Oleg Y. Tinkov was worth more than $9 billion in November, renowned as one of Russia’s few self-made business tycoons after building his fortune outside the energy and minerals industries that were the playgrounds of Russian kleptocracy.
Then, last month, Tinkov, the founder of one of Russia’s biggest banks, criticized the war in Ukraine in a post on Instagram. The next day, he said, President Vladimir Putin’s administration contacted his executives and threatened to nationalize his bank if it did not cut ties with him. Last week, he sold his 35% stake from him to a Russian mining billionaire in what he describes as a “desperate sale, a fire sale” that was forced on him by the Kremlin.
“I couldn’t discuss the price,” Tinkov said. “It was like a hostage — you take what you are offered. I couldn’t negotiate.”
Tinkov, 54, spoke to The New York Times by phone Sunday, from a location he would not disclose, in his first interview since Putin invaded Ukraine. He said he had hired bodyguards after friends with contacts in the Russian security services told him he should fear him for his life, and quipped that while he had survived leukemia, perhaps “the Kremlin will kill me.”
It was a swift and jarring turn of fortune for a longtime billionaire who for years had avoided running afoul of Putin while portraying himself as independent of the Kremlin. His downfall of him underscores the consequences facing those in the Russian elite who dare to cross their president, and helps explain why there has been little but silence from business leaders who, according to Tinkov, are worried about the impact of the war on their lifestyles and their wallets.
Indeed, Tinkov claimed that many of his acquaintances in the business and government elite told him privately that they agreed with him, “but they are all afraid.”
In the interview, Tinkov spoke out more forcefully against the war than has any other major Russian business leader.
“I’ve realized that Russia, as a country, no longer exists,” Tinkov said, predicting that Putin would stay in power for a long time. “I believed that the Putin regime was bad. But of course, I had no idea that it would take on such a catastrophic scale.”
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.
Tinkoff, the bank Tinkov started in 2006, denied his characterization of events and said there had been “no threats of any kind against the bank’s leadership.” The bank, which announced last Thursday that Tinkov had sold his entire stake in the company to a firm run by Vladimir Potanin, a mining magnate close to Putin, appeared to be distancing himself from its founder.
“Oleg has not been in Moscow for many years, did not participate in the life of the company and was not involved in any matters,” Tinkoff said in a statement.
Tinkov has also run into trouble in the West. I have agreed to pay $507 million last year to settle a tax fraud case in the United States. In March, Britain included him on a list of sanctions against the Russian business elite.
“These oligarchs, businesses and hired thugs are complicit in the murder of innocent civilians and it is right that they pay the price,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said at the time.
Tinkov is nevertheless widely seen as a rare Russian business pioneer, modeling his maverick capitalism on Richard Branson and morphing from irreverent beer brewer to founder of one of the world’s most sophisticated online banks. He says he has never set foot in the Kremlin, and he has occasionally criticized Putin.
But unlike Russian tycoons who years ago broke with Putin and now live in exile, such as former oil magnate Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky or tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, Tinkov found a way to coexist with the Kremlin and make billions — at least until April 19.
That is when Tinkov published an emotional anti-war post on Instagram, calling the invasion “crazy” and deriding Russia’s military: “Why would we have a good army,” he asked, if everything else in the country is dysfunctional “and mired in nepotism, servility and subservience?”
Pro-war Russians posted photos of their shredded Tinkoff debit cards on social media. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent state television host, delivered a tirade against him, declaring, “Your conscience is rotten.”
Tinkov was already outside Russia at that point, having departed in 2019 to receive treatment for leukemia. He later stepped down and ceded control of Tinkoff, but kept a 35% stake in the company, which was valued at more than $20 billion on the London stock exchange last year.
A day after the April 19 post, Tinkov said Sunday, the Kremlin contacted the bank’s senior executives and told them that any association with their founder was now a major problem.
“They said: ‘The statement of your shareholder is not welcomed, and we will nationalize your bank if he doesn’t sell it and the owner doesn’t change, and if you don’t change the name,’” Tinkov said, citing sources at Tinkoff he declined to identify.
On April 22, Tinkoff announced it would change its name this year, a step it claims was long planned. Behind the scenes, Tinkov says, he was scrambling to sell his stake from him — one that had already been devalued by Western sanctions against Russia’s financial system.
Tinkov said he was thankful to Potanin, the mining magnate, for allowing him to salvage at least some money from his company; he said that he could not disclose a price, but that he had sold at 3% of what he believed to be his stake’s true value.
“They made me sell it because of my pronouncements,” Tinkov said. “I sold it for kopecks.”
He had been considering selling his stake anyway, Tinkov said, because “as long as Putin is alive, I doubt anything will change.”
“I don’t believe in Russia’s future,” he said. “Most importantly, I am not prepared to associate my brand and my name with a country that attacks its neighbors without any reason at all.”
Tinkov is concerned that a foundation he started that is dedicated to improving blood cancer treatment in Russia could also become a casualty of his financial trouble.
He denied that he was speaking out in the hopes of getting the UK sanctions against him lifted, although he said he hoped the British government would eventually “correct this mistake.”
He said that his illness — he is now suffering from graft-versus-host disease, a stem-cell transplant complication, he said — might have made him more courageous about speaking out than other Russian business leaders and senior officials. Members of the elite, he claimed, are “in shock” about the war and have called him in great numbers to offer support.
“They understand that they are tied to the West, that they are part of the global market, and so on,” Tinkov said. “They’re fast, fast being turned into Iran. But they don’t like it. They want their kids to spend their summer holidays in Sardinia.”
Tinkov said that no one from the Kremlin had ever contacted him directly, but that in addition to the pressure on his company, he heard from friends with security service contacts that he could be in physical danger.
“They told me: ‘The decision regarding you has been made,’ ” he said. “Whether that means that on top of everything they’re going to kill me, I don’t know. I don’t rule it out.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company