Oleg Y. Tinkov was worth more than $9 billion in November, known as one of Russia’s few homemade business magnates after building his fortune outside the energy and mineral industries that were Russia’s playgrounds. kleptocracy.
Last month, Mr Tinkov, the founder of one of Russia’s largest banks, criticized the war in Ukraine in a post on Instagram. The next day, he said, President Vladimir V. Putin’s government contacted his executives and threatened to nationalize his bank if it didn’t cut ties with him. Last week, he sold his 35 percent stake to a Russian mining billionaire in what he describes as a “desperate sale, a fire sale” forced upon him by the Kremlin.
“I couldn’t talk about the prize,” Mr. Tinkov said. “It was like a hostage – you take what is offered to you. I couldn’t negotiate.”
Tinkov, 54, spoke to bohobarmadrid by phone on Sunday, from a location he declined to disclose, in his first interview since Putin invaded Ukraine. He said he hired bodyguards after friends with contacts in the Russian security services told him to fear for his life, and joked that although he survived leukemia, “the Kremlin may kill me”.
It was a quick and shocking turn of fortune for a longtime billionaire who for years avoided confronting Mr Putin while portraying himself as independent of the Kremlin. Its demise highlights the consequences for those in the Russian elite who dare to cross paths with their president, and helps explain why there has been little but silence from business leaders who, according to Mr Tinkov, are concerned about the impact of the war on their lifestyles and their wallet.
Indeed, Mr 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, Mr. Tinkov spoke out more strongly against the war than any other major Russian business leader.
“I have realized that Russia as a country no longer exists,” said Mr Tinkov, predicting that Mr Putin would remain in power for a long time. “I believed that Putin’s regime was bad. But of course I had no idea it would reach such a disastrous size.”
The Kremlin has not responded to a request for comment.
Tinkoff, the bank Mr Tinkov started in 2006, denied his characterization of the events, saying there had been “no threat whatsoever against the bank’s leadership”. The bank, which announced last Thursday that Mr Tinkov had sold his entire stake in the company to a firm run by Vladimir Potanin, a mining magnate close to Mr Putin, appeared to be moving away from its founder.
“Oleg has not been to Moscow for many years, did not participate in the life of the company and was not involved in any case,” Tinkoff said in a statement.
Mr. Tinkov has also gotten into trouble in the West. He agreed to pay $507 million last year to settle a tax fraud case in the United States. In March, Britain put him on a list of sanctions against Russia’s business elite.
“These oligarchs, corporations and hired thugs are complicit in the murder of innocent civilians and they are right to pay the price,” Secretary of State Liz Truss said at the time.
Nevertheless, Mr. Tinkov is widely regarded as a rare Russian business pioneer, modeling his casual capitalism after Richard Branson, turning from irreverent brewer to founder of one of the world’s most sophisticated online banks. He says he has never set foot in the Kremlin and has occasionally criticized Putin.
But unlike Russian tycoons who broke with Putin years ago and now live in exile, such as former oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky or tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, Mr. Tinkov found a way to coexist with the Kremlin and make billions to earn – at least until April 19.
At the time, Mr. Tinkov published an emotional anti-war post on Instagram, calling the invasion “crazy” and mocking the Russian army: “Why should we have a good army,” he asked, when everything else in the country is dysfunctional. is “and stuck in nepotism, servility and submission?”
Pro-war Russians posted photos of their shredded Tinkoff debit cards on social media. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent state television host, ranted against him, declaring: “Your conscience is rotten.”
Mr Tinkov was already outside Russia at the time, having left in 2019 to be treated for leukemia. He later stepped down and relinquished control of Tinkoff but retained a 35 percent 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 report, Mr Tinkov said Sunday, the Kremlin contacted the bank’s senior executives and told them that any association with their founder was now a big deal.
“They said, ‘Your shareholder’s statement is not welcome, and we will nationalize your bank if he doesn’t sell it and change the owner, and if you don’t change the name,'” Mr. Tinkov said, citing sources at Tinkoff that he declined to identify.
On April 22, Tinkoff announced it would change its name this year, a move he said had been planned for a long time. Behind the scenes, Mr. Tinkov says, he was trying to sell his stock — one that had already been devalued by Western sanctions against Russia’s financial system.
Mr. Tinkov said he was grateful to Mr. Potanin, the mining magnate, for allowing him to save at least some money from his company; he said he couldn’t release a price, but had sold at 3 percent of what he believed to be the true value of his stock.
“They forced me to sell it because of my statements,” said Mr. Tinkov. “I sold it for kopecks.”
He had considered selling his share anyway, Mr Tinkov said, because “as long as Putin is alive, I doubt anything will change.”
“I don’t believe in the future of Russia,” he said. “Most importantly, I am not willing to associate my brand and my name with a country that attacks its neighbors for no reason.”
Mr Tinkov is concerned that a foundation he established that works to improve blood cancer treatment in Russia could also become a victim of his financial difficulties.
He denied speaking out in hopes that British sanctions against him would be lifted, although he said he hoped the British government would eventually correct this mistake.
He said his illness — he now suffers from graft-versus-host disease, a complication of stem cell transplantation, he said — may have made him more courageous to speak out than other Russian business leaders and senior officials. Members of the elite, he claimed, are “in shock” at the war and have called on him in large numbers to lend support.
“They understand that they are connected to the West, that they are part of the global market and so on,” said Mr Tinkov. “They have changed quickly, quickly in Iran. But they don’t like it. They want their children to spend their summer holidays in Sardinia.”
Mr 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 contacts that he could be in physical danger.
“They told me, ‘The decision has been made about you,'” he said. “Whether that means they’re going to kill me in addition, I don’t know. I’m not ruling it out.”