Mysterious Russian billionaire tries on role as Jewish leader

MOSCOW — In order to enter Vladimir Goussinsky's spacious office, you must first pass through an airport-style metal detector and 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, as well as an honor the U.S. Congress gave Goussinsky for his contribution to the revival of Russian Jewish life.

As the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Goussinsky has become the primary public figurehead of Russian Jewry. At the same time, he is somewhat of an enigma.

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 a recent 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.

Goussinsky is more than just one of Russia's wealthiest men. He is the leading Russian sponsor of Jewish communal projects.

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

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

It's a huge turnaround from his early childhood.

Growing up in Moscow, Goussinsky, like most Soviet Jews, knew little about Judaism.

During his student years, Goussinsky became 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 had 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 struggling Jewish religious institutions.

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

It was there, a source close to the Russian Jewish Congress said, that Goussinsky 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.

Founded in early 1996, the Russian Jewish 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 Russian Jewish Congress, which claims to be strictly non-partisan, has been keeping in the Russian public arena.

In addition, Goussinsky has 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 of the Joint.

Goussinsky's involvement in Jewish philanthropy has partially backfired. He says some of his rivals have used his involvement in the Russian Jewish Congress against him. Those 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 Holocaust memorial museum and synagogue in Moscow — will help achieve that goal.

Inside the World War II national memorial park on Poklonnaya Gora, the institution is scheduled to open in September next to a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque.