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Russian ex-tycoon turns shepherd

NIZHNEVASILYEVSKOYE, Russia (AP)--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 German Sterligov, a onetime boy wonder of Russia's young market economy, 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 said recently. "I've got 100 sheep, a horse, a cow, some poultry and goats."

Now Sterligov, 41, is promoting an electronic barter scheme for commodities trading that, he claimed, could save Russia's foundering financial system.

But he has no plans, he said, to return to the traditional capitalist road, saying his luxury-loving former colleagues among the superrich will soon see the virtues of simplicity and self-sufficiency.

At Sterligov's log cabin about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Moscow one recent afternoon, hens pecked grain from the snow in front of the porch, as he scolded his four sons--aged 4 to 12--for neglecting to feed the chickens properly and for "messing up the stove."

His wife, Alyona Sterligov, who wears a traditional Russian Orthodox head scarf, and a teenage daughter also help him run the farm.

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 were vast, ranging 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 said.

Now he and his family keep busy raising vegetables, sheep, goats and chickens, and building peasant-style stools that he sells to a Russian furniture company. He also sells some of the sheep, and employs two men to help him on the farm, but most of what he produces is for his family's use.

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, claimed he sank the bulk of his fortune into his campaign, which went nowhere after election officials denied him a place on the ballot.

In debt and out of favor with the Kremlin, Sterligov said he decided to flee Moscow. "I had to sell the house, not to mention my businesses, offices and stocks," he said.

Sterligov said he, his children and his wife, who was seven months pregnant, left Rublyovka in the summer of that year and pitched a tent in the forest outside Moscow--"the only free place to stay."

From that point 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 the age of 24, has long been drawn to grand gestures and seemingly Quixotic causes. He once tried to promote alcohol abstinence--a hard sell in hard-drinking Russia--and made a macabre offer to sell 50,000 oak coffins to the United States before the Iraq invasion.

Sterligov's love of nature comes with a deep religious and social conservatism: He has publicly denounced gays, abortion and women who wear trousers. A female reporter who visited him recently was told to show up in a skirt or not come at all.

He also rails against computers and TV, which he says have a pernicious influence on modern youth. The onetime jetsetter said he now lives happily behind barbed-wire fences surrounding his property, protecting his family from the corrupting outside world.

"There's more freedom here," Sterligov said. "I'm not dependent on anyone. We're totally self-sufficient."

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 uber-rich.

"They all envy me," he said. "They are perfectly aware they are prisoners. I'm like a free Cossack. I have no one to boss me around."

Alyona says she is happy to live a peasant life and raise her five children. "Life in Rublyovka looks unreal now, very artificial," she said.

The Sterligovs live in Nizhnevasilyevskoye in winter and spend the rest of the year on a sheep farm in Sloboda, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

Though he denounces big business, Sterligov recalled Russia's roaring '90s with a certain nostalgia.

"It was interesting back then because I had no other goals in life" than to become wealthy, he said. "And I did. 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 character."

"He is an interesting person," said Nemtsov, now part of the political opposition. "He's not like everyone else. 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."

Sterligov claims to have a solution to his country's economic turmoil.

He and former business associates, he said, have set up an "anti-crisis commodity transactions center" for commodity bartering. "It is an electronic substitute for money, not linked with the dollar, euro or ruble," he explained.

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 that was common here in the 1990s.

Sterligov predicted that agriculture and land ownership will soon become the new oil for the oligarchs.

"A lot of them are looking at the land and cows now," he said. "Metals are no longer valuable. 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. I don't want this drudgery any more," he said as he picked up a log and threw it into the stove.


Date: 1/9/09

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