'It's terribly sad,'' one aristocratic woman was heard to lament at a London cocktail party recently. "This Russian oligarch we know has been devastated. Devastated! He's lost everything in the space of two months.''
Strain your ears and you might just hear the world's smallest violin. Sad? That Russian oligarchs, those icons of vulgarity who burn £ 100 notes as an after-dinner sport, should receive their comeuppance?
"It's not how low they've fallen,'' explained the woman gravely, "but the height they've fallen from.'' It's true: after spending the past five years buying up Bond Street and Mayfair, not to mention sundry football teams, superyachts and estates, Russia's billionaires have suffered a vertiginous fall.
According to Bloomberg, the oligarchs have lost more than £ 155 billion since the credit crunch came knocking on Russia's door, as their homeland's stock market lost 65 per cent of its value in six months.
Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea football club, is thought to be £ 13.2 billion poorer. Alisher Usmanov, a major shareholder in Arsenal, has reportedly lost £ 7.6 billion, Vladimir Lisin £ 14.1 billion, Alexei Mordashov £ 10.7 billion and Oleg Deripaska £ 10.4 billion (without counting the damage to his reputation incurred by his summer imbroglio with George Osborne and Peter Mandelson). Maxim Kashulinsky, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, says that half of the Russians on its list of the world's wealthiest individuals could be gone next year.
Yet the true casualties will not be the oligarchs, but another breed altogether - the "minigarchs''. These largely anonymous individuals are defined by Mark Hollingsworth, co-author of the forthcoming Londongrad: From Russia With Cash, as "very wealthy Russians worth between £ 50 million and £ 100 million who have made their money by conventional practices, simply by being sharp businessmen rather than through political influence-peddling in the late Nineties''.
It has been this group, just as much as the big-spending billionaires, who made London a second Moscow - and became the Noughties equivalent of the Japanese in the Nineties or the Arabs in the Eighties. To watch an estate agent, art dealer, restaurateur or shop assistant when such customers walk in is to see the slavering of a St Bernard. "At the beginning of the 20th century, Russians escaped the revolution and went to Paris, which became the most popular bolthole for them,'' says Aliona Muchinskaya, the PR director of luxury consultancy firm Red Square. "In the Seventies, a huge number went to Israel and the United States to escape Communism. But for the past decade, Britain has been their favourite place: it's their promised land.''
But historian Yuri Felshtinsky, author of The Age of the Assassins, warns that the promised land may soon become a paradise lost. When Russia was booming, he says, nobody ever asked the high-spending visitors where the money was coming from. Now, unwelcome questions are the least of their problems: it's the repayments that look set to break them. "Oligarchs borrowed lots of their money from Western banks, usually offering up as collateral 20 per cent of the capital price of their property,'' he says. "Now that 80 to 90 per cent of that has been lost, banks are demanding returns on the loans. That means that in a matter of minutes, days or months, some of the smaller oligarchs, the minigarchs, have been completely ruined.''
As its economy has collapsed along with the oil price, speculation has been rife that the Russian government may bail out some of the elite, such as Deripaska and Abramovich. But while the government may be happy to use its generosity to exercise tighter control over the oligarchs' empires, the minigarchs may be deemed too insignificant to warrant subsidy. Also, Abramovich has taken care to cultivate the Kremlin, doing much to return Russian art to the motherland, and even opening a gallery for his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, to run. Such largesse would not extend to those lower down the wealth pyramid, who have chosen to make - and keep - their fortunes abroad.
By March 2009, Felshtinsky predicts, Britain will witness a paradoxical new phenomenon: the cost-cutting minigarch.
"Bearing in mind that most don't live in the UK and just own houses there, it may be difficult for some to keep their properties,'' he says. "There certainly won't be more of them coming into Britain from Russia for a while. They are much, much weaker now.''
It has not quite reached that point yet, however. Elena Norton, the head of Russian sales at estate agents Knight Frank, claims there has been "a surge of interest'' in the last two weeks from Russians seeking bargains. "They don't trust banks now,'' she says, "so they're keen to put their money into property. They are much more careful, it's true, and we're not talking these mad figures now, but it's more sustainable.''
This impression of a new rationality is echoed by Richard Green, who runs Home Finders International in the south of France. "There is definitely a more prudent attitude to six months ago: instead of viewing a property and buying it that day, Russians will talk to advisers now, which I've never seen them do before. That said, if the wife and daughter say they want the house in St Tropez, they'll get the house in St Tropez.''
It is, in fact, the domestic situation - notoriously complicated in the case of many wealthy Russians - that has started to suffer its own kind of cutbacks. "In the equivalent of Mayfair in Moscow. The word is that the divorce rate is set to treble, as billionaires trade in expensive wives for cheaper mistresses,'' says Sandra Vermuyten, director of Russian ACT, a festival in London.
Similarly, the voskresnuy muzh, or "Sunday husbands'' - wealthy businessmen who work in Moscow but catch a Friday-night flight to their families in London for the weekend - will be seeing a lot more of their Russian-based mistresses: the alternative, downgrading from first to business class, is too gruesome to contemplate. Of course, Russians are much more understanding about these things. "We've flown billionaires with their wives and girlfriends in the same aircraft,'' says Rick Beasley of FlyMeNow.co.uk, a luxury helicopter and jet aircraft company. "You knew who was who, because the wife would be wearing a million-pound pink diamond necklace, while the mistress would just have normal diamonds on.''
Discretionary spending is also taking a dive. This week, four Russian Art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's missed the companies' own low estimates, after nine years of soaring prices. "Nineteenth and early 20th century art will continue to be popular with the super-rich, as will contemporary Russian art,'' says visual artist Olga Chernysheva at the GSK Contemporary exhibition at the Royal Academy, "but other things won't remain as artificially elevated as they have been.''
At last weekend's Millionaire Fair in Moscow, an annual opportunity for the rich to flaunt their wealth, there were few takers for the diamond-encrusted hubcaps or luxury magazines priced at £ 65 per issue. Where last year one company sold 20 Gulfstream jets, this year it hasn't filled a single order. "We haven't had any Russian clients for the past month, which tells you something,'' says Beasley. "Up until a few months ago, they were still using us: one Russian hired a helicopter for two days to check out schools around Britain for his child.''
Of course, the definition of "essential spending'' is slightly different if you're a minigarch. At the Caviar House & Prunier in Piccadilly, the Beluga is still flying off the shelves. "There is one Russian who has been coming here ever since the place opened for lunch,'' says spokesman Lucy Herring. "He has one 125g tin of Almas Caviar [worth £ 1,080] and a glass of champagne, always on his own, and then leaves. He is still coming as usual.''
Another thing Russians are not prepared to sacrifice is good schools, even though Muchinskaya admits that some of her biggest clients have been hit badly. "You can actually see the strain on their faces. A lot have said that this New Year will be their last luxury holiday, but taking their kids out of private schools in Britain is the last thing they would do. Russians are obsessive about schooling - they want to give their kids the start in life they never had.''
But by the time those children have grown up, the shape of the Russian oligarchy may not be the only thing that is unrecognisable. The very term, with all its connotations - wealth, danger, even criminality - could have disappeared. "Due to the financial crisis, oligarchs as we knew them are disappearing and blending in with the simply wealthy,'' says Natasha Chouvaeva, editor of UK-based Russian newspaper The London Courier.
"Those Russian characters who burn money and buy properties without asking the price? They're gone,'' agrees Felshtinsky. "Russians have always lived in a dream land, always believing that they will live better lives. For a while, they were right. Never would they have thought that this miracle would disappear in a matter of weeks. Now they've been forced to confront a new reality.''
Yuri Felshtinsky's Age of the Assassins is published by Gibson Square at £16.99.