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Mikhail Fridman: The opinionated billionaire with a giving nature

Mikhail Fridman is one of the world’s richest men. He also holds strong views on Israel and staunchly supports Shoah education, as shown by his backing of a UK project to preserve survivors’ testimony

    Mikhail Fridman is in an effervescent mood. Leaning back on a chair in his office next to Green Park in central London, the famously litigious billionaire  is ruminating on what it is like having his parents, ex-wife and four children spread across four countries.

    That is what you call a “diversified portfolio”, says the London-based businessman, who has just supplied the funding required to complete the Forever Project of survivor testimony at the the National Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. Cue a broad grin and raucous laugh.

    He is certainly not exhibiting any signs of the battles he fought on the way to amassing his £11.5 billion fortune. A Ukraine-born Jew who built his business empire amid the cut-throat free-for-all following the break-up of the Soviet Union, he is most widely known in the UK for his bitter, decade-long squabble with BP over a joint Russian oil venture, TNK-BP, and his dispute with the British government over his acquisition in 2015 — and then sale — of 12 North Sea gas fields.

    Things have gone more smoothly since. LetterOne Group — his Luxembourg-headquartered, London-operated investment vehicle which was launched in 2013 — has been making headlines for its £1.7 billion acquisition of health retailer Holland & Barrett and a £150 million chunk of Uber.

    But what is gnawing at Mr Fridman today is something deeper, more personal.

    “The achievements of Israelis in high-tech, IT and start-ups are amazing and unbelievable,” he reflects. “At the same time, Western public opinion is becoming more and more critical of Israel. The result is that in the diaspora, people have become shy to admit they support Israel. They often say, ‘I’m a Jew, I don’t want to hide my Jewish roots. But at the same time, I don’t want to demonstrate any sympathy for Israel’.”

    Meanwhile, assimilation and secularisation are thinning out Jewish identity. “Religion is not playing the role it once did historically. Also, we are living in a much more tolerant world and that’s a very important cushion that pushes Jews towards assimilation. Jewish society is diluting.”

    These factors represent not only a “mortal” threat to the diaspora but also to Israel, on top of the Jewish state’s major security challenges. “Israel’s defence forces are strong,” he observes. “But without moral and material support from other countries, it’s not possible that Israel could survive.”

    Although Mr Fridman downplays the idea that some Jews are being alienated by Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, he accepts that its politicians, from the prime minister downwards, often ignore the needs of those beyond the Jewish state — for example, Benjamin Netanyahu’s capitulation to the Charedi parties over the push to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.

    His solution? A body of diaspora leaders with a legal mandate to advise the Israeli government on what matters to Jews around the world.

    “The support [provided by the diaspora] should not be condition-free,” he says. “Hence my idea: a forum for exchanging views. At the end of the day, all political decisions should be in the hands of Israelis. But I think they would carefully listen to a diaspora leader who could deliver very sincere messages about what is going wrong with their policies from their point of view. At the same time, the Israelis could explain their views.”

    He believes such a forum would benefit both sides as greater engagement would widen the circle of supporters for Israel around the world, as well as potentially circumvent “Israeli mistakes in foreign policy”.

    Mr Fridman is pained by the fragmentation of the Jewish world he is describing. His parents were secular because religion was banned by the Soviets. He was prevented from entering the universities of his choice as “a very typical kind of victim of antisemitism in the Soviet Union”, ending up studying at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, from which he graduated with a distinction in 1986.

    Antisemitic policies also meant he was barred from taking certain jobs and he came to appreciate the importance of Jews helping one another — and that the maintenance of a mutually recognisable identity was itself a survival issue. “Because of this, it’s my duty and my mission to do my best to enhance Jewish identity among people who could forget about it,” he says.

    His aim to preserve and maintain Jewish life globally is not just a defence mechanism. It is also a positive recipe for living. He argues that “certain Jewish traditions, values or philosophy” add up to “a very powerful source for achieving success in life”.

    That was the idea behind the £1 million Genesis Prize which Mr Fridman co-founded in 2012 alongside other prominent Russian-Jewish businessmen to recognise Jews who achieve notable success in their fields of endeavour.

    There have been problems with the initiative. Many potential winners refused to accept a nomination because they did not want to be too closely associated with Israel or — worse — to be handed the award by the Israeli prime minister.

    “That was unexpected for us. We did not know it was such a sensitive issue, especially in Europe [but] also in the US. This was a very dangerous signal.”

    Mr Fridman credits Jewish tradition as a key element behind his success in Russia.

    He says Jews in Russia “are never close to the government. We always tried to stay on the business side. We have always tried to be more market reactive and, longer term, that’s a much more viable strategy for us.”

    That balancing act can be seen in his approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Being both Ukrainian and a citizen of Russia, he says he is pained by the war but insists it is “not his job or position” to comment on who is right or wrong. What is clear, he says, is that Ukraine is no longer a good place to work or do business — and Jews are leaving. “They are going to Israel and elsewhere. This is not good for Ukraine, east or west.”

    He sees Jews as a litmus test for a society. If they stick around, “things are OK”. If something goes wrong, “Jews are the first people to move out”.

    A profound identification with the Jews’ historical predicament lies at the heart of much of what Mr Fridman says. But one phrase stands out. His mission to reunite the Jewish people comes from his desire to “pay back what I received from dozens of generations of my predecessors”.

    This is the language of a man who, having achieved everything he could have wished for on earth, is looking to reserve his seat in the Jewish firmament.

     

     

     

     

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