Most Russian multimillionaires have a reputation for being gruff, tight-lipped and wary of questions that might corner them into making any potentially incriminating assessment of the Russian president — a man who like Harry Potter’s Voldemort is usually referenced obliquely and never directly by name.
But my guest, Oleg Tinkov, is different. By the end of our two-course meal at Moscow’s waterfront Vodnyy restaurant, the provocative Russian credit card tycoon and IT entrepreneur has casually mentioned Vladimir Putin by name more than a dozen times, boasting of his relationship with the president as well as speaking critically about the current Russian regime. He has also thrown in a couple of smutty sophomoric jokes; dished on his own sex life as a married man; and shared his views on the female sex (“A very beautiful, fragile creature who should not be involved in making money”).
It is a strange tactic to take when you are dining with a western and female interviewer. But as our lunch progresses it all becomes clear: Tinkov is a big fan of Donald Trump.
“Trump is awesome! He’s candid, an honest dude,” Tinkov explains. Before Trump, he goes on, there was just one other politician whom he liked: Silvio Berlusconi. “All politicians lie at the end of the day. But Berlusconi is sincere.”
Tinkov excels at eyebrow-raising statements. The son of a Siberian coal miner, Tinkov, 48, became one of Russia’s first billionaire entrepreneurs in St Petersburg thanks to a string of high-performing businesses spanning electronics, dumplings, beer and now banking, where he is the founder of Tinkoff Bank, a Russian internet bank modelled on the US credit card company Capital One. He is also the owner of Tinkoff-Saxo, an elite cycling team that includes the riders Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador and competes in the Tour de France and other UCI World Tour events, though in December he announced that he was planning to sell the team in 2016.
It is hard to quantify how much of Tinkov’s success is the result of the quality of the businesses versus his own flashy and personality-driven marketing, inspired by the likes of Trump and Richard Branson. On Twitter and Facebook, he regularly posts profane and incoherent messages to his hundreds of thousands of followers: “Who is the fuck Kim Kirdashian [sic]?”; “I have 200,000 followers, bitch!” When Zhanna Friske, a much loved Russian actress and singer, died of cancer last year at the age of 40, Tinkov wrote a Facebook post deriding her as “a mediocre, middling” talent, bemoaning that the nation hadn’t grieved the same way for Ilya Segalovich, the co-founder of Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, when he died two years earlier.
Tinkov, who owns summer homes in Europe and sports a $250,000 watch, enjoys a lavish and well-documented vacation schedule. Yet, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine and western sanctions, his business and personal fortunes have suffered alongside the rest of the Russian economy. According to Russian Forbes, Tinkov has lost his billionaire status and his estimated net worth has fallen from $1.4bn to $500m over the past 18 months. Tinkoff Bank, which listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2013 in a blockbuster initial public offering, has seen its share price plummet from $17.50 to about $3.
Vodnyy, the restaurant where we are meeting, is owned by Arkady Novikov, a restaurateur with connections to Putin, and located on the Moscow River next to Tinkov’s offices and one of the city’s few yacht clubs. In the summer there is a beach here with thumping techno, a bar and dozens of bikinied babes. Swimming is off-limits but people jump in anyway.
When I arrive, Tinkov is standing at the top of the restaurant’s steps, talking into his cell phone and casting a bleak figure against the backdrop. He is dressed in a suit paired with dirty trainers. His hair, once salt and pepper, has gone white over the past few years and a long scar cuts across his chin, the result of a near fatal car accident when he was a teenager.
Today the cavernous restaurant is empty except for a few tables, a result of the season and Russia’s economic crisis. A channel called Fashion TV — a mainstay of expensive Moscow restaurants — plays mutely in the background.
The menu is vast and ambitiously spans three continents: dishes range from pizza to grilled octopus to sushi. Tinkov has just returned from a holiday in Courchevel, home to one of his numerous summer houses, and is feeling homesick. The language we will be speaking in is Russian, as will be the cuisine. Tinkov picks the borscht soup followed by pelmeni (Russian dumplings). On a menu of too many options, it seems the safe bet. I settle for the same.
The waiter has scarcely had time to take our orders and bring us a bottle of water when it quickly becomes clear that Tinkov is already annoyed and bored by my questions. I have been asking about his social media posts, which often extend well beyond Kim Kardashian into sensitive political and social issues. After the murder of Moscow opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in February, Tinkov took his son to attend Nemtsov’s memorial march — originally billed as an opposition rally — and posted photos of the event to Facebook.
He has said that if he were ever to catch his children watching the pro-Kremlin political party United Russia on television, he would make them change the channel. He has also criticised the government for not doing more to make Russians want to stay in the country.
When I bring this up, however, Tinkov immediately grows defensive. He doesn’t use social media much any more, he says, and his PR assistant Darya writes most of the posts — a surprising claim considering that Darya is incredibly mild-mannered and has perfect written English.
“I can see already how this interview is going to go,” Tinkov declares. “I didn’t particularly want to meet with you because I knew that, again, there would be these rhetorical questions. Isn’t the FT tired of writing the same thing? Or is this what your readers want? Are they demanding that we keep saying how everything is bad in Russia, and speak about Putin? Everyone knows all this. Everyone understands this! Why do we have to speak about it 10 times?”
But most prominent Russian businessmen prefer not to speak about it at all, I say. “That’s their problem,” he replies. “You ask them what they’re scared of. I’m not scared of anything.”
Tinkov says the major difference between himself and more conventional Russian oligarchs is simple: “I don’t depend on the government like they depend on it.” Most oligarchs are “temporary mangers of their assets — they are not real owners”.
I mention Vladimir Yevtushenkov, an oligarch with close relations to the Kremlin who was suddenly stripped of his prize oil company Bashneft in 2014 with little explanation. “At the beginning they give, then they take away,” Tinkov says.
He is quick to boast about his connections to the Kremlin politicians. “I’m from St Petersburg. I know all the federal politicians. Let me say it again: all of them! Starting with the number-one guy [Vladimir Putin]. I know all of them. I’m from St Petersburg.” And yet he also insists he does not want to talk about politics. So we switch to business.
Which businessmen are interesting to him? “Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Tom Ford.” And inside Russia? He names the two co-founders of the classified site Avito, Russia’s answer to Craigslist, who happen to be Swedish nationals, followed, after some thought, by Sergei Galitsky, the founder of Russia’s largest food retailer, Magnit.
It is interesting that the first people he names are foreigners, I say. “They’re just the first ones that came into my head,” Tinkov shoots back. “Listen, there are a lot of us, dozens of talented entrepreneurs. I just can’t remember them all right now.” He pauses. “Arkady Volozh [surviving co-founder of Russian search engine Yandex], why not. Yandex is a great company. It’s competing with Google pretty well.”
Our borscht arrives, surprisingly delicious and slightly sweet. I ask him where the best borscht is in Moscow. “I haven’t judged, but it seems to me that the best borscht is with a hangover,” he replies. “Maybe Tsarskaya Okhota,” he adds. It is another Novikov establishment.
Perhaps cheered by the food, Tinkov starts to brighten up and I venture back to the subject of politics. Not long after the Crimea annexation, Tinkov wrote on Twitter that Crimea was a “special situation”. Does he still feel that way?
“It’s hard to argue with the fact that Russia is a great country. At a minimum it’s the biggest country . . . And size does matter, in my opinion,” he quips, using his thumb and forefinger to indicate the size of something else.
“I’m not a pro-Putin person by any stretch . . . He’s not my hero. But [David] Cameron and [Barack] Obama are my heroes even less.”
The west, Tinkov says, has been too quick to judge Russia on issues such as its record on gay rights. “In England 50 years ago, homosexuality was a crime. 150 years ago Oscar Wilde sat in prison because he was gay. We were closed for 70 years, we are lagging behind. Judge us, like we’re in the 1950s — 70 years behind . . . You are taking these templates and these standards and you are putting them on us. But you are not putting them on other Eastern countries [such as China and Afghanistan]. This bothers me. Why does Russia have to fit this mould?”
It is a fair argument and one I’ve heard before. I agree that Russia is often held to a higher standard because it is seen as culturally closer to Europe, but say that some western leaders believed that after the Soviet Union Russia would automatically become like other European countries. Now they worry Russia is going backward.
“I am also scared about this, just like our western colleagues. If we return to the Soviet Union I don’t want to live in this country. I’ll leave of course — absolutely. But for now, I don’t see us returning to the Soviet Union.”
While many today fondly romanticise the Soviet period, Tinkov is not one of them. “Of course I wasn’t starving in Siberia — my father was a miner. But I was always badly dressed, I didn’t eat well, and I couldn’t go anywhere — not just abroad but even within the country. My family and I didn’t have enough money. It was a terrible, totalitarian, bad society.”
Tinkov escaped Siberia by enrolling at the Leningrad Mining Institute in today’s St Petersburg in 1989 where he started his first business: buying imported lipstick and jeans from fellow students and transporting them back to St Petersburg where he sold them at a mark-up.
After graduation and the Soviet Union’s collapse he founded a chain of electronics stores that he owned for close to a decade, before moving on to his next ventures: Darya, a frozen pelmeni business named after his daughter; a beer brand; a chain of pubs; and now the credit-card business.
Our pelmeni arrive at the table but, unlike the traditional Siberian variety, they are filled with salmon instead of meat and taste vaguely Asian. “They used to have fish and meat dumplings and now they just have fish dumplings. I don’t know why,” Tinkov says. “I like the meat ones better. I’m Siberian.”
Despite Tinkoff Bank’s poor share performance, Tinkov says he doesn’t regret the London listing. “We’re not living two or three years in the future but 10 years.” From its headquarters down the road, Tinkoff Bank is serving three million or so clients and has made forays into mobile banking. When the price of oil recovers and sanctions are lifted, the bank will also do better, he predicts. “We’re just in the wrong place right now.”
He calls both western sanctions and Russia’s reciprocal ban on EU and US food products “stupid” but, when I ask how the ban has affected him, he says he has no idea. “My wife is in charge of the shopping.
“Here it’s like it was in the Middle Ages. The wife tends the fire and the husband goes out to kill the mammoth . . . It’s in America that you have emancipation,” he goads.
Does his wife agree with this? “If she didn’t agree with me, she wouldn’t have lived with me for 27 years and had my three children. We still have good sex — can you imagine?” I take the bait. Frequently? “Enough. I want more but she won’t give it.”
Their oldest daughter is at university in London, while the 15-year-old is at boarding school in Oxford and the couple plans to send their 12-year-old to join him there next year. While some members of the Russian elite have been criticised for flaunting their patriotism at home while sending their children abroad, Tinkov says he gets away with it by staying out of politics.
“As a politician you can’t have a bunch of money, ride around on a plane and wear whatever watch you want,” he says, pointing to the quarter-of-a-million-dollar timepiece around his wrist.
The bill arrives and Tinkov, for all his outspoken views on gender, agrees both to let me pay and to ask one final political question. What does the west not understand about Putin?
“Unfortunately, westerners don’t understand that Putin is a reflection of the Russian person,” he says. “Westerners for some reason think there’s some kind of Russian society here that wants something else, and that Putin is preventing this and, if he’s not here any more, then something will change. But this is not the case.”
It would be a good note to end the lunch on. But Tinkov can’t stop himself. As we stand to gather our coats, he returns to the topic of feminism. He wants to know if I am a feminist. I answer affirmatively.
“You know, I’ve never had sex with a feminist before,” he says. “Then again, a feminist would probably never want to have sex with me . . . And they probably only want one thing too.” He throws in a schoolboy gesture for the act just to make sure I got the joke and lets out a long, deep chortle.
Courtney Weaver is an FT US political correspondent and former Moscow correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson
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