WASHINGTON (JTA) — The special prosecutor’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election offers an unsettling journey for anyone steeped in Russian Jewry, and the transition from the repression of the former Soviet Union to the relative freedoms of the Russian Federation.
Of 10 billionaires with Kremlin ties who funneled political contributions to Donald Trump and a number of top Republican leaders, at least five are Jewish. (The Dallas Morning News has a handy set of interactive charts.)
There’s Len Blavatnik, the dual British-American citizen who dumped huge amounts of cash on Republican candidates in the last election cycle, much of it funneled through his myriad investment firms. (The same Len Blavatnik funds scholarships for IDF veterans and who is friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.) Alexander Shustorovich is the president of IMG Artists, a titan among impresarios, who gave Trumps’ inauguration committee a cool $1 million. He arrived in 1977 with his penniless family in New York at age 11, fleeing Soviet persecution of Jews.
The list goes on — we explore some of the names below. But first: What was going on in the Soviet Union as it headed towards collapse in the late 1980s that led to the proliferation of Jewish names among its powerful business leaders?
“Not all oligarchs are Jewish, of course, not the majority, but there is a significant number,” said Mark Levin, the CEO of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, who joined its predecessor, the National Council on Soviet Jewry, in 1980 as a staffer. “They were in the right place at the right time.”
Here are some of the factors that put them in the “right place at the right time.”
You can go home again
Many Soviet Jews left the country because bigotry and punitive Soviet policies kept them, among other indignities, from getting jobs in their preferred professions. But with the collapse of the USSR, and with opportunities opening up at home, a number of these younger emigrants drew on the entrepreneurial strain, training and connections they found in their new countries, be it the United States, Britain and Israel.
In the late 1980s, when they heard that the policy of glasnost was loosening up markets, a number of them traveled back to their homeland seeking opportunity, armed with savvy and with moneyed connections in their new countries. They were in place after 1991 when Russia and its former republics rapidly privatized everything from mines to media.
“I know people who left the Soviet Union, it imploded, they went back, they had friends and acquaintances who were telling them there were great opportunities,” Levin said. “There were business people who were partnering with people in Russia and other countries because they had the connections to complete business deals.”
The Jews who stayed behind kept in touch with friends and family who were succeeding overseas and were able to tap them for investment opportunities.
“Jews in the ex-USSR had a ready-made network of trusted contacts in the U.S. and Israel who they could go into business with,” said Oliver Bullough, a British author and journalist whose expertise is Russian history and politics. “It was harder for Russians who had no contacts abroad to achieve this. This also, in my opinion, explains why ex-KGB people did well since they had a network of former spies in other countries.”
Glasnost opened doors
Glasnost, or openness, instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, included opening up plum government jobs to minorities that had previously been marginalized. That accelerated Jewish entry into higher ranks of the bureaucracy just when it was opportune to be in a position to know what sector was about to be privatized, and which government-owned business was about to be broken up.
It helped that unlike communist regimes in eastern Europe, Levin said, in Russia and the former Soviet republics, the elites remained in place — only the ideology of communism was jettisoned.
“Russia and most successor states of the Soviet Union went through a much different transformation than the former communist Europe nations,” he said. “Most of the governing elite didn’t change.”
Moreover, the very professions to which Jews were restricted under the old Soviet system were the ones that proved useful in the new economy. Jews, Levin said, were likelier to be entrepreneurs.
“There were Jews who were helping to make the transition from a command economy to a market economy,” he said.
Author Michael Wolff, profiling tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner in 20111, wrote, “The Jews in Soviet Russia, often kept from taking official career paths, came to thrive in the gray and black markets. Hence, they were among the only capitalists in Russia when capitalism emerged.”
Bullough said the scientific disciplines that accepted Jews under the old system were suddenly in demand under the new.
“Jews were often excluded from the kind of universities that produced diplomats, and therefore pushed more towards pure sciences, which meant there was a disproportionate number of Jewish mathematicians who were able to engage with the new banking industry,” he said.
But who really knows.
Most of all, said Levin, it was chaos. Massive sectors of the economy were up for grabs. At times, there seemed to be no controlling authority. When the dust settled, Russia had entered the age of the oligarchs. “In the beginning, it was like Chicago in the 1920s,” he said. Connie Bruck, profiling Blavatnik in The New Yorker in 2014, quoted a new Russian phrase: “Never ask about the first million.”
Here are some of the businessmen with Soviet Jewish roots who have been named in stories about the Trump-Russia investigation.
Leonard Blavatnik, 60
Oligarch factor: U.S.-British citizen. Forbes lists him as the 48th richest man in the world. Access Industries, which he founded in 1986 while he was at Harvard Business school, exploded in its earlier years through investments in oil in the collapsing Soviet Union. It has since expanded into massive media holdings. (Blavatnik rejects the term “oligarch,” believing it to be pejorative. “Mr. Blavatnik has no involvement in Russian politics or in the Russian government, and, in fact, has never been a Russian citizen,” a spokesman told JTA in an email. The spokesman also pointed out that Blavatnik does not appear on U.S. Treasury list of designated oligarchs. (His longtime partner, Viktor Vekselberg, for example, does feature prominently on the list.)
Trump factor: Gave more than $6 million in the 2016 election cycle, virtually all to Republicans, after a pattern of relatively modest donations to both political parties. Longstanding business ties to Viktor Vekselberg, the oligarch allegedly linked to secret payments to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Blavatnik donated $12,700 last year to the Republican party, which used part of it for a legal fund that has helped to pay Trump’s lawyers in the Russia inquiry. (The spokesman for Blavatnik said that the businessman did not know the money was targeted for the legal fund.)
Jewish ties: He has served on the board of Tel Aviv University, the Center for Jewish History and the 92nd Street Y. His family foundation funds a Colel Chabad-run food bank and warehouse in Kiryat Malachi in Israel, which sends monthly shipments of food to 5,000 poor families in 25 Israeli cities. He is friends with Netanyahu, and has been questioned by police in connection with the investigation into gifts the prime minister allegedly has received from wealthy benefactors. He funds scholarships for Israeli army soldiers.
Andrew Intrater, 55
Oligarch factor: A cousin to Vekselberg, who has a Jewish father but does not identify as Jewish. Intrater, a U.S. citizen, is the CEO of Columbus Nova, the investment company with close ties to Vekselberg’s Renova. An SEC filing from 2007 lists Intrater as the chairman of the board of CableCom, a Moscow-area cable TV provider.
Trump factor: Columbus Nova funneled payments from Renova to Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer. Intrater also donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Jewish ties: Intrater, the child of a Holocaust survivor, has given more than $500,000 to the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and has donated to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Committee. Intrater’s brother, Frederick, the design manager for Columbus Nova, bought up a batch of domain names with associations with the “alt-right” in the summer of 2016, when support for then-candidate Trump on the far right was rising and Get Out the Vote drives were intensifying. Frederick Intrater said he made the purchases without Andrew’s knowledge, and later regretted it, allowing the URL names to wither. “To conclude that I support white supremacy or anti-Semitism is unreasonable given what I’ve described above and also taking into consideration that I am a Jew and son of a Holocaust survivor,” Frederick Intrater said.
Alexander Shustorovich, 52
Oligarch factor: Shustorovich, a U.S. citizen, traveled to Moscow in 1989, a year after graduating from Harvard, and immediately became a player in media there, starting scientific publications. He unsuccessfully sought to get his company, Pleiades Group, into the $12 billion deal that sold Soviet nuclear fuel to the United States. He is now CEO of IMG Artists, a company that manages talent in classical music and dance.
Trump factor: Shustorovich gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Notably, his attempt to give the George W. Bush campaign $250,000 in 2000 was rejected in part because of his ties at the time to Russia’s government.
Jewish ties: Shustorovich arrived in New York at 11 in 1977 with his family, who did not have enough money to buy food. His father, Evgeny, pushed out of work in Russia as a chemist because of his hopes of emigrating, joined Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. and soon rose to prominence in his field. For a period in 1986-1987, Evgeny Shustorovich was one of the faces of the Soviet Jewry movement as he became an ardent advocate for the right of his brother — also named Alexander — to emigrate from the former Soviet Union.
Simon Kukes, 72
Oligarch factor: Kukes, a U.S. citizen, left the Soviet Union in 1977, settling in the Houston area. A chemist, he was for a period an academic, and then worked in the Texas oil industry. He returned to Russia and became an executive in the post-Soviet oil industry there. In 2003, he became head of the Yukos oil company after another Jewish oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin for tax evasion and theft — but mostly, most observers think, for funding opposition parties.
The Guardian in 2003 uncovered CIA documents linking Kukes to bribery, charges which he has denied. Prior to his year-long gig helming Yukos, Kukes was from 1998-2003 the president of TNK, another oil company, whose principal stakeholders were Blavatnik and Vekselberg. In 2012 when he headed the Russian arm of Hess, Forbes reported that Kukes’ former chauffeur, who had risen through the company ranks, was a Russian mafia boss. The man denied the charges, but Kukes pushed him out of the company. Last year, Kukes was a U.S.-based CEO of Nafta, a consulting firm for investors in Russia’s energy sector. Nafta’s website has since been scrubbed.
Trump factor: With no major history of GOP giving, Kukes suddenly funneled $285,000 into the Trump reelection effort — much of it after June 2016, when Russian interest in the possibility of a Trump presidency intensified.
Jewish ties: Kukes does not have apparent formal ties with the organized Jewish community, although he tells interviewers he left the former Soviet Union because he was Jewish. In 2015, he bought a 12.5 percent share in Leverate, an Israeli-founded company that develops brokerage software.
Yuri Milner, 56
Oligarch factor: Milner never fled the Soviet Union — his parents still live in Moscow. He was the first non-emigre from the Soviet Union to attend Wharton business school, and was for years involved in Russian banking before entering tech. He is well known as a Silicon Valley investor, owning one of the most luxurious houses in ritzy Los Altos Hills, valued in 2011 at $100 million. Last year, it was revealed through leaked documents that Russia’s government funded substantive stakes in Twitter and Facebook that were for a time held by his company, DST Global. In 2013, Milner joined Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin and 23andme’s Anne Wojcicki in establishing the multi-million dollar Breakthrough prize for scientists.
Trump factor: After last year’s revelations, Milner scoffed at the notion that Russia was plowing money into social media efforts to influence elections, noting that he never sought a seat on the board of the companies he invested in. Milner in 2015 invested $850,000 in Cadre, a real estate startup launched by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Kushner’s brother Josh. Milner has said that he met Jared Kushner only once. Kushner’s stake in Cadre was one of many that he initially failed to disclose when he became an adviser to his father-in-law.
Jewish ties: Milner attends a synagogue when he is in Moscow. Somewhere along the line, he appears to have acquired Israeli citizenship. Speaking with Forbes in 2017 after the magazine named him one of the 100 “greatest living business minds,” Milner said he was “humbled and honored” to be “the only Russian or Israeli citizen on the list.”