Know your Russian billionaires – many with ties to Russia really, really don’t want to be called Russian.
Russia’s ultra-rich have hit a rough patch. Since Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his invasion of Ukraine in February, 34 current and former Russian billionaires have been hit with sanctions by the U.S., the U.K. or the European Union.
Authorities have frozen their businesses, tracked down their superyachts and grounded their jets.
No surprise, then, that in recent years–and, especially, in recent months–Forbes [source of this article] has noticed a growing trend:
- Many billionaires with ties to Russia really, really don’t want to be called Russian.
Some have more legitimate claims than others.
Pavel Durov, who was born in St. Petersburg, created Russian social network VK, was ousted from the company after tangling with Putin’s government over censorship issues then went on to found the encrypted messaging app Telegram–now a critical communication tool for Ukrainians.
- “Pavel left Russia many years ago with no intention to return,” a spokesperson told Forbes.
- After four years of being listed as a Russian citizen, Durov–who lives in Dubai, where Telegram is based–wanted it known that he became a French citizen last year. https://pledgetimes.com/pavel-durov-turned-out-to-be-a-citizen-of-france/
- He reportedly also has a passport from St. Kitts and Nevis. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2014/04/28/vkontakte-founder-pavel-durov-becomes-citizen-of-st-kitts-and-nevis-a34733
Igor Bukhman told a similar story.
- He and his brother Dmitri grew up in Vologda, some 300 miles northeast of Moscow, where they cofounded mobile gaming company Playrix in 2004.
- They moved the business to Ireland in 2013, but still have thousands of employees divided between Russia and Ukraine.
- The Bukhmans, who now live in London, asked Forbes to be listed as citizens of Israel, where they immigrated in 2016, rather than Russia.
Nik Storonsky, the 37-year-old cofounder of London-headquartered digital bank Revolut, grew up in Russia but left at age 20. Storonsky, who has criticized the war, is a dual U.K.-Russian citizen–or, as his PR flack framed it: “Nik is a U.K. citizen.”
Others have much deeper ties to the Russian business–and political–worlds.
Eugene Shvidler is known as the best friend and business partner of Roman Abramovich, one of Russia’s most famous (and heavily sanctioned) oligarchs.
- In March, the British government sanctioned Shvidler, a London resident, for his “close business links” to Abramovich.
- Shvidler owns stakes in Russian steel and nickel businesses, but has long insisted he isn’t Russian.
- “Mr. Shvidler is not, and has never been, a citizen of the Russian Federation,” a Shvidler associate, who claimed not to be writing on the billionaire’s behalf, told Forbes (bolding and underlining his).
- He was born in a Soviet region of Russia, sure, the person said, but technically he’s never had a Russian passport and he’s been a citizen of the U.S. since 1994 and the U.K. since 2010.
- Soviet Ukraine-born Len Blavatnik, who grew up in Russia and immigrated to America in 1978 at the age of 21, got rich partnering with oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (sanctioned by the U.K. and the U.S., for “close ties” to Putin) in Russian oil and aluminum ventures.
- Blavatnik, who has not been sanctioned, cashed out of Russia and is well known these days for investments in non-Russian businesses like Warner Music, chemicals maker Lyondell Bassell and fashion label Tory Burch–and for major donations to Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, where his money has drawn controversy.
- Blavatnik is quick to note that he’s a U.S. and U.K. citizen, and, as his spokesperson made clear to Forbes in 2018, “is not Russian, has never been Russian, and is not an oligarch.”
And then there’s Yuri Milner.
- Russia’s most influential tech investor, he was an early backer of Facebook and Twitter through his venture fund, DST Global.
- His own early backers included Russian state-owned VTB Bank and a subsidiary of majority state-owned oil and gas giant Gazprom–both under sanctions today.
- Milner, now a prominent Silicon Valley VC who has not been sanctioned and who has condemned the war, has long tried to distance himself from Russia.
- In a “fact sheet” published on his website, Milner, who was born in Moscow and studied physics at Moscow State University, stresses that he has been a citizen of Israel–where he moved in 2005–since 1999, and has been a resident of California since 2014.
- “97% of Yuri’s personal wealth was created outside of Russia,” Milner promises.
- He “has not been to Russia since 2014,” “has no assets in Russia” and “has never met Vladimir Putin.”
- And, crucially, of course: “In April 2020, in its annual Billionaire List, Forbes magazine re-classified Yuri from its Russian list to its Israeli list, confirming his close ties to the country.”
Alisher Usmanov, a leading oligarch who has been sanctioned by the EU, U.K. and U.S. (Usmanov has called the sanctions “unfair” and pledged to “use all legal means to protect [his] honor and reputation.”)