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Russian ex-tycoon herds livestock

NIZHNEVASILYEVSKOYE, Russia — The financial crisis has cost some Russian tycoons their fortunes, but one of Russia's first multimillionaires says he hasn't lost a kopek.

That's because one-time boy wonder German Sterligov dropped out of the business world years ago and started raising sheep and other livestock on two farms outside Moscow.

"We're in clover compared to the oligarchs," he says. "I've got 100 sheep, a horse, a cow, some poultry and goats."

Sterligov, 41, has no plans to return to the traditional capitalist road, saying his luxury-loving former colleagues will soon see the virtues of simplicity and self-sufficiency. At his log cabin about 60 miles northwest of Moscow one recent afternoon, hens pecked grain from the snow in front of the porch. He scolded his four sons — ages 4 to 12 — for not feeding the chickens properly and messing up the stove.

He runs the farm with help from the boys, a teenage daughter, two employees and his wife, Alyona Sterligov, who wears a traditional Russian Orthodox head scarf.

Until 2004, Sterligov was, by his own account, a tycoon with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, dozens of businesses, offices on Wall Street and in London and a villa in Rublyovka, a Moscow suburb for the superrich. His business interests ranged from running a commodities exchange to making movies.

"It's easier to say what we didn't do — we never sold drugs, for one," he says.

Now he and his family raise vegetables, sheep, goats and chickens, mostly for their own use. They also build peasant-style stools for sale to a Russian furniture company.

Sterligov's exit from the high life began when he challenged then-President Vladimir Putin in his 2004 re-election bid. The ex-tycoon, who now sports a long beard and brown leather hunting boots, claims he sank the bulk of his fortune into his campaign, but election officials denied him a place on the ballot.

In debt and out of favor with the Kremlin, Sterligov says he sold everything. He, his children and his wife, who was seven months pregnant, left Rublyovka that summer and pitched a tent in the forest outside Moscow — "the only free place to stay."

From then on, he followed in the footsteps of other wealthy Russians from centuries past, including author Leo Tolstoy, who sought to return to the land in search of spiritual peace and utopian dreams. With $100,000 left from the sale of the Rublyovka mansion, Sterligov built three simple log houses and bought some sheep.

Sterligov, who made his first million by age of 24, has long been drawn to grand gestures. He once tried to promote alcohol abstinence — a hard sell in Russia — and made a macabre offer to sell 50,000 oak coffins to the United States before the Iraq invasion.

Deeply conservative, Sterligov has publicly denounced gays, abortion and women who wear trousers. A female reporter was told to show up in a skirt or not come at all.

He also rails against computers and TV. The one-time jet-setter says he now lives happily behind barbed-wire fences surrounding his property, protecting his family from the corrupting outside world.

Teachers come from Moscow to teach the boys Russian and mathematics. Sterligov teaches them history himself and says other subjects are irrelevant. His 18-year-old daughter, the eldest child, studies history at Moscow State University.

Despite his isolation and anti-materialist views, Sterligov still has friends among Rublyovka's superrich. "They all envy me," he says. "They are perfectly aware they are prisoners. I'm like a free Cossack. I have no one to boss me around." The Sterligovs live in Nizhnevasilyevskoye in winter and spend the rest of the year on a sheep farm in Sloboda, 12 miles away.

"Life in Rublyovka looks unreal now, very artificial," says Alyona Sterligova.

Though he denounces big business, Sterligov recalled Russia's roaring '90s with a certain nostalgia. He says his only goal in life then was to become wealthy.

"And I did," he says. "It was sheer sport."

Boris Nemtsov, who as deputy prime minister was among the leading economic reformers of the 1990s, describes Sterligov as an unusual man. "There are very few people — in big business in particular — who would dare to give up everything, move to the countryside and do a farmer's work," says Nemtsov, now part of the political opposition.

Sterligov claims to have a solution to his country's economic turmoil. He says he and former business associates have set up an "anticrisis" center for commodity bartering, an electronic substitute for exchanging money.

But few of Moscow's investment bankers seem even to have heard of Sterligov's project. And there are no signs that Russia is willing to return to the barter trading common in the 1990s.

Sterligov predicts that agriculture and land ownership will soon become the new oil for the oligarchs, and says many of them are looking into land.

"Metals are no longer valuable," he says. "It's sheep, cows, oats, grain, olive oil, honey that's turned into gold."

Does Sterligov secretly long to rejoin the ranks of Russia's industrial barons?

"If I were told, take over five factories or you'll get shot, I'd say, shoot away," he says. "I don't want this drudgery anymore."

Russian ex-tycoon herds livestock 12/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:46pm]
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