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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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But even with all the obvious flaws of post-Soviet capitalists, many experts say that they skirted laws in an environment when laws were still being written and that without their wits and risk-taking, Ukraine, like neighboring Russia and some other ex-Soviet republics, risked sliding into a full economic collapse, a reversion to communism and authoritarianism. “It’s a special kind of people on which capitalism rests,” Aleksandr Paskhaver, head of the Center for Economic Development think tank, said of Pinchuk and other oligarchs. Without them, he added, “I would like to see what this country would have looked like.”

***

In the freezing winter of 2004, at the height of the Orange Revolution, opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko took a stroll through a protest tent camp set up on the capital’s main street, Khreshchatyk, a prominent tourist destination. Ukrainians had turned out in tens, even hundreds, of thousands to protest what they perceived as an attempt by Kuchma’s protégé Yanukovych to steal the vote and call for a new, honest election. Rich and poor, young and old, urban and provincial, wrapped in orange scarves, hats, arm bands, and whatever else they could attach to themselves, they stood freezing in the center of Kiev for days, then weeks, ditching work and university lectures. The protesters slept in tents despite cruel temperatures, warmed themselves with hot tea brought in thermoses by Orange-minded babushkas, ate buckwheat kasha from soup kitchens, and stomped their feet against the frozen ground, united and euphoric in their drive to defend Ukraine’s democracy.

Accompanying Lutsenko that evening was Viktor Pinchuk and Maria, his grown daughter from his first marriage, who had just flown to Kiev from London, where she was then studying. Pinchuk—Kuchma’s son-in-law and a public supporter of Yanukovych—was an unlikely figure to show up in the heart of the Orange protest camp, which was dotted with posters and caricatures denouncing Kuchma and even Pinchuk himself. As if to make that point, a young female activist approached Pinchuk and, as Lutsenko remembers it, handed him a ribbon that said “Down with Kuchma,” which he accepted politely and passed on to his daughter. Lutsenko believes that Pinchuk was moved by what he saw around him, even though he probably realized that a victory of the Orange Revolution did not bode well for him personally. “Something historic was happening and if you are a patriot of your country, it doesn’t matter which candidate you support,” Pinchuk told me. “You love this country, you want to take part in building it.”

After the courts annulled Yanukovych’s fraud-marred victory, his opponent, the pro-Western Orange candidate Viktor Yushchenko was elected president in a repeat vote. He picked Yulia Tymoshenko, Pinchuk’s business partner-turned rival, as prime minister and Pinchuk’s fortunes started to dim—literally. After annulling the Krivorozhstal sale and auctioning it off to Mittal Steel, Tymoshenko went after Pinchuk’s Nikopol plant—a key piece of his business empire. But after less than a year in office, Tymoshenko—recognizable to many in the West for her the blond braid she wears coiled around her head—was fired amid accusations that she was lobbying in the interest of Pinchuk’s rival Ihor Kolomoisky, Ukraine’s third richest man. (Both denied it.) A protracted and messy ownership dispute with Kolomoisky over Nikopol ensued, leading to a shaky settlement in 2006. (The truce hasn’t lasted: This past spring, Pinchuk filed suit in London against Kolomoisky and his partner Gennady Bogolyubov—both, like Pinchuk, Jewish oligarchs from Dnipropetrovsk—over the rights to a major ore-mining company.)

While he still lives like an oligarch, buying one of the most expensive mansions in London, paying $23 million for a Jeff Koons sculpture, and spending $5 million on his birthday party at the French ski resort of Courchevel, according to the New York Times and Forbes, he has been devoting an increasing amount of time and effort to philanthropy.

In 2006, Pinchuk left politics and established an eponymous foundation, which has distributed several hundred million dollars on a variety of projects, from funding an English-language economics school to building neonatal clinics. While his fellow post-Soviet oligarchs splurge on soccer teams, Pinchuk has opened a museum of contemporary art in Kiev, one of the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, bringing star artists—Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami—to new terrain and placing Ukraine on the global cultural map.

George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Victor Pinchuk

George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Victor Pinchuk at the Humanity Award Gala of the USC Shoah Foundation, in New York, 2013. (Kevin Mazur)

Pinchuk has also partnered with Steven Spielberg to produce Spell Your Name, a documentary about the Babi Yar massacre of over 33,000 Jews in a Kiev ravine in Nazi-occupied Kiev in one of the bloodiest chapters of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Pinchuk, whose family managed to escape Babi Yar but had friends who perished there, invested some $1 million into the movie, according to Lifestyles magazine. The film was also made into a learning manual for Ukrainian teachers to promote tolerance among Ukraine’s young. Pinchuk has also funded Holocaust by Bullets, a project of Fr. Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest who has spent several years canvassing Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus in search for the unmarked graves of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were gunned down by the Nazis and their collaborators before gas chambers were put to use.

He supports Ukraine’s resurgent Jewish community both financially and morally. On Pinchuk’s invitation, Tony Blair donned a yarmulke and toured Dnipropetrovsk’s gleaming new synagogue; the billionaire also took Chelsea Clinton with her Jewish husband Marc Mezvinsky, whose ancestors are from Ukraine, to the synagogue in Kiev.

In 2008, he invited Paul McCartney to sing in front of several hundred thousand euphoric Ukrainians on Kiev’s Independence Square, the site of the Orange Revolution protests and to millions more who watched Pinchuk’s TV channels, saying that a country cannot be considered democratic unless the Beatles sing there. The charity concert, which raised about half a million dollars to fight cancer, cost Pinchuk $5 million, according to the New York Times.

Pinchuk’s two other pet projects, the Yalta European Strategy conference and the Ukrainian lunch at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, have helped open Ukraine to the West. The speakers at Yalta have included Shimon Peres, Newt Gingrich, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Branson, and, this year, Tony Blair and the Clintons. (Pinchuk is a generous contributor to both Blair’s and Clinton’s foundations.) But in the past three years, since Yanukovych, the target of the 2004 protests, was elected president, Pinchuk’s Yalta summits have become platforms for drawing Yanukovych, and Ukraine, toward the West, away from Moscow.

The conferences have also provided a kind of open debate that has been unseen elsewhere in Ukraine in recent years, let alone in much of the post-Soviet Union. This year, Vitaly Klitschko, the world heavyweight boxing champion and a top opposition leader, stood up from his seat, towering over the audience at 6 feet 7 inches, and asked Yanukovych point blank whether he would have the guts to resign. Lutsenko—who was jailed, along with Tymoshenko, after Yanukovych came to power—stood and begged Yanukovych to set Tymoshenko free. Finally, Hillary Clinton used her keynote speech to compliment Ukrainian chocolates, which are banned in Russia as retaliation for Kiev’s moves toward the European Union. This week, after Yanukovych flooded Kiev with riot police, Clinton called on the government to “choose dialogue with its people, not force.”

“Pinchuk was the first one to understand the necessity of capitalization of not only of his business, but also of the country,” Lutsenko said. “Today he is the promoter of Ukraine’s European path.”

Earlier this month, Pinchuk summoned a group of young Ukrainian artists to his museum to award an art prize, which he set up several years ago to promote contemporary art here. The top winner could talk about nothing but the protests outside, saying that the “performance” on Kiev’s streets was even more powerful that their art. Pinchuk took that as a compliment. “Perhaps you inspired them for it,” he told the artists.

Pinchuk is clearly also aware that his charitable work gives him a valuable venue for improving his reputation, befriending influential people in the West and, ultimately, securing protection for his family and assets at home. Last year, he signed up for the Giving Pledge, a movement led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to get the world’s billionaires to donate half of their money to charity. “It doesn’t really matter what a person begins from,” Pinchuk said, waving off a question about his intentions. “What matters is what he does and what he achieves in the end.”

***

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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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