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As Pro-European Protests Seize Ukraine, Jewish Oligarch Victor Pinchuk Is a Bridge to the West

The steel magnate—son-in-law of the former president and once a symbol of post-Soviet nepotism—now advocates for the rule of law

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Victor Pinchuk. (Courtesy of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation)
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One breezy evening last September, Viktor Pinchuk, Ukraine’s second-richest man, stepped onstage at the Livadia Palace in the Black Sea resort of Yalta to introduce the star speaker of the annual international conference he hosts to promote his country’s ties with the West: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nearby, at a table set for an exquisite five-course meal, sat her husband; they were joined in the hall by Shimon Peres and Tony Blair, as well as a number of former European heads of state, top diplomats, and business tycoons. “Mr. President, you are really a super star,” Pinchuk told Bill Clinton in a seemingly apologetic tone, “but Secretary Clinton, she is a real, real mega star.”

Pinchuk, a Jewish son of the Soviet system who became a steel and media magnate and, more recently, fashioned himself into a billionaire philanthropist, was in his element. At age 52, Pinchuk basks in his newfound role as a global philanthropist and a leading Westernizer of his country—and a man rich and powerful enough to crack jokes at the expense of a former American president.

It’s been a remarkable transformation. Just nine years ago, Pinchuk—the son-in-law of Ukraine’s then-President Leonid Kuchma—was denounced by many of his compatriots as a robber baron who used his personal connections to snap up some of the most valuable assets in Ukraine for a song during the post-Soviet privatization wave while millions of his countrymen struggled to make ends meet. In the fraud-ridden election that triggered Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Pinchuk backed Kuchma’s handpicked successor—Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually won the presidency in 2010 and whose recent decision to shelve a key treaty with the European Union and instead embrace Russia triggered the demonstrations that have seized Kiev in recent weeks.

As in 2004, the appearance of flag-waving pro-democracy protesters occupying the capital’s Independence Square divided Ukraine into those whose hearts lie with the West and those whose hearts lie with Moscow. A decade ago, Pinchuk found himself stung by the Orange Revolution: The new Orange government, led by Viktor Yushchenko, renationalized a steel mill Pinchuk had purchased from the state during his father-in-law’s presidency and then promptly sold it to a foreign investor at a much higher price. Pinchuk was forced to fight to hold on to the rest of his assets.

But Pinchuk held on. He has spent the years since the Orange Revolution working to build a profile as a philanthropist. He recently pledged half his fortune, estimated by Forbes at $3.8 billion, to charity and has underwritten large-scale AIDS campaigns, opened up a free museum of contemporary art in central Kiev, and teamed up with Steven Spielberg to produce a documentary about the Holocaust in Ukraine. As pro-European reforms have stalled, Pinchuk has emerged as his country’s top advocate in the West, using his annual Yalta summits to push for Ukraine’s closer integration with the European Union.

“When the system collapsed, a certain number of people received access to something, even though everybody wanted it,” Pinchuk told me when we met last week. “As a result, a few rich people emerged and a great many poor. The gap is crazy, and it’s all absolutely unfair. And everybody understands that it is unfair. I, by the way, also think that it’s unfair.”

Pinchuk initially stayed silent as protesters barricaded themselves in the capital this month, even though his television channels covered them energetically. (His father-in-law Kuchma, one of the targets of the 2004 revolution, has joined two former Ukrainian presidents in signing a letter of support for the demonstrations.) But in the last few days, as the government moved to violently disperse the encampments, Pinchuk finally broke his silence, showing up at the protest camp himself and praising the demonstrators’ spirit. “The most important is that Ukrainian civil society has shown its strength,” he told the Financial Times this week. “Nothing is more powerful. It gives me huge optimism for the future of our country.”

It’s an evolution that people who know Pinchuk say makes sense: The experience of nearly losing his business empire after the Orange Revolution made clear that the post-Soviet system he helped create, in which fortunes could crumble with a change of political winds, was flawed. “He would like to be in a situation where it doesn’t matter to him who the next president of Ukraine is going to be,” said Steven Pifer, who has known Pinchuk since serving as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000. (Pifer now works at the Brookings Institution in Washington, which receives funding from Pinchuk.) “The advantage for him of Ukraine becoming a rule-of-law society is that it doesn’t matter.”

***

Pinchuk has close-cropped hair, shrewd brown eyes, and the confidence a wealthy man. His headquarters, in a high-rise in the center of Kiev, is decorated with contemporary art sculptures, part of his multimillion dollar collection. Photos displayed prominently in his office show Pinchuk in the company of Spielberg, Henry Kissinger, and the Obamas. When I visited earlier this month, Pinchuk was accompanied by three aides, armed with a set of recorders. “Are three voice recorders enough?” he teased his staff when we sat down.

Born in Kiev in 1960, Viktor Mikhailovich Pinchuk was raised in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, in a family of Jewish intelligentsia. The classics of world literature filled the shelves of the small two-room apartment, and trips to theaters and museums were a staple of his childhood: He still remembers a visit to the renowned Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, where he stood in awe for hours in front of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, until his mother whisked him away. Pinchuk’s parents, Mikhail and Sofiya, were both engineers, who were constantly living from paycheck to paycheck, borrowing money from friends and at one point even having to sell a treasured 16-volume set of the collected works of John Galsworthy.

Pinchuk’s parents met on a boat sailing from Kiev to Dnipropetrovsk, where they went to attend university—two young Jews forced to leave their hometown for a less-prominent city because most good schools in the capital were closed to them. Yet the Pinchuks were decidedly Soviet, eating pork and, on the rare occasions they could afford it, black caviar. They decorated a tree at New Year’s—the secular Soviet replacement for Christmas. “When I was young, I felt myself a Soviet man and was proud of it,” Pinchuk recalled.

But Pinchuk’s grandparents spoke Yiddish at home, and his great-grandmother, who was observant, demanded a separate set of dishes for Passover—prompting Pinchuk to once buy her a camper’s set. He was secretly fed matzo by his grandfather, who nevertheless was a devoted Communist known to condemn Jews who immigrated to Israel as unpatriotic to the Soviet Union. But as a child, Pinchuk was taught little about Jewish traditions. Once, after coming to understand that his great-grandmother was religious, he tried to please her by crossing himself, as he had seen his Orthodox Christian friends do. “She said ‘Vitya, what are you doing?’ ” Pinchuk told me. “I didn’t understand what she was talking about.”

He began to understand when, as a boy, he was stopped by a policeman who whispered the word “kike” into his ear. In school, some of his teachers like to count the number of Jews in their classes and made Pinchuk stand up from his seat and answer humiliating questions in front of the entire class, even though the answers were well known to all. “Where does your mother work? Where does your father work? What is your nationality?” Pinchuk recalled. “For some kids, it was an execution of sorts that you had to spell it out. Some were unable to endure it and said they were Ukrainians. The class laughed, because everybody still knew everything. This was the Soviet system: You had to be humiliated. Or, on the contrary, hold your head up high.” Pinchuk did the latter.

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As Pro-European Protests Seize Ukraine, Jewish Oligarch Victor Pinchuk Is a Bridge to the West

The steel magnate—son-in-law of the former president and once a symbol of post-Soviet nepotism—now advocates for the rule of law