Life is good, says the oligarch
In the first of a series of dispatches from Russia, Daniella Peled gets a rare audience with a billionaire who sees ‘no obstacles’ to local Jewish life
RUSSIAN JEWS can look forward to far greater opportunities in the former Soviet Union than they can in Israel, according to one of the country’s wealthiest Jewish businessmen.
Mikhail Friedman, a core member of the so-called “oligarchs”, the businessmen who made vast sums from Russia’s market liberalisation in the 1990s, was assessed last year by Forbes as being worth $12.6 billion, making him the 45th richest person in the world.
Having witnessed the repression of the Soviet era and the fierce communal infighting of more recent years, the publicity-shy father-of-two — seen as close to the Kremlin — declared himself full of optimism at the current position of the community.
“Right now Russia’s economic position is strong,” he said. But Israel’s relevance was diminishing in the eyes of much of the community.
“It is an important country for the Jews, but it’s not good for me,” he told the JC this week in Moscow. “It’s not a very liberal country, it is mostly socialist. I don’t like it very much. But we have many connections; one-fifth of its population is ex-Soviet.”
Ukraine-born Mr Friedman said he knew many of “the most energetic and active” olim who had returned to Russia. Citing himself as an example of what could be achieved in the country, he joked: “I am just a simple Jewish guy from Lvov.”
Born in 1964, Mr Friedman moved to Moscow to study at the capital’s Oil and Alloys Institute. But his career in business began after he began dealing in theatre tickets on the black market. He was a co-founder of the Alfa Group, a conglomerate which has diversified with interests in oil, telecommunication and banking, and of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Many of the early oligarchs, most of whom were Jewish, fell into disastrous disfavour with the then President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — such as Boris Berezovsky, now living in exile in London.
In a clear reference to the fate of some of his contemporaries, Mr Friedman said: “I think it’s not useful to use the government for internal Jewish business interests.
“For the time being this is not the case. Before, some people used to use their personal position, and this is the wrong approach. Since the time of Pharaoh, we have known that it is dangerous for Jewish life.”
However, he continued, in modernday Russia, “there is no serious obstacle to developing Jewish life”.
He put the competing interests of different communal factions, sometimes seen as the personal fiefdom of wealthy businessmen, down to “internal jealousies, emotions, the reflection of personal ambitions, competition between businessmen — as among the top Russian businessmen there are pretty many Jews”.
He said: “There are many Jewish organisations, but then Jews couldn’t live in one organisation. You know the saying, one Jew, three different opinions… we have a lot of internal discussions, shall we say.
“I personally believe, because I am pretty liberal in my beliefs, that competition is pretty good for the customer. Jews as a market niche have a chance to make a choice and it’s good. I’m not against it.”
As for the future, he predicted a boom for Jewish charity-giving in a country which until recently had little tradition of philanthropy.
“The next generation will do even more,” he said. “Money became a less crucial issue. The first generation is more concerned with making money and the next generation is more committed to charity. It depends on us. We should work to make the Jewish community much stronger. We are flexible enough, experienced enough, we are well-adapted.
“I would say that now antisemitism is not a big problem. Xenophobia is a bigger problem. The problem of Jews are solved, but those of others such as the Armenians and the Uzbeks are not. On a social level, people far more often face competition with non-ethnic Rus- sians and it’s much more problematic. It’s very important to express clearly our solidarity with non-Russian people fighting for their rights.”
Mr Putin had been beneficial for Jewish life in Russia, he added, because “he did not interfere too much”. As for his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, he described him as “a pret- ty smart guy” whom he knows well. And he played down concerns over Russian sales of nuclear technology to Iran, claiming such actions were “more about underlining the importance of Russian power in the world”.
In the long-term, he said, Russian interests had more in common with those of Israel, America and Europe.
Mikhail Friedman: his conglomerate has led him to wealth of $12.6bn