Gusinsky, Vladimir

▪ 2002

      Media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky was the first Russian businessman to recognize the political and financial benefits of the mass media. His holdings included television, radio, newspapers, and magazines known both for their professionalism and for the critical stance they often adopted toward Kremlin policies. In 2001 Gusinsky lost control of his media empire at the end of what some observers depicted as a Kremlin-inspired campaign to destroy him.

      Vladimir Aleksandrovich Gusinsky was born into a Jewish family in Moscow on Oct. 6, 1952. He studied at a petrochemical institute and began his career as a theatre actor and director in the provincial city of Tula. In the late 1980s, however, he took advantage of a new mood of economic liberalization to establish himself in private business. Gusinsky differed from the majority of those who made their fortunes at that time by exploiting privileged backgrounds to strip the assets of the Soviet state. In cooperation with an American partner, Gusinsky by contrast set up a consulting company that facilitated joint ventures between Soviet and Western firms. In 1989 he established Most Bank, which soon became one of the most active and innovative commercial banking groups in Russia. In 1993 Most began to handle the accounts of the Moscow city government and the vast amounts of money passing through them. In turn, Mayor Yury Luzhkov's administration reportedly helped Most acquire some of the choicest development plots in Moscow's booming real-estate market. This made Gusinsky many enemies, while the Kremlin suspected him of financing Luzhkov's presidential ambitions. Gusinsky was one of seven “oligarchs” who, alarmed by the prospect of a Communist victory in Russia's presidential election in 1996, bankrolled Pres. Boris Yeltsin's reelection campaign.

      In 1992 Gusinsky founded the newspaper Segodnya and the independent television channel NTV. Later he acquired the Ekho Moskvy radio station, and in 1996 he launched a weekly political magazine, Itogi, a joint venture with Newsweek. NTV raised Kremlin hackles both through its critical coverage of Russia's 1994–96 war in Chechnya and through its merciless satirizing of the foibles of Russia's leaders. In 1997 Gusinsky left his post at Most Bank to concentrate on his media interests, run by the private holding company Media-Most.

      Following Russia's 1998 financial crash, advertising revenues dried up. To keep his publications afloat, Gusinsky was obliged to borrow large sums of money. He turned for funding to the natural gas monopoly Gazprom. This put him heavily in debt to a company seen by many as an arm of the Russian state. Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, came to power in 2000 vowing to strip the “oligarchs”—Russia's richest businessmen—of their privileged access to political power. Within weeks of Putin's inauguration, Gusinsky had been jailed on embezzlement charges. Then Gazprom began to demand repayment of its loans. After a bitter court battle, Gusinsky was forced unwillingly to relinquish control of his media holdings and left the country for exile in the Spanish resort of Sotogrande. NTV was placed under new management; Itogi and Segodnya were closed down. The Russian government demanded Gusinsky's extradition, but the Spanish courts refused.

      Gusinsky and his supporters depicted him as a champion of media freedom and victim of Kremlin persecution. The Russian authorities countered that the case was a matter simply of property rights and the repayment of loans. Many felt that the truth contained elements of both interpretations and lay somewhere in between.


▪ 1996

      Few figures in contemporary Russia better embodied the ambiguities and contradictions of the country's erratically evolving capitalist democracy than Vladimir Gusinsky. Believed to be among the wealthiest of Russia's nouveau riche, Gusinsky headed the Most Group, a powerful business conglomerate anchored by the Most Bank. It also included the nation's only independent television network and an influential Moscow newspaper.

      Little was known of his past. By his own account, Gusinsky was an only child, born in Moscow in 1952 to a Jewish family that suffered the anti-Semitism of the late Stalin period. At age 17 he entered a technical institute; a tour of duty in the army followed. Gusinsky spent the next five years in Moscow as a theatre director while moon-lighting as a taxi driver.

      Gusinsky's big break came in 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched a period of reform. Gusinsky quickly formed one of the first Soviet-American joint ventures, from which evolved the Most Group (named after the U.S. automatic teller machine). By 1993 the group controlled several dozen companies and had moved into the media. The exact sources of Gusinsky's vast fortune remained murky, however. Many speculated that the Most Group profited from lucrative business contacts with the Moscow city government, and especially from Gusinsky's personal relationship with Moscow's mayor.

      Although Gusinsky flatly dismissed charges of impropriety, his special relationship with Luzhkov, whom many saw as a potential political challenger to the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, was undoubtedly the source for one of the most talked-about incidents in recent Russian history. In December 1994 Gusinsky's driver and several members of his security team were roughed up by a squad of armed men belonging to the president's official security service. Menacing remarks from the Kremlin followed, and Gusinsky fled with his family to the West, where he remained in self-imposed exile until May 1995. Late in the year he was reportedly negotiating to open a London affiliate.

      Gusinsky's treatment illuminated the precariousness of Russia's emerging democracy, just as the shadowy accumulation of his fortune pointed to the seamy side of Russia's transition to capitalism. Gusinsky was nevertheless a steadfast supporter of political and economic reform, and his newspaper, Segodnya ("Today"), and his television network, NTV, remained among the best examples of independent media in contemporary Russia. NTV in particular distinguished itself with hard-hitting reporting during the Russian war in Chechnya, an achievement that brought home to Russians the horror of the conflict—and that undoubtedly exacerbated the tensions between Gusinsky and the Kremlin. (STEPHEN FOYE)

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Universalium. 2010.

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