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The World | COLUMN ONE

Russia's rich and shameless

When ice sculptures and caviar are not enough, they turn to the `producer' for thrills -- like playing bums or prostitutes for a day.

February 27, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Moscow — FLOATING through the snow in their tinted-windowed SUVs, shrouded in baubles and whispered fears of losing it all, the Russian rich sometimes sense that their imaginations are not as outlandish as their offshore bank accounts.

And so they turn to Sergei Knyazev. They call him the "producer." He loves saying that; he even embossed it on his business card. But he's really more of a psychologist-turned-opportunist, ready to help "the overburdened rich relieve the pressure of money and its obligations."

"They just don't know how to relax," he says. "I help them. I'm outrageously expensive. These people don't trust anything that's not expensive."

To be so mercenary and truthful in a single breath -- refreshing, yet spooky. But this is Russia, home to billionaires and unbridled egos, a neurotic, champagne-scented landscape of black suits, diamonds, gadgets and guns all loose amid the moneyed classes with their big dogs and security men.

Knyazev began conventionally enough, arranging parties and banquets several years ago for the ice-sculpture-and-caviar circuit. But how many long tables, embroidered linens, fluted crystal, Moet bubbles and vanity portraits must a multimillionaire endure? Spinning capitalist schemes and pocketing oil and gas wealth, the new oligarchs craved more. They wanted to be intrigued; they wanted their sequins rattled.

"I now do entertainment of all kinds, from the pretty exotic to the really indecent. What do you want to talk about?"

The really indecent, of course, but let's go slow.

"Once I had a client who twice proposed to a girl and each time she turned him down. He didn't want to be rejected a third time, so he came to me. He was very wealthy, old Russian money. The girl's name was Olga. I found out where she lived. It was a new house, and the grounds outside had not yet been landscaped. So one night, while she was sleeping, we turned it into a big garden with beautiful flowers spelling out her name. Big letters. The 'O' was so big that you could fit two cars inside of it.

"In the morning the boyfriend was standing in the garden with an orchestra. They played a serenade.... She looked out the window. Three months later, they married."

Charming, that Olga thing, very "Sleepless in Seattle," but how about something with a bit more edge?

Knyazev smiles, a mischievous glimmer of the teeth. It is a self-satisfied smirk that says: "You want more? I've got a whole lot more."

"I make up games. Sometimes I dress up my clients like bums and take them to the rail station. They have to beg. Whoever has the most coins in the morning wins," he says. "The wives of these businessmen wanted their own games. So we had some of them work as waitresses in a diner. Whoever gets the most tips wins. Sometimes they'll go as striptease dancers and see who comes away with the most cash."

He looks down, scratches his thin goatee, reflects: "Some very rich women want to play the part of a prostitute. I organize that. Of course, they don't go all the way. We stop it before that.... But, yes, some would go all the way."

He pauses, adding, in his best Sigmund Freud: "Why do they want to do these things? Deep down they're driven by a fear that one day they might end up a beggar, a prostitute, because for many of them, their businesses aren't that clean."

*

THE guy is wonderful, a wily bit of flash, a symbol of the new Russia. Knyazev came of age, economically speaking, in the late 1980s, when then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev called for reforms known as perestroika. It was a time of cigar smoke and dreams. He opened a student cafe, a private school and an advertising agency in Siberia. He later ventured to Moscow, founding the Empire of Passion strip club and hiring a former Bolshoi ballerina to teach dance steps.

The thing about Knyazev, 44, is that you wonder where he draws the border between fantasy and reality. He runs with the rich, but there are no chandeliers, no Botticelli knockoffs floating in his chamber, which resembles a dentist's office -- long hallway, closing doors, muffled voices. His pinstriped suit is subtle, but it is not Armani. You get the sense of being lured into a web of meticulously constructed origami.

"I know Sergei Knyazev and I've heard his stories about some bizarre games he invents for rich businessmen. What can I tell you?" says Konstantin N. Borovoi, a founder of Moscow's commodities exchange and chairman of the Party of Economic Freedom. "There is no way to verify that because he won't disclose the names of his clients. But really, some of his tales are hard to believe. All I can say is that Knyazev is surely not lacking in imagination."

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