Behind the Headlines: Once-shadowy Russian Figure is New Symbol for Human Rights

When Vladimir Goussinsky walked out of jail here last Friday night, he was not just another released prisoner waiting to be formally arraigned. As the television screens showed, Goussinsky’s three days in prison left the media tycoon and leader of the Russian Jewish Congress looking like a tired and nervous middle-aged Jewish clerk with a host of unsolvable problems.

But the ongoing government campaign against Goussinsky, which landed him for three days last week in the Butyrskaya prison and has him charged with embezzling $10 million, has turned the shy, controversial mogul into something of an international cause celebre.

The campaign is also just the latest episode in a life that has turned from that of an ordinary Soviet citizen into a reported billionaire who is the controversial focus of government attention.

Goussinsky, 47, grew up in a Jewish family that, like millions of other Soviets, suffered under the oppressive weight of Stalinism.

His grandfather was executed in 1937 during the Great Purges, and his grandmother spent nine years in a Soviet prison camp.

Like most Soviet Jews, Goussinsky knew little about Judaism when he was growing up. But the outside world didn’t let him forget about his background.

“I had to fight often when someone called me a Jew-face,” Goussinsky recalled in a 1998 JTA interview.

People who know him closely say these childhood fights gave him a strong desire to fight for other Jews and help them respect themselves.

Goussinsky studied at the Moscow Institute of Petroleum.

He never graduated, but during his student years he was one of thousands of Jewish youths who flocked to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on Jewish holidays, especially on Simchat Torah, to demonstrate their pride in their Judaism — ignoring the KGB agents who were taking pictures of the crowd.

But that was the extent of his Jewish involvement as a student.

In 1986-87, the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening to the West and restructuring of the Soviet economy, Goussinsky began making money in a tiny metal-works cooperative.

He quickly and mysteriously managed to become wealthy — and by 1989, when he founded the Most bank, he had entered not only banking but real estate.

Analysts say Goussinsky capitalized on his close ties to the Moscow government and especially to then-Deputy Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who would later assume the city’s top post.

The Moscow government deposited the city’s huge accounts into Goussinsky’s bank. It made him, overnight, one of the wealthiest people in Russia.

Goussinsky was not the only Russian to gain his wealth from close ties to the government. But his ties to Luzhkov would later hurt him.

In 1993, he entered the media business, launching a newspaper and establishing a television channel. NTV quickly became one of Russian’s three national TV channels.

NTV became known for its opposition to Russia’s war in Chechnya. This stance did not endear Goussinsky to Putin, who was brought in by Yeltsin to run the government in part to accelerate that war.

A private channel, NTV also heavily capitalized on government discounts on state broadcast services, leading to accusations that Goussinsky had a “special relationship” with top officials in President Boris Yeltsin’s administration.

And in 1996, Goussinsky and six other financiers banded together to fund Yeltsin’s victorious re-election campaign when it appeared possible that Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov might defeat him.

But if Goussinsky enjoyed a special relationship with Yeltsin, it was also very tumultuous.

The first attack on Goussinsky came in December 1994, when presidential security service agents raided his offices and harassed his security guards and other personnel.

The then-head of the presidential security service later said that Goussinsky’s nemesis, fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky, had asked him to arrange Goussinsky’s murder.

Fearing a possible arrest on charges similar to those that recently landed him in jail, Goussinsky left the country and spent seven months abroad.

Sources say that those months in London changed his life.

“During his stay abroad, Vladimir had a lot of free time to think about his Jewishness and there he decided to become active in the Jewish community,” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress, the Jewish umbrella group founded in 1995.

When Goussinsky returned to Moscow, he decided to become involved in the Jewish community. He was helped by Israel Singer, one of the leaders of the World Jewish Congress, and Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, who helped guide Goussinsky through the Jewish world.

Satanovsky, himself a successful businessman, strongly denies the widespread accusation that Goussinsky began bankrolling the Jewish community to “buy” international Jewish support to fight off future embezzlement charges.

“Goose,” he says, using Goussinsky’s nickname, “could have bought his security much cheaper” than the millions of dollars a year that he donates to the RJC. “He is crazy over Jewish things, Israeli patriotism and all that. He really wants to help Jews here to become proud and self-respecting.”

American Jewish groups are also behind Goussinsky.

“If he’s using his Jewish identity as a shield, why not?” asks Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

“This is someone who has not hidden his Jewish identity, this is someone who has made an important contribution to Russian Jewish identity.”

In addition, adds Levin, the government used Goussinsky’s Jewishness against him in an advertisement that mentioned his connection to Israel. He has an Israeli passport and owns 25 percent of the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.

Fifty-two members of the U.S. Congress have also rallied behind him, sending a letter to President Clinton to press Russia to “formally justify” Goussinsky’s arrest.

Others, like Leonid Katsis, a Jewish political analyst, point to Goussinsky’s links to the Soviet-era KGB. More than 50 former KGB employees work for his security service, and the head of a KGB department notorious for its surveillance of Zionists and dissidents, Gen. Philip Bobkov, is said to be his chief security consultant.

Goussinsky has a simple reaction to this criticism: “We’d be ready to hire the devil himself if he could give us security.”

But even Goussinsky’s critics agree that he made valuable contributions to the revival of Russian Jewish life by turning Jewish philanthropy into a respectable activity and demonstrating that the Jewish community in Russia can be self-supporting and financially independent.

The fortunes of Goussinsky, who supported Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, in his failed bid for Russian presidency last year, began to take a nosedive last August, after Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister.

Putin quickly established an informal alliance with Berezovsky, and with the Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities, the Russian Jewish Congress’ rival.

This rivalry escalated last week, when a group of Lubavitch rabbis elected one of their own, Rabbi Berel Lazar, to be the chief rabbi of Russia.

Adoph Shayevich, backed by Goussinsky, has long served in that role.

Even if the current case is dropped, a statement made June 15 by Russian President Vladimir Putin indicates that Goussinsky’s prospects appear to be bleak.

Putin — who was out of the country at the time of Goussinsky’s arrest and has said it was “probably an excessive measure” — said he does not understand why prosecutors are busying themselves with the charges that led to Goussinsky’s detention and are not paying attention to $200 million that Goussinsky allegedly owes Gazprom.

If Gazprom calls in these debts, it could bring Goussinsky’s media empire to bankruptcy.

But Goussinsky appears ready to go down fighting if need be. He showed that moxie a few weeks ago, when in the midst of the campaign against him, he announced that would spend $40 million to purchase 45 percent of Bezek, Israel’s telephone company.

Inna Itkina, a close acquaintance of Goussinsky in the 1970s who now lives in San Francisco, recalls that he “was very active, and he always came up with new ideas. He is a very adventurous person.”

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