The richer they come …
Can Russia’s oligarchs keep their billions – and their freedom?
Today Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Putin’s most implacable enemy, goes on trial in Russia for corruption, accused of stealing millions of dollars from Russia’s state airline, Aeroflot. If convicted, the former mathematics professor faces 10 years in jail. But he won’t be in court to face his accusers, or to hear the verdict weeks from now. Berezovsky has dismissed the case as a Kremlin show trial and has said he won’t turn up.
The charges against Berezovsky have their origins in the 90s, when a small, well-connected group of entrepreneurs made a killing from the privatisation of Russia’s state assets. But what happened to the rest of them? A survey of the oligarchs, as they have become known, reveals an intriguing picture. Most of the first wave are now in prison or in exile, including Berezovsky, who has lived in Britain since 2001, the year he fell out with Putin, and has enjoyed asylum since 2003. Only a handful, led by Roman Abramovich, Russia’s richest man, have managed to succeed under both Boris Yeltsin and Putin, his successor.
Few ordinary Russians will feel much sympathy for the losers. Any admiration for the gusto with which the country’s 50-odd billionaires live their lives is more than outweighed by outrage at the way many of them made their money. And in a country where anti-semitism is still rife and openly expressed, nationalist rabble-rousers have made much of the fact that of the seven oligarchs who controlled 50% of Russia’s economy during the 1990s, six were Jewish: Berezovsky, Vladimir Guzinsky, Alexander Smolensky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Mikhail Friedman and Valery Malkin. That fact is incontestable – but it is the result not of some grand conspiracy, but of the way the Soviet Union restricted Jews’ ability to assimilate and rise up in society. While ethnic Slavs dominated all the best career slots in the highly bureaucratised official society, Jews who wanted to get ahead were forced into the black market economy. When communism collapsed and the black market was legalised as free market capitalism, the Jewish entrepreneurs had a head start.
All this changed when Putin became president in 2000. Putin’s previous employer was the KGB – a notorious Slavs-only club. Since he took power, most of the original Jewish oligarchs have fled. But this probably has more to do with their failure to observe the new rules in Putin’s Russia than their religion. During his time in office, Putin – who is due to step down next year – has established a new law: leave politics to the Kremlin. Or else.
Who made how much – and how
Who is he? Russia’s richest tycoon, as well as the owner of a small football club somewhere in west London. Abramovich’s fortune is now estimated at a whopping $19.2bn, according to Forbes’ 2007 list of Russia’s top 100 businessmen (which reckons that there are 52 other Russian billionaires). That is some $2.4bn more than the nest-egg of his former business partner, Oleg Deripaska, who comes second (see below). Shy, media-phobic, and with still-boyish features, Abramovich has managed to navigate the transition between the Yeltsin and Putin eras. He has maintained good relations with both Kremlins. He has thus hung on to his fortune, acquired in the 1990s when Abramovich was an oil trader. He has also adopted the new Putin-era mantra of social responsibility, ploughing millions back into Chukotka, a province of reindeer farmers and polar bears in Russia’s frozen and generally knackered far east. Abramovich is still the governor there, despite several attempts to resign. His recent divorce from his wife Irina – and his alleged romance with 24-year-old Daria Zhukova – have propelled him uncomfortably back into the tabloid limelight.
Relationship with Putin Chummy. During a recent one-on-one meeting in the Kremlin, the president told Abramovich that he had to soldier on as Chukotka’s governor. Wisely, Abramovich agreed.
Place of residence Knightsbridge, London, and a 440-acre estate in Fyning Hill, West Sussex. It has its own go-kart track, apparently.
How he got his money In the 1990s he and his fellow oligarchs took advantage of the privatisation of Russia’s state assets. In 1995 he hit the big time – when Abramovich, together with Boris Berezovsky, acquired a controlling interest in a large oil company, Sibneft. Critics say the company was worth billions more than the pair paid for it. The bidding process was rigged, they add. Sibneft employees also allege that they were later forced to sell their shares for food when Sibneft failed to pay their wages. By 2001, Abramovich’s empire – held by his investment vehicle, Millhouse Capital – included not just Sibneft, but stakes in Aeroflot, aluminium, insurance, cars and hydroelectrics. Since then he has sold many of his Russian assets.
Family Two ex-wives: Olga – they divorced in 1990 – and Irina, a former Aeroflot stewardess, with whom he has four children. Last autumn Abramovich denied rumours that his marriage to Irina was in trouble. In April he confirmed that he and Mrs A had split. She is believed to have got a derisory $300m. She was spotted in Moscow last month opening a new hotel.
Hobbies Football? Did anyone mention this? Abramovich bought Chelsea FC in 2003, beginning a trend of foreign multimillionaires snapping up English clubs. Despite a galaxy of overhyped stars, Chelsea failed this season to win the Premiership or the Champions League – though they did make off with the FA Cup.
Prospects Good. Abramovich is likely to maintain good relations with Putin’s successor, while continuing his oxymoronic dual identity as London-based emigre and Russian patriot. Putin may even drop in to Chukotka this week.
Who is he? According to Finans magazine, Deripaska is now Russia’s richest man, with a fortune estimated at $21.2bn. Forbes magazine puts him in second place with $16.8bn – just behind his friend Roman Abramovich. Deripaska, who made his fortune from aluminium, claims the estimates are exaggerated. Either way, he is the most successful of the new and ambitious generation of Putin-era oligarchs. Deripaska grew up in the north Caucasus and studied in Moscow. He began work in the early 1990s as a metal trader. Beginning with a small stake in a Siberian smelting factory, Deripaska seized control of Russia’s vast, lucrative aluminium industry, merging his company in 2000 with Abramovich’s. His firm – Basic Element – is due to float on the London Stock Exchange for $25-30bn. Several ex-business partners have sued Deripaska; the US has previously refused him a visa. Like Abramovich, Deripaska likes London, speaks English and is a keen Anglophile. Unlike Abramovich, though, Deripaska has no plans to leave Russia. He also claims to be indifferent about football. In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, he denied rumours that he wanted to buy Arsenal FC. “I’m not very enthusiastic about football. Not at all,” he said.
Relationship with Putin Very close. The two ski together, it is said. Putin took Deripaska with him on a trip to Austria in May .
Place of residence Moscow and the North Caucasus. Like any self-respecting oligarch, he also has a small London pad.
How he got his money By emerging like a triumphant gladiator from the “aluminium wars”, the corpse-and-bits-of-body-strewn battle in the 1990s for control of Russia’s aluminium industry. Deripaska denies tales that at one point the local mafia tried to blow him up with a grenade launcher. But even among oligarchs – who are not exactly a bunch of softies – Deripaska has a reputation for ruthlessness. An Israel-based businessman, Michael Cherney, is one of several disgruntled ex-business partners currently suing Deripaska in Britain. He alleges that the tycoon has swindled him out of billions. Deripaska denies the claim.
Family Deripaska is usefully married into the Yeltsin clan, Russia’s former first family. The father of his wife Polina – Valentin Yumashev – was chief of staff to Boris Yeltsin and is married to the late president’s younger and politically astute daughter, Tatyana. Deripaska has two children aged four and five. Oh yes, and a British nanny.
Hobbies Unknown. The tycoon doesn’t talk about them. But he has spent money on patriotic projects, including the restoration of Russian churches.
Prospects Excellent. Deripaska is, in the words of one observer, “untouchable”, thanks to his dynastic alliance with the Yeltsin family and his friendship with Putin. He is now aggressively expanding his empire into property and construction, and has also bought the ailing British van maker LDV. He is Russia’s leading deal-making tycoon.
Who is he? The man who defied Vladimir Putin and ended up in a Siberian jail. One of the original “magnificent seven”, the group of oligarchs who swaggeringly bestrode the Yeltsin era, Khodorkovsky acquired his spectacular fortune during the knockdown privatisation of Russia’s state assets in the 1990s. While Abramovich got oil, Khodorkovsky got oil, too – lots of it – with his firm Yukos becoming Russia’s biggest oil company. Like the hero of a dubious morality tale, however, Khodorkovsky broke the rules established by Yeltsin’s ex-KGB successor Vladimir Putin: don’t meddle in politics. In the autumn of 2003 he funded opposition political parties ahead of Duma elections. The Kremlin’s response was blunt. It charged Khodorkovsky with tax evasion and fraud. A court sentenced him to eight years in jail; receivers broke up his Yukos empire and sold off the bits. Brilliant and ruthless – he once installed video cameras to spy on his employees – Khodorkovsky is now either a justly convicted criminal or Russia’s most famous political prisoner, depending on your point of view. He is unlikely to get out of jail any time soon. Once Russia’s richest man, he has seen his fortune dwindle to a paltry $500m, Forbes suggests.
Relation with Putin Not good. See place of residence.
Place of residence Prison camp number 13, Chita jail, eastern Siberia. It’s a very long way away from Moscow. He was last year given a spell in solitary for illegally possessing two lemons. His mum was allowed to visit him recently on his 44th birthday.
How he got his money According to the Kremlin, he nicked it. Like the others, Khodorkovsky aggressively exploited Russia’s Yeltsin-era privatisations. An ambitious middle-class Soviet kid, Khodorkovsky began buying and selling in the late 1980s. He founded his own bank, Menatap, then in 1995 bought Yukos for just $350m. Two years later the firm was valued at $9bn. The deal was part of the notorious loans-for-shares programme, which saw Yeltsin give away state assets to a small group of 23 or so oligarchs. In return they agreed to get Boris re-elected as president in the face of a resurgent Communist party. He was.
Family Wife and four children.
Hobbies Before his internment, Khodorkovsky was a frequent visitor to Maharaja, a Moscow curry house. He is also a fan of Abba, and prefers jeans to formal suits.
Prospects Rubbish. Khodorkovsky now faces the prospect of a second trial on further charges of embezzlement and money laundering. The latest charges appear designed to ensure that the tycoon stays in prison until well after Putin departs office next year – and an as yet unknown Kremlin-backed successor takes over.
Who is he? Brainy former mathematics professor and former Kremlin kingmaker who has morphed into Putin’s enemy number one. In an interview with the Guardian in April, Berezovsky claimed he was plotting a coup against Putin, and called for a violent uprising against the Russian state. Russia has opened a criminal investigation and accused him of treason. It has repeatedly called for his extradition from Britain, where he has lived since 2001. Slight, balding and with a fondness for abstruse Latin phrases, Berezovsky began dabbling in the private sector in the late 80s. His unrivalled ability to get close to those in power led him to penetrate Yeltsin’s family circle. He then used his political connections to acquire profitable stakes in state companies. They included a car dealership, the national airline Aeroflot, and several oil companies that he organised into Sibneft (see Abramovich). He also bought a TV station, ORT. His fortune is now estimated at $1.1bn.
Relationship with Putin A bit like that between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, though without the touching family reconciliation death scene. (Putin is Luke). Britain’s refusal to hand over Berezovksy to Moscow continues to irritate the Kremlin, and poison UK-British relations (see below).
Place of residence A mansion on the Wentworth estate near Weybridge, a house in Chelsea and a vast Belgravia apartment. Definitely not Moscow.
How he got his money Like his fellow oligarchs, Berezovsky was a beneficiary of the extraordinary series of sweetheart privatisation deals that saw state assets flogged off in the 1990s for a fraction of their real value. Berezovsky’s share of the swag was Sibneft (see Abramovich), a newly created oil company, which he got for a whisker over $100m. Its value was later estimated at $1bn. Berezovsky also held stakes in a car dealership, and in the state-owned airline Aeroflot. In return, Berezovsky masterminded the 1996 re-election of Boris Yeltsin for a chaotic, bedridden, vodka-soaked, corruption-tainted second term. He and his billionaire friends coughed up £140m for Yeltsin’s campaign.
Family Married at least three times, with six children.
Hobbies In his 2002 entry in Russia’s Who’s Who, Berezovsky modestly lists two hobbies: work and power.
Prospects Surprisingly good. In the wake of the horrible murder of his associate Alexander Litvinenko – allegedly killed by a former KGB agent using radioactive polonium-210 – no British court is likely to send Berezovsky back to Russia. Berezovsky will continue to enjoy life under his assumed British name – Platon Elenin – and make revolutionary mischief.
Who is he? According to the Moscow tabloids, he is Russia’s most eligible bachelor, with a snappy little fortune of $15bn. At the age of 42, Prokhorov is still defiantly unmarried, despite a string of eligible girlfriends and a recent spoof announcement that he intended to tie the knot. His playboy reputation was cemented in February when French police arrested him during an investigation into an international prostitution ring. Police seized Prokhorov in the French skiing resort of Courchevel – a favourite destination for Russia’s ultra-rich. He was later released without charge. “The allegations are absurd,” Sergei Chernytsin, spokesman for Prokhorov’s firm Norilsk Nickel, said in January. He added: “Naturally, he likes girls, and treats them in a natural way. But this isn’t a pretext to accuse him of pimping.” The incident provoked a personal chewing-out from the ascetic Putin, it is said. As well as liking women and parties, Prokhorov is Russia’s fifth richest man. His billions were made from the vast nickel and gold deposits hacked out of Russia’s frozen north. His mine in the town of Norilsk, the second largest human settlement north of the Arctic Circle, was privatised in Russia’s anarchic 1990s.
Relationship with Putin Worsening? Putin last year awarded him the Order of Friendship – a token of Kremlin esteem. But his arrest in January may have led to a cooling.
Place of residence Moscow, and (sometimes) the Alps.
How he made his money Back in the early 1990s, Prokhorov was a clever young banker working for the state-run International Bank of International Cooperation. Vladimir Potanin, an influential banker from a privileged Soviet background, talent-spotted him. The two men moved into private banking, got their mitts on several billion-dollar government accounts, and never looked back. In November 1995 Potanin and Prokhorov snapped up Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest nickel company, for £78m less than the asking price. Months later Potanin had become deputy prime minister.
Family Plenty of exes, but no Mrs Prokhorov as yet.
Hobbies Loads. As well as throwing lavish parties, Prokhorov likes basketball (he’s two metres tall) and skiing. Then there is kickboxing, football, the avant-garde, and – strange but true – Salvador Dali.
Prospects Good, assuming he watches his step on the pistes. According to Kommersant newspaper, Prokhorov intends to resign as general director of Norilsk Nickel to concentrate on acquiring electricity assets. Though this means a split from his long-term business partner, Vladimir Potanin – Russia’s fourth richest man – it will leave him still nursing his billions.
Who is he? Putin-friendly oligarch, and Russia’s 10th richest chap, with a fortune estimated at $10.7bn. After working in an obscure state lab for many years, Vekselberg made a killing when the aluminium industry was privatised in the 1990s. He became a major player after Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, when he became co-owner and chairman of Tyumen Oil (TNK), one of Russia’s largest oil and gas companies. His company later developed a joint venture with BP. Like other oligarchs who have thrived under Putin, Vekselberg realises the importance of patriotic gestures. In 2004 he bought nine of the legendary Fabergé eggs from the US Forbes publishing family in New York. The collection was shipped home to mother Russia and triumphantly exhibited at the Kremlin. He also forked out $1m to Harvard University to pay for the return of a set of Russian bells to a Moscow monastery. Like most Russian oligarchs, Vekselberg is of Jewish origin – he has a Jewish father, though he doesn’t regard himself as Jewish. He is currently restructuring his assets, which also include aluminium and property.
Relationship with Putin Mixed. Putin invited Vekselberg, together with Oleg Deripaska, on his trip to Austria and Luxembourg in May – a good sign. But he also recently criticised Vekselberg and TNK-BP (his joint venture with BP) for failing to develop a gasfield in eastern Siberia. TNK-BP was forced to sell it to Gazprom.
Place of residence Moscow.
How he made his money You should know the answer to this one. He got rich when Russia’s aluminium industry was privatised in the 1990s – together with other state assets sold for a bag of beans. His Siberian and Ural aluminium company (SUAL) has just merged with Deripaska’s company RusAl to create the world’s biggest aluminium company.
Family He is married to Marina, and has two children, a daughter, Irina, and a son, Sasha.
Hobbies Pass. Although he looks a bit like Father Christmas.
Prospects Good. Vekselberg still enjoys reasonable relations with the man who counts, and heads the influential Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. His preference for building business partnerships with friends and university mates has helped him multiply his billions.
Who is he? Wheeler-dealer from western Ukraine and Russia’s sixth richest man. (According to Forbes, there is $13.5bn in his piggy bank). Friedman has so far avoided the fate of Khodorkovsky and other fallen oligarchs. Stocky, and with a pudgy, boyish face, Friedman grew up in Lvov – the formerly Polish city now in Ukraine. He was once a communist youth activist. He embarked on his capitalist career at a student in the late Soviet Union by buying and selling theatre tickets. Having learned how to run a business, he set up a kooperativ – selling windows, importing photocopiers and cultivating bureaucrats. He then moved on to banking, buying large stakes in Russian firms and selling them on at a profit. In 2003 he merged his giant oil firm TNK with BP in a $7bn deal. Friedman is also the head of Russia’s powerful Alfa Bank. When Boris Yeltsin died earlier this year, Friedman turned up at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour’s Cathedral to pay his respects.
Relationship with Putin Unclear, but may be getting a bit wobbly. See prospects.
Place of residence Moscow.
How he got his money After trying theatre tickets (see above), Friedman experimented with windows, Siberian wool shawls and breeding laboratory mice. His breakthrough came when he started exporting oil – much cheaper in the Soviet Union than in the west. But essentially it’s the same old story of privatisation and bandit capitalism.
Family Divorced with two children.
Hobbies He claims to be less busy than he seems. Otherwise, no hobbies as such.
Prospects Slightly ominous. According to Moscow’s scurrilous expat newspaper the Exile, Friedman’s name popped up on a bunch of signs waved by demonstrators at an anti-Putin rally in St Petersburg – not a good omen. Additionally, officials are now investigating claims that he illegally purchased his mega-dacha – a bad sign.
The Guardian July 2, 2007
By Luke Harding