By Bill Powell and Jessi Hempel
Alisher Usmanov is one of Vladimir Putin’s “oligarchs,” as the businessmen in Moscow with deep ties to the Kremlin have come to be called. That he is one of Putin’s oligarchs is to say that he was not one of Boris Yeltsin’s. In the early 1990s, Yeltsin’s disciples got hugely rich buying formerly state-owned enterprises in Russia on the cheap. Usmanov was virtually unknown at that time but is now one of his country’s richest men. Assets he controls are estimated to be worth anywhere from $8 billion to $10 billion. His empire includes stakes in a metals and mining company (Metalloinvest), traditional media (the Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant), telecom (cellphone company Megafon), the British soccer club Arsenal, and, through DST, social-media companies. A private-sector source who has looked extensively into Usmanov and his businesses estimates his personal wealth at about $1.5 billion.
The issue with Usmanov is the question of provenance. How is it that a man who served time in Uzbekistan later found his way to the position of deputy CEO of Gazprominvestholding, the investment arm of energy giant Gazprom, the most powerful and politically connected company in Russia?
A native of Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic due south of Russia, Usmanov was born in 1953. His father was the deputy prosecutor general of Uzbekistan, a powerful position in the legal field. Nonetheless, in 1980, Usmanov was convicted on charges of fraud and extortion in Tashkent, the country’s capital, and sentenced to eight years in jail. He served six of those — from 1980 to 1986 — before a Soviet court dismissed the charges against him and expunged his record. In 2000 the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan ruled that the original charges against him had been unjust.
Usmanov says he made his first fortune by producing cheap plastic bags in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union headed toward collapse. In e-mail conversations, he says his main focus is “investments and equity markets.” About his jail time, he says, “The charges were false and fabricated and had nothing to do with reality.” In 2007 he told a reporter for the Times of London: “I was jailed on trumped-up charges and lost six years of my life as a result of infighting within the KGB. It took another 14 years to clear my name and prove that I was framed. All my career, I’ve been confronted with prejudiced people who are determined to turn me into a stereotype, a Central Asian thief. I’m fed up with having to answer these slurs. Not only did I never do anything criminal, but I managed to stay honest and become one of the world’s most successful businessmen, despite being locked up with criminals for six years.”
Currently Usmanov spends time in London and Moscow. As other investors buy in to DST, his share has become slightly diluted. He now owns just a quarter of DST, Yuri Milner’s company. But he considers it one of his most important investments. The Internet, he says, “is the central business of the 21st century.”