“I get invitations to dinners and art openings as much as before,” Arian Romanovsky told an interviewer five months after Russia invaded Ukraine. “Places of attraction haven’t changed; our Tatler people are everywhere: from the Patriarch Ponds [Moscow’s Mayfair] to Saint-Tropez.... After all, balls were thrown even in the most difficult times.”
Until his arrest this week, Arian Romanovsky was a fixture in Moscow’s glittery circles. A Truman Capotski of the late Putin era, Romanovsky edited the Russian version of Tatler magazine and threw debutante balls for the children of some of the most sanctioned individuals on earth. He made his mark helping the wives of Russia’s business and political establishments spend money on some of the best boats, manor houses, and restaurants the world had to offer.
Even after Putin invaded Ukraine, Arian didn’t let a pesky land war in Europe stifle the decadence. So when flights out of Moscow to some of the better places in the world were canceled, haute couture boutiques turned to dust, and Tatler—along with the rest of Condé Nast publications—left Russia, it was Arian who kept the gears of Moscow’s glamour industry grinding.
A Truman Capotski of the late Putin era, Romanovsky edited the Russian version of Tatler magazine and threw debutante balls for the children of some of the most sanctioned individuals on earth.
It was no easy task to satisfy Moscow when it became the capital of the most sanctioned country on earth. Still, if the story of another social-climbing Muscovite—Anna Delvey—taught us anything, it’s that Russians will live the high life against all odds. The canceled flights to Paris and New York were quickly rerouted to Dubai, the Maldives, and the seaside town of Bodrum, in Turkey, where wealthy Russians flocked to create a motherland in exile, including transporting Sakhalin—Russia’s Michelin-starred seafood restaurant/oligarch-hunting ground—to the Mediterranean coast.
Resale platforms and shady “private buyers” quickly cornered Moscow’s luxury market, with anything from an H&M dress to a Prada trench coat available at your earliest convenience (and a 30 percent markup). Ever the influencer, Arian released a photoset in which he walked around wartime Moscow with a Birkin bag, advertising a reseller that employed “numerous experts that guaranteed the item’s authenticity.” As for the Vogues, Tatlers, Esquires, and GQs that left Russia—there was Telegram.
Telegram is a social network and app invented by the Russian kid genius Pavel Durov that, aside from its iMessage-like functionality, offers Channels—a form of one-way broadcasting that lets people send texts, pictures, and videos to their subscribers. Think of Telegram channels as versatile newsletters pushed straight to your smartphone via an encrypted network. A combination of newsletter and Instagram with the speed of Twitter on a network that lacks content algorithms and provides anonymity, the innovative platform captured Russia in the mid-2010s, and ever since, everyone who is anyone has a channel of their own.
As with any media in Russia, the security services were quick to react—starting in 2018, Telegram was officially blocked in Russia, but that didn’t stop people. The network used communication protocols that were light-years ahead of what the F.S.B. had, and after months of trying to stop people from using Telegram, the Kremlin decided to join them. The Kremlin launched, co-opted, and bought hundreds of news, gossip, sports, lifestyle, and even meme channels that, when needed, would transmit Putin’s message.
Operating the market became a complicated game. You could buy an ad, an article, or a smear campaign against your chosen target. Alternatively, you could buy blocks. A positive block meant that, for money, the Telegram channel’s owner would never post any positive news about a target. A negative block would work vice versa.
Ever the influencer, Arian released a photoset in which he walked around wartime Moscow with a Birkin bag, advertising a reseller that employed “numerous experts that guaranteed the item’s authenticity.”
Arian Romanovsky administered his own channel, a Telegram version of Tatler called “Russian Salad with Caviar,” which avoided directly acknowledging the war or mentioning the many colleagues of his who had been arrested or fled the country. His was a channel of cheeky opulence and incessant advertisements. However, Romanovsky was also employed at a gossip channel called “Lights Out,” which specialized in juicy stories about the Russian elites and their parties.
His reported ally was Kirill Sukhanov, chargé d’affaires for the informal queen of all Russian socialites and the 2018 presidential candidate—and, incidentally, Putin’s rumored goddaughter—the scandalous Ksenia Sobchak. Her father launched Putin’s political career in 1990s St. Petersburg, which allowed Sobchak considerable freedoms. But not total independence: on occasion it looked like Putin used his mentor’s daughter as a back channel to message Moscow’s liberal elite, who were immune to run-of-the-mill propaganda.
Arian seemed to have it all figured out, mostly silent about the war, protected by the adoring wives of the Russian elite on one side and by one of Putin’s “own” on the other. Until Wednesday, when he was arrested on charges of extortion, along with Sukhanov. The reason for the arrest was allegedly a letter written by Sergey Chemezov, Putin’s comrade from his days working for the K.G.B. in Germany.
Nowadays, Chemezov heads Rostec, an umbrella company for Russian weapons manufacturers, including the maker of Kalashnikov rifles. According to the Telegram channel “Baza,” Chemezov alleged in his letter that Sukhanov and Romanovsky asked for nearly $200,000 to remove a seemingly innocuous post about a party that Chemezov had attended. Other reports stated the two men sought money in exchange for not publishing potentially defamatory material about Chemezov.
Since defendants in Russia are acquitted 1 percent of the time, it’s safe to say that Romanovsky won’t be strolling around Moscow with his Birkin anytime soon—his crime carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in the Gulag.
Kirill Sukhanov was also arrested and now faces the same charges. But what shocked Moscow to the very core was a search of Ksenia Sobchak’s house and subsequent rumors of a warrant for her arrest. Russian authorities then said she was wanted as a witness, not as a suspect, but Sobchak did not stick around to clarify.
His reported ally was Kirill Sukhanov, chargé d’affaires for the informal queen of all Russian socialites and the 2018 presidential candidate—and, incidentally, Putin’s rumored goddaughter—the scandalous Ksenia Sobchak.
Long thought to be immune from prosecution, Russia’s No. 1 influencer is said to have bought two tickets out of Moscow—to Dubai and Turkey—from two different airports. As the police allegedly began to swarm airport departure halls in search of her, Sobchak left Moscow for Belarus, where she crossed the border to Lithuania on foot, using an Israeli passport. A pro-Kremlin Telegram channel shared the video of Sobchak crossing the border.
There are many rumors as to who might benefit from this purge, the loudest of them names Sobchak’s No. 1 rival, the propaganda-media manager Tina Kandelaki, who, as opposed to Sobchak, took part in propaganda rallies, praised Putin and his atrocious war, and, incidentally, married Chemezov’s deputy.
As the police allegedly began to swarm airport departure halls in search of her, Sobchak left Moscow for Belarus, where she crossed the border to Lithuania on foot, using an Israeli passport.
To think that the editor of Tatler in Russia would have the nerve to approach a super-rich ex-K.G.B. general and demand an obscene amount of money sounds absurd. The reality, it seems, is that for people who just wanted to party, the days and nights spent far from the war zones, in restaurants, and on yachts are coming to an end.
Much like what happened almost a century ago, when children of the Soviet elite were whisked to the Gulag straight from their favorite rooftops, the Moscow glitterati watched in silence as their kings and queens were escorted out of their palaces under police escort or were forced to flee Russia on foot. No gossip or lifestyle channel commented on the arrests, including those owned by Arian’s friends. Everyone is simply too afraid to speak up, and only advertisements for new restaurants and “authorized Gucci resellers” keep popping up.
When Tatler was launching in Moscow, in 2008, the head of Russian Condé Nast was asked how the magazine would navigate the often criminal nature of the Russian elite: Is Tatler going to be submissive and tame? She replied with her version of a Tina Brown quote: “Tatler is like a bad dog: it bites those who pet it.”
As the world around them crumbled, Russia’s “Tatler people” were sure that their future was guaranteed as long as they stayed silent and didn’t bite. After this week’s arrests, they know it’s no longer the case. In Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, silence alone is not enough: he demands blind loyalty.
Andrew Ryvkin is a Russian journalist and screenwriter who was forced to emigrate after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine