Financial crisis slams Russia’s billionaires

MOSCOW (JTA) – Russia’s Jewish billionaires lost more than two-thirds of their wealth in 2008, according to figures released by Forbes magazine.

At the same time, wealthy Jewish philanthropists with ties to the former Soviet Union also saw their fortunes drastically reduced in the latest sign that it will be difficult for the Russian-speaking Jewish community to depend on the largesse of local donors.

How the losses will curtail the billionaires’ philanthropy cannot be predicted but funding, especially in Jewish education, already has seen significant cuts.

In Russia alone, Jewish billionaires collectively saw the value of their assets and holdings drop from $99.4 to $32.1 billion. A JTA analysis of the Forbes list released last week includes only those Jewish billionaires who have given to Jewish philanthropies or openly identify themselves as Jewish.

In all, 55 Russians dropped off the magazine’s annual list of billionaires this year, and the 32 that remain all lost significant chunks of wealth.

Most notably, Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman, who have lent significant financial support to philanthropic efforts in recent years, saw their fortunes plummet in 2008. Forbes said Fridman, No. 20 on the list, lost $14.5 billion, but the prominent Russian business daily Vedomosti said the magazine overstated his losses along with his colleagues at the Alfa Group. The group includes several other Jewish philanthropists who started a fund last year to develop Jewish identity in the region.

Abramovich, who now manages his wealth from Britain, in recent years has regularly funded the construction of synagogues and other Jewish buildings across the former Soviet Union for the Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities. While new construction projects are off the table for now, the projects that were in place before the economic crisis hit will be completed, said Baruch Gorin, a spokesman for the federation.

Four Russian Jews fell off the billionaires’ list completely, including Moshe Kantor, the former head of the Russian Jewish Congress, who lost $1.9 billion. The list concurred with previous reports that Lev Leviev, for years the largest donor to education programs in the former Soviet Union, had lost more than two-thirds of his $4.5 billion fortune. The Or Avner school network, which he founded and continues to fund, had its budget cut by one-third.

Aside from Russia, big-name Jewish donors from Ukraine lost nearly two-thirds of their wealth as well in a country where the financial system is teetering on the edge of collapse.

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