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Oligarchs don't just love their superyachts — they use them to cement status among Russia's elite

Business Insider US
Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov owns Dilbar superyacht. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images, Sabri Kesen/Anadolu
Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov owns Dilbar superyacht. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images, Sabri Kesen/Anadolu
  • Oligarchs' superyachts have captured attention as sanctioned Russian elite have their assets seized.
  • Their vessels function as necessary status symbols, experts told Insider.
  • Of course, the multimillion-dollar superyachts also offer a life of luxury and sociability.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

In recent weeks, the West has seized at least nine multimillion-dollar luxury yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs as part of wide-ranging sanctions aimed at pressuring Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop his invasion of Ukraine.

Private jets and luxury properties have been seized, too. But it's the superyachts worth hundreds of millions of dollars that have captured the public's attention.

"You have to have a yacht, otherwise you're not an oligarch," Anders Åslund, an economist and author of "Russia's Crony Capitalism," told Insider. "It's a very status-conscious group." 

Igor Sechin, Alexei Kuzmichev, and Andrey Melnichenko are among the Russian oligarchs who have had their vessels detained.

Of the world's yachts measuring longer than 131 feet, US clients own roughly 23% and Russians own about 9%, according to a 2021 report from SuperYacht Times.

US and Russian clients own a roughly equal number of 131-foot-plus superyachts built in the past decade, however, according to the SuperYachtTimes report.

Bigger the yacht, bigger the status

Russian-owned yachts average roughly 200 feet in length, which is longer than vessels owned by people from the UK, France, Italy, and Germany, as per the SuperYacht Times report.

The size and value of the boats function as a sort of "who's who" of Russia's political elite, experts said. Åslund said the richest clients, like Putin, have yachts worth $600 or $700 million, while "run-of-the-mill billionaires" own vessels worth between $100 and $150 million.

"Clearly, there's an element of competition," Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at UCLA and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, told Insider. "A bigger yacht is a symbol of higher status."

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich owns at least two superyachts. The biggest, Eclipse, measures 533 feet and is worth around $700 million, as per SuperYachtFan. And Alisher Usmanov owns the 511-foot Dilbar, the world's biggest yacht by gross tonnage, which is thought to be worth around $800 million.

The "Eclipse" belonging to Roman Abramovich.
Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

What makes a superyacht?

To be classified as a superyacht a vessel typically has to be at least 80 feet in length. Megayachts are longer than 200 feet.

The world's longest superyacht is believed to be Azzam, a 590-foot Lürssen owned by the president of the United Arab Emirates.

Some superyachts are used solely by their owners while others are chartered out, which can help owners cover some of their expenses, Benjamin Maltby, a partner at Keystone Law who specialises in superyachts, told Insider. 

Annual maintenance costs can add up to 10% of a vessel's sticker price, according to SuperYachtFan.

Superyachts offer a luxurious lifestyle

Yachts also demand crew and entertainment costs.

"Once the owners and the guests board, they're going to be comfortable," said Betty De Varona of Florida-based brokerage Yachting Experts. "They're not going to be cooking their own dinners, making their beds, watching the boat. They're tended to."

Drawing of Galactica Super Nova yacht, owned by Vagit Alekperov, CEO of Russian oil firm Lukoil.
Heesen Yachts

One yacht owner, who is not a Russian oligarch, and asked to remain anonymous for privacy and security reasons, said that the large boats are just plain fun. (Insider verified his yacht ownership through documentation). 

The yacht owner told Insider that he bought the 142-foot Christensen in 2021, which is licensed to carry 12 passengers and is called "Grade I."

"It's something you can bring all of your friends and family, and share with them and have an over-the-top vacation," he said, explaining that while on board, he and his friends could fish twice a day, eat food cooked by a private chef, jet ski, scuba dive, and explore remote islands.

Phi superyacht, owned by a Russian businessman, was seized in London.
Grace Dean/Insider

Brett Snyder, harbormaster at Eau Gallie Yacht Club in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, said he could see why someone on the run might want one. "If you need somewhere to park some money, if things ever hit the fan, you can just bail. You can be anywhere the world," he said.

It might look easy for a yacht to flit to Dubai or the Maldives. But, the purpose of yachts isn't secreting away money, Åslund said. "If you want something secret, buy an apartment in New York," he said.

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