on the World’s Most Rich and Powerful
BY TIM PAGGI, M.F.A ’15
Since the Russian attacks on Ukraine in February, David Lingelbach has fielded many media requests for interviews and opinion pieces on the topic of oligarchy. It’s a term as old as Aristotle, but public curiosity about oligarchs has only increased in recent years, especially as current socio-political discourse becomes centered around the topics of wealth and power.
Lingelbach, a professor of entrepreneurship in the Merrick School of Business, stands out from other contemporary experts because he’s able to help the public see the big picture more clearly—and consequently understand why it’s so important. That’s because, in true UBalt fashion, he’s a leader in this field whose public intellectualism is deeply rooted in real-world experience.
Lingelbach spent five years working as an investment banker and venture capitalist while living in Russia in the 1990s. During that time, he interacted with many members of the country’s elite, including Vladimir Putin, then Saint Petersburg’s first deputy mayor. So, when Lingelbach addresses the subject of oligarchs, he’s actually rubbed elbows with some of the people he’s discussing.Figures such as Putin usually come to mind when the term is invoked, but oligarchy refers to any individual or small, tight-knit group that wields an oversized amount of wealth, power and influence over a society. For Lingelbach, determining if oligarchs are good or bad is less important than the takeaways we can learn by studying these massive personalities pulling the strings.
Oligarchs exist everywhere, Lingelbach points out, not just overseas. An oligarch need not be a politician, either. In many ways, the United States excels at producing what Lingelbach refers to as business oligarchs, those who achieve influence through the corporate sector. “Compared to Putin, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have huge amounts of informal power to supplement their wealth. When I hear people talking about Russian oligarchs I say, ‘Yeah, true enough. But it’s a much more recent oligarchy than the United States is.’ We might be the most oligarchic country in terms of the power and wealth of the oligarchs.”
As more and more discussions focus through the lens of income inequality, oligarchs are receiving more scrutiny and criticism than ever. Still, Lingelbach maintains that they might unintentionally make positive contributions to the world. “Part of my motivation is that oligarchs seem particularly effective at dealing with the biggest factor shaping life today: increasing uncertainty,” he explains. “In Putin’s case, NATO wants to expand in the east. That’s not great from Putin’s perspective, but his thinking is ‘let’s lean into it and see where the resulting uncertainty takes us.’ That’s a classic approach.”
“To deal with inequality, climate change and all the issues that affect us today, we need broader solutions that are effective sooner… Oligarchs might unintentionally show us how to think more effectively about those solutions.”
“I say to all my students, you need to understand how to deal with uncertainty. I’m hoping they learn how to exploit it, and maybe apply it in a more positive way for social benefit. How do people who are powerless gain advantage? Many oligarchs come from difficult backgrounds and they often think, ‘How do I turn the tables toward me?’ One of the most effective ways to do that is, if you find uncertainty, lean into it.”
Though Lingelbach’s expertise is entrenched in his pre-UBalt professional experiences, much of his continued academic interest has been informed by his work in the classroom and deeper study of entrepreneurship. While the scale and intent usually differ, he says that the underlying qualities of both often match.
“It’s something I try to build into my classes. I use entrepreneurship theory because we study people very similar to our students. You create anything in life by starting with who you are, and you make everything as a reflection of yourself by trying to bend the world in your direction. I think of oligarchs as being entrepreneurial.”
Lingelbach looks forward to sharing his knowledge of oligarchs in an upcoming book, which he is currently writing. He says it will provide a data-informed big picture of oligarchy in a package that is both in-depth and accessible to the public.
“Studies up until now have been macro-level and tend to treat oligarchs as groups or consequences of societies. Many of my contemporaries get buried in the details; they can’t see the big picture. Given the range of challenges the world now faces, there’s no way we can do that anymore. To deal with inequality, climate change and all the issues that affect us today, we need broader solutions that are effective sooner. And oligarchs might unintentionally show us how to think more effectively about those solutions.”
In addition to freelance writing for the Magazine, Tim Paggi is a tour guide with Baltimore Ghost Tours and revising his first novel.