He made his fortune in Russia and then returned to live in his home village. He is rarely seen but his generosity is boundless. Who is the secret Georgian billionaire?by Wendell Steavenson / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fit for a king: the reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has built a modern-day palace overlooking the Georgian capital Tbilisi
On top of a ridge looking down on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, there stands a castle built of steel and polished concrete. Its turrets are wrapped in an exoskeleton of aluminium bars, and its grounds are dotted with sculptures by Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor. To one side there’s a helicopter pad. Beyond it, a hundred-foot ersatz waterfall tumbles into an aqua-blue swimming pool which fills a gully of the adjacent botanical gardens. Though the gardens are public, ramblers are discreetly deterred by black-uniformed guards hidden among the trees.
When I first lived in Tbilisi in 1998, during the dark, stagnant years of Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime, the castle was still a huge construction site, shrouded in scaffolding–an unfamiliar sight in Georgia. I once asked my friend Kakha what it was going to be. “Oh, a businessman is building a business centre,” he told me vaguely. That’s all anyone knew.
I left Georgia in 2001, but returned every so often to see friends and write articles. Work on the castle was halted and restarted several times. By 2003, Shevardnadze was an old, tired man with a halo of white hair, presiding over a corrupt cabinet and a flatlining economy; Tbilisi was down to four hours of electricity a day. Mass demonstrations after disputed parliamentary elections culminated in the peaceful “Rose” revolution. In January 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili, the young, western-educated, brash and charismatic opposition leader, was elected president with 96 per cent of the vote. “Misha! Misha! Misha!” chanted the crowds, waving red roses. The lights went on immediately. It turned out that the old regime had been selling Georgia’s electricity to Turkey and Armenia. Saakashvili stripped the economy down to free-market basics and investment bubbled up: new shops, restaurants, hotels.
Just after Saakashvili was sworn in, Kakha and I visited the newly-opened Sameba Cathedral, the largest church in the country. At night it was lit up like a giant wedding cake in a spotlight. I marvelled at the vaulting interior and wondered who had paid for such an extravagance. “A Georgian businessman apparently,” said Kakha, “but no one knows who.”
His name emerged slowly by word of mouth, a whisper floating over cafe gossip: Bidzina Ivanishvili. With it came a faint outline of a biography: a poor Georgian boy from a poor village who had gone to Moscow and become a billionaire.
Ivanishvili had built the castle and the cathedral, but never seemed to appear in public or be mentioned in the newspapers. In 2008, I was shadowing Saakashvili for a magazine profile and I asked him about this mysterious businessman. “Oh Ivanishvili!” cried the president, “He is like the Count of Monte Cristo. I have only met him once. He hates publicity.”
Saakashvili laughed, then added, frowning, “but he has no political ambitions. None at all.” He said this as if he couldn’t imagine someone not wanting to turn money into power.
I was told it would be impossible to meet Ivanishvili–he never spoke to journalists. I thought I might try anyway, and mentioned this to Giga Bokeria, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister and one of the administration’s young faces. Giga was dismissive of the idea, and related a third-hand story: “Bidzina made a smooth new road in his home village in Imereti. At first everyone was happy with this, but then one day he was driving and found a crowd of villagers blocking his way. They complained that cars were driving too fast along the new road and that it was too noisy. They demanded that he build new houses for them further back from the road.”
“The perils of charity,” I ventured.
Giga shook his head and wagged an admonishing finger. “It’s the perfect example of socialism.”
Ivanishvili’s name conjured hearsay and legend.
“He made his money selling old pillowcases from Soviet state institutions to the Turks.”
“No, he went to Russia and called himself Boris Ivanov and made his fortune from a gold mine.”
“He sold computers and videos during perestroika.”
“He gives pensions to all of Tbilisi’s old intelligentsia.”
“You know, he has albino children.”
“He funded the refurbishment of the Rustaveli Theatre.”
“He has zebras.”
“No one knew he had paid for Sameba Cathedral until Shevardnadze named him in his memoirs. Bidzina was very upset. When the cathedral opened, the Patriarch wanted to have a big feast to celebrate and he refused even to attend.”
“He paid for a reunion dinner for all his school classmates and there was a key for a new car under everyone’s napkin.”
“He has penguins.”
Ivanishvili’s name is attached to many public projects: repairs to the Tbilisi State University, a seaside amusement park, a ski resort, national parks, medical clinics and so on.
“I didn’t know what he looked like,” recalled Davit Doiashvili, director of the Theatre of Music and Drama in Tbilisi. Doiashvili spoke to me while directing a rehearsal for Macbeth at his theatre, which at the time looked like a building site. “After a performance one evening, an old actor introduced me to this man. We spoke for no more than a minute and a half. I had no idea who he was. He asked me why our stage was so small. I told him we needed a bigger one. The next day his people came to talk about remodelling the whole theatre.”
“I have never even met him,” Giga Lortkipanidze, another theatre director, told me. I had come to his apartment, the walls of which were covered in portraits of great thespians; a flat-screen television stood on a gilded Louis XIV-style table. Lortkipanidze had received a phone call from a representative from the Cartu Group, Ivanishvili’s charitable organisation, saying that they would like to offer him a “contract.” Since then, $2,300 a month has been paid into his bank account; he need do nothing in return. And his case, he said, was far from unique. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Georgian intellectuals and artists are supported in this way.
“Have you been to Sachkhere, in the Imereti region, where he comes from?” Lortkipanidze asked me. “Ah!” He waved his cigarette into smoky wreaths of abundance. “He has done there what the Soviets always promised but never delivered!”
I tried to talk to people close to Ivanishvili, but they all refused. “It’s a taboo.” Sometimes people lowered their voice when they repeated his name. A taxi driver called him God.
Ivanishvili has only ever given one interview, in 2005, to the Russian business daily newspaper Vedomosti. The accompanying photograph of him is one of very few existing in the public domain. It shows a slight, middle-aged man, with brown hair brushed back from his forehead and hooded brown eyes. He’s wearing a grey suit and a striped tie. He has a middle-management face, the kind that you could pass without recognising even if you had been introduced to him the night before.
This year, Ivanishvili was 167th on the Forbes list of billionaires, with an estimated fortune of $4.8bn. He spends some of this money on art, and his collection includes Peter Doig and Frida Kahlo. In 2006, he paid $95m for Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat, more than $30m above the estimate. At the auction at Sotheby’s in New York, the winning bid had been made by an unknown man in a dark suit who had sat at the back and–apparently unversed in auction etiquette–had simply held his paddle in the air for the duration. Someone took a photo; he was subsequently identified as a relative of Ivanishvili’s.
In my search for information I went to see the French ambassador to Georgia, Eric Fournier, an unusually funny and unguarded diplomat. He is well known in the country for playing the jazz saxophone and for his bravery during Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia, in which he drove around the frontline. I had heard that Ivanishvili was a Francophile, that he had a house near St Tropez and an apartment in Paris, that his four children had French citizenship and that his second son, 14-year-old Bera, rapped in French with Snoop Dogg in a state-of-the-art sound studio built as part of his refurbishment of Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Theatre.
Fournier allowed that he was a friend of Bidzina’s, and that he had spent time at his “business centre” and at his house in the village of Chorvila, where he now lived most of the time.
“I have an understanding with him that I respect his privacy,” said Fournier carefully. “You look at other oligarchs and their fate–he’s the only one with a clean image.”
“Clean image? No image.” I replied.
Fournier paused, trying to work out how to tell me something without revealing anything, “He likes France and French food…” He stopped again and his eyes gleamed with suppressed pleasure at his accession. (He is apparently the only ambassador that Ivanishvili has met; even the Americans were politely rebuffed.) “Everything is simply perfect, the most impressive that you can imagine,” he said finally.
“Are there really zebras?” I asked.
Fournier hesitated for a moment. “Well yes,” he admitted with a twinkle in his eyes, “there are zebras in Georgia.”
Ivanishvili was born in 1956, the fifth and youngest child of a poor family in the unpaved village of Chorvila, up the hill from Sachkhere. His father shovelled coal in the manganese factory. In the winter, Ivanishvili walked to school through frozen fields in hand-me-down boots with no socks. He finished high school in Sachkhere near the top of his class, and was awarded a place at Tbilisi State University to study engineering and economics. During his studies in the late 1970s he supported himself by working as a cleaner in a metals factory. In 1982 he left to study for a PhD in economics at the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering. In his spare time he tutored a schoolboy in physics; he met one of the boy’s other teachers, Vitaly Malkin, and they went into business. Their first enterprise was run from a three-room apartment, importing computers, phones and video recorders. It was the time of perestroika and Moscow was swarming with pent-up demand. By 1990 Malkin and Ivanishvili had made $100,000–enough to open a bank, Rossisky Kredit, in a corner of a kindergarten. It sold hard currency to Russians desperate to convert their rapidly devaluing roubles.
When privatisation was announced, Ivanishvili eschewed the big fast bucks and the violent squabbles over control of the oil and metals sector. Instead he bought unpopular iron ore mines. He kept a low profile. Malkin was the front man, Ivanishvili the strategist. In his Vedomosti interview Ivanishvili says he is proud that Rossisky Kredit Bank avoided the dangers of doing business with the bandit class and the state security apparatus. He tried to avoid making enemies.
In 1991 Ivanishvili married Eka, an 18-year-old doctor’s daughter from the next village. It was a miserable year, with civil war on the streets of Tbilisi and a nasty ethnic conflict in South Ossetia, 20km away from Chorvila. People remember the wedding feast as lavish for the times: an array of food, caviar and bananas. In 2004, he returned with his family to Chorvila and sent his children to the local school for a year.
I decided to follow the suggestion of visiting Ivanishvili’s childhood home. One sunny September morning, I left Tbilisi with my friend and translator Marika and drove west for two hours into the province of Imereti. We turned off the highway at the town of Gomi, heading into the Sachkhere district. After climbing a forested valley in slow zigzags we emerged onto a wide plateau, walled to the north with the sheer massif of the Caucasus. In the villages, amid dilapidated fencing patched with corrugated iron, there were splashes of bright colour: green and red polyurethane roofs donated by Ivanishvili. Along the road ran the new red pipe that brought gas to Sachkhere for the first time. Inside every house, we had been told, was a new gas stove; a chicken in every pot. This was Bidzina’s kingdom.
Sachkhere itself was a small town with a single, Soviet-era towerblock leaning over a cracked roundabout, a row of crumbling shops, and a main street still named after Stalin. Along the river were the ruins of the Soviet empire–the concrete husk of a huge cotton factory and the rusted carcass of the old smelting plant. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Sachkhere. No jobs, no electricity; in the winter, the road to Gomi deteriorated into impassable rubble. Cars were such a rarity that the whiff of petrol became the scent of nostalgia. By the early 2000s, the population had halved and no one was left except for old people, the cows and the mud.
“But Sachkhere mud is sticky. And God sent that man back to us,” said Nugzar Kimadze, chief land registry officer for the municipality. He had held his job since communist times, through the 1990s when his salary was paid in coupons worth less than $5 a month and his children didn’t understand what lightbulbs were for. Now his office is newly refurbished. When describing Ivanishvili’s munificence he held his hands wide, as if measuring a great fish: a new police station, more than 20 schools in surrounding villages, a fire station, the local army base, a football stadium, a library, a cinema (so far unused because the local council can’t afford to rent film reels). Ivanishvili restored the road to Gomi, built a water-treatment facility, and until early 2009 provided free gas and electricity to 60,000 people in the region. He repaired and refitted the hospital. Healthcare was free to anyone with a Sachkhere identity card. He paid monthly bonuses to doctors and teachers, pensions to the old. Over dinner, Nugzar, his friends and I raised a glass of amber Imeretian wine to the sticky mud that had sucked Ivanishvili back to his roots.
After dinner, we drove up the hill and Nugzar gave us a tour of Chorvila. Almost every building in the village had been rebuilt by Ivanishvili: smooth stucco, wood window frames, shiny durable roofs. Outside each was a galvanised steel rubbish receptacle. It’s impossible to describe what an incongruous sight these prosperous-looking homes were in Georgia. It looked like a corner of Germany or Switzerland.
Ivanishvili’s estate, built on 14 acres of farmland, was surrounded in part by a traditionally latticed birch-twig fence and elsewhere by a stone wall. From an open bend in the lower road, you can gaze upwards and catch a glimpse of a pristine modernist corner of the main house, which overlooks the wide Sachkhere valley towards the mountains. In front of the house was a sports complex and a helicopter pad.
Ivanishvili built a new church above the village with a rose garden and interior frescoes of lapis-coloured saints. His father, who died a few years ago, is buried there. When Marika and I went to look at it the next day, a Volkswagen and a secondhand black BMW drove up. The owners had come to get their new cars blessed by the priest. Five village guys stood around, smoking and waiting for the priest to return, shuffling their feet at the intrusive questions of the outsiders. They laughed politely and a little nervously.
“So you all work for Bidzina?” They nodded.
“He is our saviour. If it wasn’t for him, we would have no other way to survive. You couldn’t find young people in Chorvila. Then Bidzina returned, and lots of people came back.”
In Sachkhere they joked that there is no one–”not even the blind or lame”–left unmarried in Chorvila. Ivanishvili’s generosity has made all the villagers highly eligible. Each family receives a monthly stipend of $140, their electricity and gas are free and every house has a new refrigerator and a television. Virtually everyone is employed in one Ivanishvili enterprise or another. If there is a wedding or a funeral, Bidzina donates $2,000 towards the feast.
Over the years, Ivanishvili has removed himself from public life. In part this is a defence, from both petitioners and criminals. In the mid-1990s, during Georgia’s bandit years, his brother had been kidnapped. Ivanishvili knew that paying the ransom would create a dangerous precedent, so he paid double the money to members of the Russian and Georgian security services. His brother was released after a month.
In part, the seclusion is just part of his nature. He told Vedomosti: “I never liked meeting journalists, going to parties, being the centre of attention. I don’t even have birthday parties for myself. You have to put on a mask at these events.”
Ivanishvili seems to be practising a kind of personalised socialism. The government in Tbilisi has raised salaries and begun to invest in schools and hospitals, but most of Georgia’s rural population remains mired in subsistence. Sachkhere, although divided between those who work for Ivanishvili and those who do not, was quietly, relatively prosperous. So is this socialism or Keynesian pump-priming?
In Tbilisi, the young guns of Saakashvili’s new-model economy–bankers, businessmen, economic advisers–scoffed at Ivanishvili’s mini-state of dependence. “He spends $30m a year maybe?” one said. “In Georgia, it looks like a fortune.”
Kakha Bendukidze is one of Georgia’s richest men; like Ivanishvili, he made his money in the Moscow boom of the early 1990s. Bendukidze, who returned to Tbilisi after the Rose revolution to become minister of economics, is unimpressed too. “He is killing people’s independence. They are dependent on Ivanishvili and cannot do things by themselves. At the same time, many are often unhappy with him. Why is he doing this and not that? Why isn’t he doing much more?”
There were even local complaints. “The biggest problem is that no one can get to him,” said one local council officer, who spoke so candidly he didn’t want me to use his name. “Now everything is only Bidzina. It won’t last forever. You shouldn’t just hand out money.” He complained that it wasn’t always fair or logical what Ivanishvili spent his money on.
If it is socialism, it is bringing socialism’s side-effects: a certain griping passivity and sense of entitlement. People took advantage, squabbled over the spoils, moaned that it wasn’t enough. “There were fights over who got the green roof and who got the red roof,” a photographer from Sachkere told me. Ivanishvili does seem to be learning that largesse needs limits. At first the hospital was free to allcomers, now a Sachkhere ID is required. When he paid everyone’s gas and electricity bills, people left their lights blazing all hours. The subsidy was rescinded last winter, and people complained, “Couldn’t he wait for summer?” Ivanishvili used to pay every teacher a salary top-up of an extra $200 a month, more than double the state wage. Some teachers worked long hours, others went home early. Recently, the bonuses had begun to be awarded according to the hours actually worked.
Ivanishvili remained elusive to my inquiries. He was at his Black Sea retreat, some said. Back in Tbilisi, I finally met some friends of his who were willing to talk. Ivanishvili had achieved the fantasy of huge wealth, but from what I heard he had avoided its traps of vanity, greed and bully-power. His story slowly turned from fairy tale to parable.
Ivanishvili shunned the glamour of Georgia’s new business and political class. His humble background led him to recoil from the entitlement and snobbishness of Tbilisi’s elites, who were a younger, westernised generation. He liked people he felt were genuine, without avarice or pretension. Some of his friends have ordinary jobs: a florist, a clinic director.
I talked to some close friends of his: they were all middle-aged avuncular men who still believed in the Georgian trinity of family, friendship and hospitality.
Gia Chirakadze was a founder member of the country’s most famous folk-singing group, Kartuli Khmebi (Georgian Voices). He had a wise old face, tanned from the two months he had just spent with his family at Ivanishvili’s house on the Black Sea. Ivanishvili had heard his group singing at a feast ten years before and invited them all, together with their families, to the Seychelles for a month. Many of them were still his closest friends. He made sure they were all well provided for; Gia receives a monthly stipend of $2,000.
“What makes him happy?” I asked.
“It makes him pleased when someone else is pleased,” said Gia. “And he is happy when he’s playing backgammon. We have big fights with each other. Last time I made him too angry. I devastated him. In the final of the tournament I was winning 7-0. Finally, he won 15-9. He was very happy.”
They described Ivanishvili as a man without pretension.
“When I first met him,” said Kote Kubaneishvili, a poet, “I understood he was someone only because there were two big guards standing behind him. We went to a cafe and talked–I paid because he had no cash on him. It was close to my birthday, and I invited him to my party. He asked me what I would like as a present, and half-jokingly I said I would like Alexandre Dumas’s culinary dictionary. He and his wife came to my party and gave me my copy of Dumas–he had sent a plane to Moscow to collect it.” Ivanishvili has offered many times to help Kote financially, to pay for his books to be published, publicised, translated. Kote demurs, but did let him pay for his wife’s son to study for a year in Germany.
Emerging through anecdote and reminiscence was a fragmentary portrait of a man who has been happily married for 19 years, with four children (two of whom are indeed albino) all apparently pleasant, well educated, and not conceited. He provides for his friends, but I sensed that the closest of them are not dependent on him. Ivanishvili lives well. He swims in his pool, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink except for a glass of cognac after dinner, though he has a cellar of French wine worth over $1m. He works four or five hours a day in his office, keeping in touch with his Russian businesses by telephone, email and Bloomberg screen. He likes to be in bed by the un-Georgianly early hour of 10 or 11pm.
In conversation, he is apparently inquisitive to the point of inquisitorial: very interested in details, with an ability to recall discussions from a year before. “When you talk to him about something he will suddenly have 20 questions,” Tripolski, an old friend who had once run a television station for him told me. “When he’s rebuilding a theatre he wants to know all the details, about the lighting and the electrical capacity. It’s sometimes difficult to talk to him because you must be ready to answer all these questions.”
He has kept meticulously out of politics. “I neither support the new Georgian government nor oppose them,” he told Vedomosti in 2005. “I have no links to politicians.”
He is neither dogmatic nor idealistic. He does not like religion much–”I am a materialist” he told Vedomosti–and yet he has built Georgia’s largest church. He likes to employ people from his extended family or from Sachkhere, but is not inflexible on this point; he values competence. The headquarters of his company, the Cartu Group, is housed in a nondescript block in Tbilisi; he never visits. According to people who have worked there, the atmosphere can be overpoweringly deferential, but in phone conversations Ivanishvili is always cordial. I heard no stories of anger or outbursts.
I talked to the press officer at the Cartu Group and asked for a list of its projects; I had heard that, at any time, there are up to 60 buildings under construction or refurbishment throughout the country. She replied that Cartu projects were never publicly acknowledged. I asked if I could talk to the director of the Cartu Group. He was out of the country and unavailable, she did not know when he would be returning.
“Has anyone ever interviewed him?” I asked.
Ivanishvili can be forgiving, but if he feels he has been taken advantage of (there were many cases of this–contracts puffed, budgets stretched, pockets filled) he can ostracise a friend or a relative ruthlessly. I came across several examples of this, but no indication that he had been especially unfair.
He has been careful to pick through the moral minefield of giving money; the nuances between charity and altruism and handout. He talked about it at length with Vedomosti. “When the philanthropist is anonymous he derives the greatest pleasure. Life has given him a chance not just to worry about people but also to support them,” he said. “But when you remind people that you have helped them too many times, it becomes self-aggrandisement… Instead of being thankful, they have a feeling of a heavy debt. For many people it is hard to bear and it can turn into aggression and resentment.”
Talking to his friends, hearing about his backgammon games and small solicitudes, I began to draw a little closer to Ivanishvili–like the Wizard of Oz, a nondescript man at the centre of so much extravagance. His life asked the question in the gospels: how can a rich man get to heaven if not through the eye of a needle? It echoed, too, the debates of the communist and social democrats during the 20th century: how can capital be balanced by the power of the people?
I met another of Ivanishvili’s friends, Irakli Tripolski, for dinner. The two men had known each other since they were students in Tbilisi. Tripolski raised his glass to him. “For this man.” He drank, then gazed down into the depths of the yellow wine. “This man,” he said again, two bottles later, crossing himself three times, “is a very important man in my life, not just because he’s rich…” Tripolski’s wife was recovering from cancer; Bidzina had paid for her treatment in Vienna.
Tripolski was filming a documentary about Pilimon Koridze, a famous Georgian opera singer who had a glittering international career at the turn of the 20th century. At the height of his fame he had returned to his homeland and dedicated the rest of his life to transcribing ancient Georgian hymnals and ballads into sheet music.
On another afternoon, Tripolski and I sat in one of the new restaurants built to look like an old Georgian village with a group of ancient singers who were providing the soundtrack to his documentary. The table was laid with a feast: rounds of oozing khachapuri cheese bread, spicy Imeretian chicken-guts sausage, plates of aubergine with walnut paste sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Toasts were raised to the welcoming of guests, to the traditions of Georgia. The wizened old men sang in polyphonic harmony about generosity and gratitude.
“I will ask Bidzina if he will meet you,” Tripolski told me, shaking my hand and kissing me on both cheeks as we left.
Somehow it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
I realised I had been cloaking Ivanishvili with ideology–Christian, communist, capitalist–while he subscribed to no overarching philosophy. Perhaps it was quite simple. Like Pilimon, he had left Georgia and become rich and celebrated; like Pilimon, he had returned. He was the product of the dust and mud of his childhood. He had wrestled with the dilemmas of transformational wealth. But he seems to have used it, most of all, as a way to come home.