constantly shadowed by bodyguards. Now that he is a peasant I am the wife of a peasant.

"When we married he promised an adventurous ride. It certainly has been that, but I think our life now is great. The only thing I miss is a hot bath." Last winter she briefly went back to her mother in Moscow with Mihey, her 18-month-old baby.

Sterligov, who once employed more than 2,500 people and now has three, said he had not asked his wife's opinion before changing their lives. He claimed friends who thought he had gone mad had come to envy his uncluttered existence.

"He had not asked his wife's opinion before changing their lives." In the interview I heard he was asked whether he discussed the change with his family beforehand. He answered that it was a crisis and there was no time to communicate. At such times it is the man, the head of the family, who makes the decisions. The wife must bend.

Hmmm. This guy could really stand for the whole Wingnuttia. Note that the children are home-schooled:

Instead of attending a private school, Pelageya and her brothers Arseniy, 9, Sergiy, 5, and Panteleimon, 3, play in the stables and are taught at home by village teachers in exchange for a turkey or goat. In the evenings their father reads them religious and historical texts. His mobile phone and the brass bell that Alisa traders used to mark the end of a day's trading are the only reminders of his past life.

In the BBC interview Sterligov stated that he will not let his children attend universities, either, because universities are morally corrupt. He plans to keep his children at home for ever, it seems, in his little realm where he is the absolute monarch.

I'm not very surprised that the local peasants burned down his house. It's an insult for a rich person to come and play peasant like this; an insult to all those who actually are peasants and who would prefer an easier life. Like Marie Antoinette playing milkmaids with her ladies of the court.

This is not to sneer at the desire for a simpler and more spiritual life. Many people share that desire. But it sounds to me as if Sterligov is not trying to integrate his family with the local peasantry. Neither does he seem to really simplify his existence. He has just changed one way of being extremely busy with another way of being at least as busy.

But it's the wife's work my beady feminist eye notices. Do you know how much harder peasant women work than the men, most of the year? Given Sterligov's belief in male dominance I doubt that he helps with any chores traditionally regarded as female.

Imagine a house with no electricity and no hot water. Imagine five children to care for, bread to bake from scratch. Imagine a small baby in the middle of it all and the winter outside gives you a temperature of -45 Celsius (-49 Fahrenheit). How does she do the laundry? By hand? In cold water? Imagine how long everything takes and imagine how isolated you are in a house with no road to it.

For her sake I really hope that her statement of now being happy with her husband's choice is true.