Rags-to-riches Russian Jew shows moxie despite adversity

MOSCOW — When Vladimir Goussinsky walked out of jail here last Friday night, TV cameras showed the media tycoon and leader of the Russian Jewish Congress looking tired and nervous.

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

Goussinsky, a 47-year-old reported billionaire, grew up in a poor Jewish family that, like others in the former Soviet Union, suffered under the oppressive weight of Stalinism.

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

As a child Goussinsky knew little about Judaism. But the outside world didn't let him forget his background.

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

People who know him well say these childhood fights gave him a strong desire to stand up for other Jews and help them gain self-respect.

During his student years he was among thousands of Jewish youths who flocked to Moscow's Choral Synagogue on religious holidays, especially on Simchat Torah, to demonstrate their pride — ignoring the KGB agents who were taking pictures of them. But that was the extent of his Jewish involvement at the time.

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

He quickly and mysteriously managed to become wealthy. By 1989, when he founded the Most bank, he had also entered the real estate business.

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 Most bank, making Goussinsky one of the wealthiest individuals in Russia.

In 1993, he entered the media business, launching a newspaper and establishing NTV, which quickly became one of three national TV channels.

NTV became known in 1999 for its opposition to Russia's war in Chechnya. This stance did not endear Goussinsky to current Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was brought in by former President Boris 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 Yeltsin's administration.

In 1996, Goussinsky and six other financiers banded together to fund Yeltsin's victorious re-election campaign.

Yet Goussinsky's relationship with Yeltsin 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, Goussinsky fled the country. Those seven months in London changed his life, sources say.

"Vladimir had a lot of free time to think about his Jewishness and there he decided to become active in the Jewish community," said Yevgeny Satanovsky, a leader of the Russian Jewish Congress, the Jewish umbrella group founded in 1995.

When Goussinsky returned to Moscow, he became involved in the Jewish community, with the help of Israel Singer, a leader of the World Jewish Congress, and Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow.

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.

He "could have bought his security much cheaper" than the millions of dollars a year that he donates to the RJC, said Satanovsky. "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 also back 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."

Fifty-two members of Congress have 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 has made valuable contributions to the revival of Russian Jewish life by turning Jewish philanthropy into a respectable activity and demonstrating that the Russian Jewish community can be self-supporting and financially independent.

Goussinsky's fortunes began to take a nosedive last August, after Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister.

Even if the current case is dropped, a statement made June 15 by 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 said it was "probably an excessive measure" — said he doesn't understand why prosecutors are not paying attention to $200 million that Goussinsky allegedly owes Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas monopoly.

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 he would spend $40 million to purchase 45 percent of Bezek, Israel's telephone company.

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