Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Seize the Assets of Russian Oligarchs — And of U.S. Oligarchs Too

Russian billionaires own big swathes of New York City and London. Politicians are saying these mansions and penthouses should be seized. A great idea — but why only apply it to Russian billionaires?

Nathaniel Flakin

March 21, 2022
Facebook Twitter Share
It doesn't matter if the billionaire who owns this is Russian or American — empty condos like this should be seized and used to house refugees. (Picture: An apartment belonging to Jeff Bezos, via cityrealty.com)

As war rages in Ukraine, more than a million people have fled the country. In order to put pressure on Russia, Western governments have begun seizing assets that belong to Russian oligarchs.

Who are “oligarchs,” exactly? The term refers to the billionaires who control Russia’s economy — a tiny clique that props up Vladimir Putin’s government. As the Soviet planned economy was chaotically disassembled after 1991, these men gobbled up the assets.

The oligarchs are, in general, closely linked to the Kremlin — yet they keep a large chunk of their money outside the country. They snatch up mega-yachts in southern France, penthouse apartments in Manhattan, or townhouses in London (and then dig four-story basements full of luxury). Realty speculation is a good way to park capital — and also to cover up its sources.

Now, Western governments have started seizing such assets. Ten days ago, for example, the UK announced it was sanctioning Roman Abramowich, the owner of the Chelsea football club, along with six other oligarchs. This is a big move for the government of Boris Johnson, whose Conservative Party has taken plenty of donations from Russian investors in “Londongrad.”

Dominic Raab, Johnson’s deputy, has said that oligarchic mansions should be taken over and used to house refugees from Ukraine. This was an interesting proposal by a conservative politician otherwise known as a defender of sacred property rights.

Mark Levine, the borough president of Manhattan, made a similar demand:

For years Manhattan has been one of the most popular safe harbors for Russian oligarchs to park their cash, especially via ultra-high-end apartments. It’s time to start seizing their properties.

This is an excellent idea. In a city with a terrible housing crisis, it has always been criminal that apartments are kept empty.

Wealthy Russians do own a big chunk of New York’s real estate. But it is hard to say who owns what, exactly, since so much expensive housing technically belongs to secretive shell companies.

Nonetheless, studies looking at the buyers of luxury properties show that Russians are nowhere near the top of the list. Who is gobbling up housing, as a speculative asset? Good ol’ American billionaires!

Jeff Bezos, for example, owns five gargantuan condos in Manhattan. Bezos, of course, does not live in the city. Yet he nonetheless claims enough space to house dozens of people.

Everyone would agree we should take over housing controlled by Russian oligarchs. The term suggests that Russian capitalists got rich with mafia methods and favors from corrupt governments — which is certainly true.

But are U.S. billionaires any different? Tesla, Amazon, and Microsoft — to name the companies of just the three wealthiest billionaires — have long records of illegal, monopolistic practices. All of these companies get subsidies from public coffers, while paying little to nothing in taxes themselves. 

Musk and Bezos both had workers risk their lives in order to maximize profits during a pandemic. Why is their wealth any more legitimate than that of Abramowich and friends? 

The fortunes of Russia’s oligarchs are downright tiny compared to those of their U.S. counterparts. According to Wikipedia, the ten wealthiest men in Russia have a total wealth of $200 billion. That is less than just the #1 oligarch in the United States, Elon Musk. According to the same source, the top ten billionaires in this country have something like $1.3 trillion between them.

Jeff Bezos has gotten wealthy by refusing to pay his workers a living wage or allow them to join a union. Why should he own tens of thousands of square feet of living space right in the middle of New York City? It is time to take over that property and use it to house needy New Yorkers.

Facebook Twitter Share

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


United States

The New Hollywood McCarthyism Emerging Around Palestine

Over the past week, a new Hollywood McCarthyism has emerged: multiple people in Hollywood have jobs and representation over their support of Palestine. We must denounce and fight these attacks which weaken the movement and scare supporters into silence.

Sybil Davis

December 3, 2023
A UAW sign is held next to a "Free Palestine" sign

The UAW Has Called for a Ceasefire. It’s Time for All of Labor to Stand Up.

The UAW International union has joined calls for a ceasefire and is exploring how to divest from Israel. This is a step which should inspire union activists to take up the fight to bring their union into the fight against Israel's attack on Gaza and the struggle against imperialism.

Rose Lemlich

December 2, 2023

A Pause in Genocide Is Not Enough: Jewish Voice for Peace Shuts Down the Manhattan Bridge

Amid a pause in Israel’s offensive on Gaza, Jewish Voice for Peace is showing that the movement for Palestine will continue. Civil disobedience must lead to broad protests which bring all sectors of the movement together.

Samuel Karlin

November 26, 2023
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid, and Tahseen Ahmed wearing Keffiyes. They were shot in Burlington, Vermont, USA.

The Three Palestinians Shot in Burlington Are Victims of Rising Islamophobia

Three Palestinian men were shot in Burlington Vermont while walking down the street. The campaign against Palestine has dehumanized all Palestinians and left them more vulnerable to these types of attacks.

Sybil Davis

November 26, 2023


All That's Left, the podcast from Left Voice.

#AllThatsLeftPod: What the Historic UAW Victory Means for the Working Class

In this episode of the podcast, we discuss the historic UAW victory, its shortcomings, and the tasks for the future.

Left Voice

December 5, 2023

Robert Habeck Wrote a Play Praising a Right-Wing Mass Murderer

Germany's Green vice chancellor strikes many as an idealist who has been struggling with the tough realities of government. Yet before he was a national politician, he wrote a play that opens a window into a dark soul.

Nathaniel Flakin

December 1, 2023

The World Kissinger Built Must Die Too

Henry Kissinger died at 100 years old. But his legacy remains in the brutal world system he built and the future generations of imperialist ghouls he inspired. They all must go.

Samuel Karlin

November 30, 2023

Fact Check: Did German Leftists Try to Bomb West Berlin’s Jewish Community Center in 1969?

Answer: No. The bombing was undertaken by West Germany’s domestic secret service, originally founded by Nazis.

Nathaniel Flakin

November 29, 2023