MOSCOW — A fine view of Russia's political and economic landscape opens up from the office of Irina Gofman, the chief executive of Rambler, one of Russia's largest Internet companies.
Her office at the top of a converted factory overlooks a dilapidated industrial plant, one of many that fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Farther away is the tall, shining headquarters of Yukos, once Russia's largest oil company, born out of a controversial privatization in the mid-1990s and virtually destroyed by an even more controversial renationalization last year.
In the distance gleam the cupolas of the Kremlin, which in the last two years has reestablished control over the commanding heights of the Russian economy.
The panorama is a reminder of the challenges and adversities that Russian companies face. Rambler, however, has just transcended its Russian boundaries and become an internationally recognized business. Last month the company, registered in Britain, raised $40 million on AIM, the London Stock Exchange's junior market.
Rambler is one of several companies that have listed their shares on the London exchange and its subsidiary markets in the last six months, raising a total of $2.4 billion. That compares with just $1.6 billion raised by Russian companies in all markets in the previous 10 years.
Others that have joined the rush include Sistema, an industrial conglomerate that controls the country's largest mobile telecommunications operator; EvrazHolding, Russia's largest steel company; and Pyaterochka, the country's biggest grocery retailer. Novatek, an independent gas producer, plans an initial public stock offering this month that could raise as much as $966 million. More companies are on their way to London, including Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant and aluminum producer Rusal.
Each company has its own reasons for going public, but together they testify to the robustness and vitality of private business that has developed in Russia over the last decade. Their progress toward public-company status has been anything but straightforward, often obstructed by state interference and by having to operate in a tough and lawless environment. But their international listings mark a new phase in the development of Russian business.
There has been little good news from Russia over the last two years. Economic growth is slowing. Structural reforms are at a standstill. Domestic investors, unnerved by the pursuit of Yukos and signs of deterioration in the financial climate, have scaled down their investments.
But against this gloomy background, the wave of IPOs has revealed the survival instinct of Russian business.
"The IPOs are about the most positive thing that is happening right now. It is a very broad-based sign that the market economy here is maturing," said Charles Ryan, head of United Financial Group, a Moscow-based investment bank that acted as lead manager for some of the recent IPOs. "We are finally seeing some companies that are in industries that did not exist in the Soviet command system, that have achieved a scale, a history and a maturity to do an IPO."
The fact that many Russian companies have chosen to list abroad rather than at home, and the fact that few have apparently needed to raise new capital, has elicited questions about the motives behind the wave of IPOs.
Jean Lemierre, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said that though the bank welcomed the fact that Russian companies were going public, it would like to see more listings in the domestic market.
"On the one hand, it is a good thing that these companies are listing in London; it puts them under market pressure and opens them up to scrutiny," he said. "On the other hand, it shows that Russian capital markets remain underdeveloped and, since most of these IPOs are done in a foreign market, there could be an element of capital flight in them."
Yet most company owners and analysts say that doing an IPO in London is too time-consuming, complex and transparent for the purposes of capital flight.
"There are much simpler and quieter ways for taking money out of Russia," said Alexander Abramov, the head of EvrazHolding. "You can, for example, pay yourself a large dividend over a short period of time, pay 9% tax on it and put it in your bank account offshore."
Oleg Vyugin, head of the Federal Financial Markets Service, the Russian regulator, said the biggest motive behind listings in London or elsewhere was a desire among company owners to establish their ownership rights. "In the 1990s the most important thing for a businessman was control over his company's cash flow. Today the public status of the owner is more important. This is a sign of a certain maturity of Russian business," Vyugin said.
Nonetheless, Russian entrepreneurs are well aware of growing political risks. Diversifying their wealth and paving the way for a potential exit before the 2008 presidential election is a logical response to uncertainty about the country's political future and property rights.
As Pavel Teplukhin, the head of Troika Dialog Asset Management, one of Russia's leading investment funds, put it: "Russian businessmen are scared and are preparing an exit strategy."