Profile: Millionaire Vladimir Goussinsky Leading Revival of Russian Jewry
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Profile: Millionaire Vladimir Goussinsky Leading Revival of Russian Jewry

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In order to enter Vladimir Goussinsky’s spacious office, you must first pass through an airport-style metal detector and pass a security-guard inspection.

On one wall of the office — which features a panoramic view of Moscow and a caged boa constrictor on display in the corner — hangs an award, bearing the face of Lenin, given to the Russian Jewish mogul for winning a table tennis tournament as a child. Next to this award is a thank-you from Russian President Boris Yeltsin for Goussinsky’s work in Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign, and an honor the U.S. Congress gave Goussinsky for his contribution to the revival of Russian Jewish life.

Like most of Russia’s nouveau riche, Goussinsky, a 45-year-old former theatrical director, made his money quickly and mysteriously. From a modest start in 1986 with a small company specializing in metal works, he expanded his holdings to include a bank and, later, a financial-industrial group called Most.

Today, his empire includes an influential television channel, a satellite television network, a radio station and a company that provides programming and finances for some 50 regional television stations throughout Russia. Goussinsky’s media empire also includes a leading daily newspaper and a weekly magazine published in cooperation with Newsweek.

His personal wealth is believed to have topped $1 billion.

“I have a dream,” he said in an interview in the 21st-floor office he shares with Moscow’s City Hall. “When I am not in this world anymore or am very old, they will remember the name Goussinsky just as they recall the name of the family who started The New York Times.”

Like many of his fellow moguls, the publicity-shy Goussinsky rarely gives interviews in Russia, and his face — which he says, with a laugh, is the most important part of his Jewishness — is not familiar to most Russians.

Contributing to his shadowy image, Goussinsky rides in a dark-blue bulletproof Mercedes, usually accompanied by a convoy of bodyguards. When he plays tennis, as many as 15 armed guards patrol the courts.

And like many members of Russia’s business elite, Goussinsky is involved in politics. Experts credit much of Goussinsky’s meteoric financial rise to his close ties with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov — and when it appeared possible that Communist Party candidate Gennadi Zyuganov would defeat Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, Goussinsky and six other key financiers banded together to fund Yeltsin’s victorious re-election campaign.

But Goussinsky is more than just one of Russia’s wealthiest men. As the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, he is the public figurehead of Russian Jewry and the leading Russian sponsor of Jewish communal projects.

Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, the Jewish Federation of Russia, said that what Goussinsky has achieved was an impossible dream just a few years ago.

“He has turned Jewish philanthropy into a prestigious, respectable activity,” said Chlenov.

Growing up in Moscow, Goussinsky, like most Soviet Jews, knew little about Judaism. During his student years, Goussinsky was one of dozens of Jewish youths who flocked to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on Saturdays “to demonstrate they were proud of being Jewish, in spite of all these KGB agents who were taking pictures of the crowd” — but he never went inside to pray.

Indeed, anti-Semitism was the main component of his Jewish identity.

“I had to fight often when someone was calling me a Jew-face,” Goussinsky recalled.

But he also remembers a positive Jewish connection: When he watched the Olympics in the 1970s, he rooted for both the Israeli and Russian teams.

As he made his fortune, Goussinsky did not actively participate in Jewish causes. The bank he founded, Most, has been very involved in philanthropy, but has mainly donated to ballet, theater and other non-Jewish causes, including the Russian Orthodox Church.

Then, in 1995, Russian Jewish religious leaders asked Goussinsky to support a new group originally created to help Jewish religious institutions survive.

While Goussinsky was considering whether to make a contribution, he was targeted by then-president Boris Yeltsin’s security chief and confidant, Alexander Korzhakov, who, reportedly jealous of Goussinsky’s success, launched a raid on Goussinsky’s offices. Afraid for his safety, Goussinsky moved his family to London.

It was there, a source close to RJC said, that he decided to get involved. In part, he did so because he had become convinced that the international community would care about his safety if he were known for supporting Jewish projects.

Goussinsky also persuaded a number of other wealthy Jews to contribute to the group as well

Founded in early 1996, the congress distributed $1.3 million in grants to schools, synagogues, social services and cultural projects during its first year. According to Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi and a close friend of Goussinsky, the 1998 budget of the Russian Jewish community will be about $30 million, and the budget of the Russian Jewish Congress will be $6 million.

Some Jewish activists reproach Goussinsky for the low profile that the RJC, which claims to be strictly non-partisan, has been keeping in the Russian public arena. They also say the congress — which has set up some 50 regional branches — has failed to establish close ties with Jews outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“Goussinsky has created a club of Jewish nouveau riche seeking new business connections and influence. They are giving some of their wealth to the community but are not aware of local needs and have little understanding of where their money goes,” said one activist, who wished to remain anonymous.

Goussinsky has also been criticized for his links to the Soviet-era KGB. He admits that former KGB employees work for his security service, a common practice in post-Soviet Russia.

As he put it, “We’d be ready to hire the devil himself if he could give us security.”

Whatever pushed him into Jewish philanthropy, Goussinsky is no longer using it as a personal shield, says the director of the Moscow office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“He isn’t doing what he’s doing out of pure business or logic. This man has an amazing emotional drive, which fortunately was connected with the development of the Jewish community,” said Michael Steiner.

“Our task is to help people identify themselves as Jews,” explained Goussinsky. “If we succeed, the number of Jews living in Russia will increase.”

His involvement in Jewish philanthropy has partially backfired. He says some of his rivals have used his involvement in the RJC against him.

“My competitors don’t make it a secret that they have been and will be using Jewish themes in attacks on me,” he said.

These attacks have intensified since Goussinsky adopted dual citizenship by obtaining an Israeli passport earlier this decade.

Goussinsky, who admits that he hasn’t been able to devote much time to Jewish learning, is hoping the congress’ largest project to date — a memorial synagogue in Moscow — will help them achieve this goal.

The synagogue, inside the World War II national memorial park on Poklonnaya Gora, is scheduled to open this September next to a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque.

Construction costs, Goussinsky says, will top $10 million — more than the total cost of RJC’s regular projects during the past two years.

With the same optimism and drive that propelled him to the top of Russia’s business world, Goussinsky hopes that Jewish life will enjoy enough of a renaissance that it will no longer have to rely on the contributions from abroad.

But even being a Russian media baron and the country’s leading Jewish philanthropist does not fully satisfy his ambitions.

Upset with Israel’s treatment of Russian immigrants, Goussinsky said he would like to play a more visible role in the Jewish state.

Indeed, he recently outbid cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder to purchase a 25- percent share in Ma’ariv, Israel’s leading evening newspaper.

“I am always tempted to interfere,” he said.

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