Talking Points

The moral rot of the superyacht

The superyachts are on the move. 

First, it was Graceful — a $140 million superyacht rumored to be owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself — which presciently left Hamburg two weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine for the friendly home waters of Kaliningrad. The crew of Vagit Alekperov's Galactica Super Nova, priced at $83 million, acted next, departing Spain the day after the invasion and vanishing from ship-tracking websites after a brief stop in Montenegro. Solaris (worth $600 million) likewise fled its Barcelona shipyard after the European Union sanctioned her owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich; she's now safely stashed away in sanctionless Turkey, along with Abramovich's even-more-expensive superyacht, the $700 million Eclipse. 

Other vessels weren't so lucky: Gibraltar seized billionaire Dmitry Pumpyansky's Axioma; France took Igor Sechin's Amore Vero; and Italy nabbed Gennady Timchenko's Lena, Alexey Mordashov's Lady M, and Andrey Melnichenko's SYA. Vladimir Strzhalkovsky's Ragnar is stranded in Norway, where local businesses are refusing to refuel it. President Biden threatened to "find and seize your yachts" in his State of the Union, and lawmakers have proposed using seized superyachts to fund humanitarian assistance for Ukraine.

Thus have the paradisical ports of Europe become the frontline in the soft-power war the West is waging against Moscow. But the centrality of superyachts to the Russo-Ukrainian war might not actually be as odd as it appears. It has a certain ring of justice.

These ostentatious, teak-and-aluminum eyesores are the manifestation of extreme privilege and immorally-begotten wealth — any system in which $700 million yachts and poverty coexist is inherently rotten. And while putting the squeeze on Russia's uber-wealthy might not be enough to make Putin retreat from his objectives in Ukraine, it does in small part ensure that the most powerful members of Russian society don't get to motor off into the sunset while their poorer and powerless compatriots are left to endure the internationally-imposed consequences.

Indeed, if superyachts stand for anything beyond the poor taste of billionaires, they're proof of the moral rot of the uber-rich. Beyond the absurd price tag, "a superyacht with a permanent crew, helicopter pad, submarines, and pools emits about 7,020 tons of CO2 a year," according to The Conversation's calculations, "making it by the far worst asset to own from an environmental standpoint." (By contrast, the average annual carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons). 

As even superyacht designer Jon Bannenberg used to say, nobody needs a superyacht. But now is as good a time as any for people to realize: Nobody needs an oligarch, either.