Oleg Y. Tinkov was worth more than $9 billion as of November, recognized as one of Russia’s few self-made business tycoons after building his fortune outside of the energy and mineral industries that were the playgrounds of Russia. kleptocracy.
Then, last month, Mr Tinkov, the founder of one of Russia’s biggest banks, criticized the war in Ukraine in an Instagram post. The next day, he said, President Vladimir V. Putin’s administration contacted its leaders and threatened to nationalize its bank if it did not cut ties with him. Last week he sold his 35% stake to a Russian mining billionaire in what he describes as a “desperate sale, a fire sale” forced on him by the Kremlin.
“I couldn’t discuss the price,” Mr. Tinkov said. “It was like a hostage – you take what you’re offered. I couldn’t negotiate.
Mr Tinkov, 54, spoke by telephone to The New York Times on Sunday, from a location he did not want to reveal, in his first interview since Mr Putin invaded Ukraine . He said he hired bodyguards after friends with contacts in the Russian security services told him he had to fear for his life, and joked that although he survived leukaemia, maybe “the Kremlin will kill me”.
It was a quick and jarring turn of fortune for a longtime billionaire who for years had avoided clashing with Mr Putin while portraying himself as independent of the Kremlin. His downfall underscores the consequences faced by members of Russia’s elite who dare to cross paths with their president and helps explain why there has been only silence from business leaders who Mr Tinkov says are worried about the impact of war on their way of life. and their wallets.
Indeed, Mr Tinkov claimed that many of his acquaintances in the business and government elite had told him privately that they agreed with him, “but they are all scared”.
In the interview, Mr. Tinkov spoke out more forcefully against the war than any other top Russian business leader.
“I realized that Russia, as a country, no longer exists,” Mr. Tinkov said, predicting that Mr. Putin would stay in power for a long time. “I thought Putin’s regime was bad. But of course, I had no idea it would take on such catastrophic proportions.
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.
Tinkoff, the bank Mr Tinkov set up in 2006, denied his description of the events and said there had been “no threats of any kind against the management of the bank”. The bank, which announced last Thursday that Mr. Tinkov had sold his entire stake in the company to a company run by Vladimir Potanin, a mining magnate close to Mr. Putin, appears to be distancing itself from its founder.
“Oleg has not been to Moscow for many years, has not participated in corporate life and has not been involved in any business,” Tinkoff said in a statement.
Mr. Tinkov has also encountered problems in the West. He agreed to pay $507 million last year to settle a US tax evasion case. In March, Britain put him on a sanctions list against Russia’s business elite.
“These oligarchs, corporations and hired thugs are complicit in the murder of innocent civilians and it is right that they pay the price,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said at the time.
Mr Tinkov is nonetheless widely regarded as one of Russia’s few business pioneers, modeling his maverick capitalism on Richard Branson and transforming himself from irreverent beer brewer to founder of one of the world’s most sophisticated online banks. . He says he has never set foot in the Kremlin, and he has sometimes criticized Mr. Putin.
But unlike Russian tycoons who broke with Mr Putin years ago and now live in exile, like former oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky or tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, Mr Tinkov has found a way to coexist with the Kremlin and earn billions – at least until April 19.
It was then that Mr. Tinkov posted an emotional anti-war message on Instagram, calling the invasion “crazy” and mocking the Russian military: “Why would we have a good army?” he asked, if everything else in the country is dysfunctional “and bogged down”. in nepotism, servility and enslavement?
Pro-war Russians have posted photos of their shredded Tinkoff debit cards on social media. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent state television host, launched a tirade against him, saying: “Your conscience is rotten.
Mr Tinkov was already out of Russia at the time, having left in 2019 to receive treatment for leukaemia. He then resigned and ceded control of Tinkoff, but retained a 35% stake in the company, which was valued at more than $20 billion on the London Stock Exchange last year.
A day after the April 19 message, Mr Tinkov said on Sunday, the Kremlin contacted senior bank officials and told them that any association with their founder was now a major issue.
“They said, ‘Your shareholder’s statement is not welcome, and we’ll nationalize your bank if he doesn’t sell it and the owner doesn’t change, and if you don’t change the name,'” a said Mr. Tinkov. said, quoting sources in Tinkoff whom he declined to identify.
On April 22, Tinkoff announced he would be changing his name this year, a step he said was long overdue. Behind the scenes, Mr Tinkov says, he was scrambling to sell his stake – one that had already been devalued by Western sanctions against Russia’s financial system.
Mr. Tinkov said he was grateful to Mr. Potanin, the mining magnate, for allowing him to recover at least some of his company’s money; he said he could not disclose a price, but had sold at 3% of what he believed to be the true value of his stake.
“They forced me to sell it because of my statements,” Mr. Tinkov said. “I sold it for kopeks. »
He had considered selling his stake anyway, Mr Tinkov said, because “as long as Putin is alive, I doubt anything will change”.
“I don’t believe in the future of Russia,” he said. “Most importantly, I am not ready to associate my brand and my name with a country that attacks its neighbors for no reason. »
Mr Tinkov fears that a foundation he started that is dedicated to improving blood cancer treatment in Russia could also fall victim to his financial problems.
He denied speaking out in the hope of getting UK sanctions against him lifted, although he said he hoped the UK government would eventually “correct this mistake”.
He said his illness – he now suffers from graft-versus-host disease, a complication of stem cell transplant, he said – might have made him braver to speak out than others. Russian business leaders and senior officials. Members of the elite, he said, are “shocked” by the war and have called him in large numbers to offer their support.
“They understand that they are tied to the West, that they are part of the global market, etc. said Mr. Tinkov. “They are quickly, very quickly transformed into Iran. But they don’t like it. They want their children to spend their summer holidays in Sardinia.
Mr Tinkov said no one from the Kremlin had ever contacted him directly, but that in addition to pressure on his business he had heard from friends with contacts to the security services that he could be in danger physical.
“They said to me, ‘The decision about you has been made,'” he said. “Does that mean that on top of everything they’re going to kill me, I don’t know. I don’t rule it out.