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The NS Interview: Sergei Polonsky, businessman

“Next time, I’ll bet on something more edible than my tie”

Forbes magazine listed you as one of the “nine most unusual Russian businessmen". Is that a fair assessment?
My only grievance is that I only came in sixth place! Even German Gref, the head of Savings Bank (the largest bank in Russia) was ahead of me. He's very proper and not unusual at all. I'm very disappointed with that ranking.

You made your fortune in property development - what sparked your interest?
The war in South Ossetia. I served active duty in the airforce. After seeing the horrors of war and the destruction it caused, I decided I no longer wanted to destroy; I wanted to create.

Which building are you most proud of?
The Federation Tower in Moscow. It is a very complex building, and not yet completed. It will consist of two towers - the first was completed in 2008 and the second is due for completion in the autumn. At 506 metres [the central spire] is due to become the tallest building in Europe.

You are known for your entrepreneurial success. What's your secret?
I keep a diary filled with meditations on mental, visual and aural experiences. Last year, two books of these were published. All my secrets can be found in these.

Do you have a business "philosophy"?
My philosophy is best summarised in the words of Steve Jobs: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." Jobs was an inspiration to us all.

What else inspires you?
The flow of energy through space.

How did your upbringing shape your outlook?
I grew up in the Vyborg District of Leningrad. I took a lot of influence from my parents. Although I think education is very important, I don't think it is as important as the talents provided to you by nature and the Lord. These gifts are indispensable.

You were part of the huge boom in Russia. Was that accumulation of wealth healthy?
This is a complex issue. Many countries have been through booms, and it was Russia's turn. A few people were able to take advantage - they were in the right place at the right time. But this is no different to any other country.

What is the biggest challenge facing Russia?
Russians need to learn to live by their conscience and the law, and develop a civil society.

What do you think will be the outcome of the presidential election?
I do not comment on policy. I do not like to get involved with the politics of Russia.

If you could change one thing in Russian society, what would it be?
I would make the judges more independent, honest, incorruptible and fair.

Is free expression in danger in Russia?
No. As long as we have the internet, an unrestricted area for individuals to air their thoughts, free speech will be available.

How do you see the future of Russian media?
Traditional media aren't of interest to me. Time is running out and they'll slowly and surely come to a natural death. The internet is the future.

You became known in the UK when you were punched by Alexander Lebedev on television. What was your reaction?
It was an enormous shock - a cultural, emotional and information shock. To find out that a large proportion of people considered Lebedev a hero disappointed and disgusted me. It was only after time had passed that people saw it in black and white: I was the victim.

What do you think of Lebedev's interests in British newspapers?
It isn't my place to say anything about Lebedev's business. I think it is up to the journalist community to look at him and decide whether he is the right kind of person to own the media.

You ate your tie recently after losing a bet. Are you always a man of your word?
Yes. I had made a forecast for the following six months and my predictions were wrong. I kept my promise and did eat a part of my tie. Between us, it wasn't very tasty. Next time I'll be sure to bet on something more edible.

Is there a plan?
Does Donald Trump have a career plan?! I think we should call them "creative plans". My ultimate aim is to make a significant contribution to the architectural skyline of Moscow.

Do you vote?
Yes.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Every night, I try to forget the day that has stood before me and I aim to begin every new day afresh, with new thoughts.

Are we all doomed?
We should smile and enjoy our lives, then the world will be endless.

Defining Moments

1972 Born in St Petersburg
1989 Joins Russian Airborne Troops
1990-92 Does service in air assault brigade. Is stationed in Tskhinval combat zone
1994 Establishes Stroymontazh Ltd, specialising in construction
2004 Company is renamed Mirax Group; erects many big buildings in Moscow
2011 Liquidates the Mirax brand after financial crisis
2011 Is punched by Alexander Lebedev

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain