The portrait of German Gref, Russia’s most liberal kleptocrat
Vitaly Soldatskikh, Mikhail Rubin, Roman Badanin, with contributions from other journalists of The Project, January 10, 2023
German Gref is considered one of the main “liberals” in Vladimir Putin’s entourage. Many expected Gref and others like him to disagree with the Kremlin’s decision to wage war on Ukraine, but they did not. Gref even remarked recently that the crisis caused by the war only makes life more interesting. This is because Gref himself is an important part of the system built under Putin – he says he supports the Kremlin’s course, but at the same time he siphons millions of dollars out of the country.
September 2007. A motley crowd of people gathered at the representative office of Krasnodar Krai in Moscow: Economic Development Minister German Gref, Kuban Governor Alexander Tkachev, and Ahmed Bilalov, a major businessman and member of the State Duma. Unexpectedly, the phone rang. The presidential administration was looking for Gref: he had been summoned for an urgent conversation with Vladimir Putin. Gref returned an hour later, but he was no longer a minister.
Since that fall, Gref had been the head of the country’s largest financial company – the state-owned Sberbank, or “Sber” as it is now called.
Bilalov, a former beneficiary of the Krasnaya Polyana company, one of the main developers of the Sochi Olympics
Gref’s Savings Bank
By the time he was appointed minister in May 2000, Gref was well acquainted with Putin and was a junior member of his St. Petersburg entourage. Back in the ’90s, Gref came to work at the St. Petersburg Committee on State Property Management, where he became acquainted with many public and non-public masters of life in Russia’s second capital. Some of these acquaintances, such as Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, or Vladislav Reznik, a State Duma deputy suspected of having ties to the criminal world, will remain Gref’s close associates to this day and will appear later in our story.
Having lost his ministry, Gref was not out of a job for long. The bank was managed since the Yeltsin era by President Andrei Kazmin and his first deputy Alla Alyoshkina, who, without much fear of conflict of interest, also cohabitated in a civil marriage. Putin fired them and as if in jest sent them to reform the Russian Post, which was as sluggish as the Soviet Sberbank (in the end, the reform fell through).
This is not to say that Sberbank under Gref’s predecessors was unsuccessful. With help from the state and its essentially monopolistic position in servicing people’s deposits, Sberbank under Kazmin was increasing its profits by 20-40% annually, and the value of its shares was going up. Gref got a promising asset, albeit with outdated infrastructure and Soviet-era attitude to clients.
On joining Sberbank, Gref announced that he would strengthen its “role as an institution that preserves and increases the savings of citizens”. Its social function has always been paramount for Sberbank – the state-owned bank
Sberbank in Figures
17 trillion rubles
or nearly half of all the money Russians keep in banks is held by Sberbank
71.3 mln people
or a half of the population of Russia uses the Sberbank electronic application every month
By 1.2 trillion rubles
or more than 10 times over the 14 years of Gref’s leadership, the net profit of Sberbank increased
10-30 mln people
could have affected only one of the client data leaks
> 1 billion rubles
was Gref’s salary for 2018
But how effectively does the country’s main bank manage the citizens’ money entrusted to it?
In 2016, the Gulfstream G650 business jet was one of the most expensive in the world. At that time, Sberbank bought one in addition to the more “modest” G550 the bank already had – their registration numbers are RA-10203 and RA-10204
Having studied the news about Gref’s movements and the data of Icarus Flights service, which tracks jet flights, The Project can claim with certainty that the head of Sber is using the planes himself
In some cases, it is evident that it was Gref who flew on the bank’s plane on tourist trips. On the morning of July 23, 2018, Sberbank’s business jet landed in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, where the famous resort town of Baden-Baden is located. On that day, Gref was seen there at the traditional Festspielhaus Summer Festival, where the Mariinsky Theater performed under the direction of Valery Gergiev, a St. Petersburg friend of the head of Sberbank (CНОСКА – this concert, in particular, was covered by RIA Novosti). If we study the flights of Gref’s business jets, it would seem that Baden-Baden is where the largest number of Sber depositors live – they have flown there at least 25 times in the last six years
Flying to resorts on a corporate jet, while egregious, is not the largest example of controversial spending by the main state bank.
Sber’s non-core investments bring it billions of dollars in losses
Sber has invested more than $2 billion in non-financial projects
At the same time, the share of non-financial businesses in Sberbank’s revenues is less than 5%, and the losses of all non-financial businesses are 54.1 billion rubles in 2021
Back in 2010, Sberbank got involved in the construction of the Mriya premium resort in Crimea, which includes a five-star hotel and medical and SPA centers designed by the famous British architect Norman Foster. It would seem that a hotel is not the most logical business for a state bank, especially considering the fact that Mriya has been generating losses ever since its opening
In 2014, Russia took over Crimea, and Mriya was rewritten from its Ukrainian legal entity to the state bank-owned spacer firms Auktsion and Garant-SV
The director of Auktsion is Ernest Bakhshetsyan, a former head of Far Eastern customs, who had previously been imprisoned in a smuggling case. Judging by the registry of legal entities, Bakhshetsyan is a super ambitious manager. He also managed the Cypriot offshore Kiparisiana Investment Ltd, which owned
If in Japan the Minister of Finance has to apologize for the fact that he only purchased a subscription to a golf club, then German Gref can afford to buy an entire golf club. The photo shows the Moscow golf club owned by Sber. Photo: club website
Why does the state bank need a golf club which also generates continuous losses
Perhaps to make it easier for Sber’s executives to travel to and from the golf course in a car-loaded Moscow, Auktsion bought an American Bell 429 helicopter in 2019.
It cost the straw company 738 million rubles
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In 2011 Bilalov met with Gref again. Bilalov’s business – construction of a ski resort on Krasnaya Polyana – was already experiencing problems, including due to the global economic crisis. Bilalov recalls that a strange proposal followed at the meeting: “I was to transfer half of my controlling stake to Androsov for one dollar. Of course, I refused and asked, ‘How is this supposed to work? In front of everybody? Let Androsov buy these shares at least at nominal price'”. Bilalov was not saved by this refusal – by 2015 his business was in the full possession of Sberbank, and he himself was forced to emigrate under the threat of criminal proceedings
The buyer that Gref offered Bilalov was Kirill Androsov, former deputy head of the Apparatus of the Government of Russia. Three of Gref’s acquaintances and colleagues call Androsov the most trusted confidant of the head of Sber, while Bilalov refers to him as “Gref’s wallet”. Further investigation showed that this characterization was not far from the truth.
Gref and Androsov met back in the 90s, when they worked together in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. When Gref became minister, Androsov took a job as his deputy. In 2008, there were rumors that Androsov would soon join his patron at Sberbank, but he ended up unexpectedly leaving the government for nowhere. More precisely, he entered private business, which he had never been in before. That business – the Luxembourg investment fund Altera Capital – immediately became incredibly successful.
The fund created by the former official quickly accumulated assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. These were mostly Russian businesses: from aluminum production to cybersecurity services. The fund’s total assets in past years ranged from $300 million to almost $500 million
Assets of Altera Capital as of 2016
PAO«Gaz» — about 4,5%
RusPetro — 16,5%
GeoProMining Investment Ltd — 16,7%
Group IB — 10%
Danilovsky market — 50%
Commercial real estate
Arcus Business centers— 100%
Three business centers in Moscow. One of the buildings houses the Sberbank-Capital office
Altera Park — 100%
Developer of the Cherry Orchard residence, cinema center on Mosfilmovskaya
AB Development — 100%
Holland park — 100%
Two houses in London
Coursmos — 16,7%
American-Russian start-up in the field of education
Advisa — 33,3%
Financial mobile app
Valtoura Holdings Ltd — 7,5%
Owns shares in: Strabag (25%, Austria), BaselCement, Glavmosstroy, Aivazovsky Hotel, Sochnoye Club City
Altera Absolute Global Fund — 92%
$110 million hedge fund
Where did the former deputy minister get so much money and who entrusted him with his millions? Until recently it was almost impossible to find the answer: formally, the sole owner of Altera Capital was the Swiss insurance company Swiss Life. This is a well-known firm, tracing its history back to the 19th century, so even the reputable auditor of the investment fund, Ernst & Young, had no doubts about this fact
Altera Capital was headed by two of Gref’s close friends, Androsov and Philip Kindt, a German and Swiss citizen. The latter name is little known, but AsiaCiti documents provide a picture of this man. In one of the emails
Of course, it could be a simple coincidence that Altera Capital is run by two of Gref’s friends. However, further examination of AsiaCiti’s documents casts doubt on that.
It is clear from the leaks that Swiss Life was not in fact the ultimate owner of the Altera fund – the Swiss company helped conceal the true owner with a special life insurance contract for the gigantic sum of $460 million. Behind the insurance company was a trust
AsiaCiti documents show that its employees have occasionally wondered whether Novitsky could be the real owner of hundreds of millions in offshore assets. The documents made them doubt it: among the materials there is Novitsky’s income statement since 1995, according to which he has only legally earned $15 million. In the end, in 2017 it was decided to re-hide the real owner of Altera – not without help of AsiaCiti it was transferred to another offshore, whose listed beneficiary this time was Androsov himself
This time, the truth might have not been revealed were it not for the authorities of Singapore, where some of the companies of this offshore network operate. They initiated an inspection of AsiaCiti which resulted in a serious fine for the offshore service provider and resulted in an internal investigation. It was then that AsiaCiti employees stumbled upon a surprising document, which is now also at the disposal of The Project. It is a draft of Kirill Androsov’s memorandum of wishes drawn up in the fall of 2017. The testator says that in the event of his death or incapacity, his offshore company, which owns, among other things, the entire Altera Capital fund (! as well as the Lang Capital fund
should almost entirely
What is this unknown Panamanian firm? In short, it is an offshore company owned by the family of German Gref. It turns out that a multimillion-dollar investment fund hidden in foreign jurisdictions has been controlled for many years by the president of the main state bank of Russia.
Androsov’s will in favor of the Gref family was not an accident or a momentary weakness of the beneficiary of Altera. In the same archive of AsiaCiti documents, there is also the text of the same will, dated already in 2018, as amended – now Gref’s nephew Oscar is directly listed as the heir to the entire business.
Could Gref have officially earned hundreds of millions of dollars? “He would always fight for his bonus,” recalls a former colleague of the banker’s at the Sberbank management. But even after those fights, Gref’s total annual income could not have been more than $15-16 million
Either because of that investigation in Singapore, or for other reasons, the Luxembourg-based Altera had to be shut down by its owners
However, it is not only the fact that Gref is directly connected to millions of dollars stashed away in offshore jurisdictions that is interesting. The timeline below shows how the president of Sber was building his personal offshore network – the facts below show how low the head of the largest state bank and a longtime acquaintance of Putin was estimating Russia’s prospects.
How the President of Sber built his personal offshore network
2011. Vladimir Putin announced his return to the presidency-this was his third term in office, which contradicted the Russian constitution. The world was not much surprised, but took this announcement as “a dark omen for Russia and the West.”
German Gref set up a family trust in Singapore; his son by his first marriage, Oleg Gref, was appointed director in addition to the head of Sberbank. At the same time, Altera Capital is registered.
2014. Россия аннексировала Крым и инициировала боевые действия в Донбассе.
Kirill Androsov meets with AsiaCiti employees as Gref’s representative – “as his eyes and ears”
At the same time, Androsov establishes the Lang Capital fund associated with Halco Group
2015. Amid sanctions, including those against Sberbank, the Russian ruble has weakened by about 30%, and inflation has accelerated to nearly 13%. Gref’s term as head of Sberbank is coming to an end.
At Gref’s request, lawyers draft a will on his behalf, according to which, should the head of Sberbank die, money from his offshore trust should be divided among six members of his family, including his son from his first marriage Oleg
2017. Sberbank, German and Oleg Gref are caught up in the first major international scandal. The owner of Pavlovskgranit, a company taken over by Sberbank, sues Gref, his son, and subordinates in an American court on charges of racketeering. The suit was eventually dismissed, but “the story infuriated Gref”
The offshore scheme changes again: the family trust is shut down and the money is moved to a new trust where Gref’s 22-year-old nephew Oscar, a recent graduate from England who has hardly any savings or experience, is made the beneficiary. AsiaCity does not consider him an independent figure, noting in its internal correspondence that German Gref “remains the controlling figure”. Almost simultaneously, Gref’s confidant Kirill Androsov also drafts a memorandum of wishes, writing off almost all of Altera’s huge fund as well as Lang Capital to Halco Group, whose beneficiary by that time was also listed as Oscar Gref.
2018-2019. Putin is re-elected again as Russia’s president, beginning his fourth term in office.
Singapore’s financial regulator conducts an audit of AsiaCiti, during which it draws attention to a network of offshore companies linked to Gref and Androsov. The regulator concludes that these companies are interconnected and that individual transactions between them do not make economic sense. AsiaCiti receives a large fine and conducts an internal investigation into the said offshore networks, as a result of which it discovers signs of possible money laundering and decides to stop servicing them.
In the first half of 2007, a motley crowd gathered on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Friends and colleagues flocked to MP Vladislav Reznik’s family reunion, including members of the government and presidential administration, among whom were Minister of Economics Gref and Presidential Envoy Kozak. The guests admired Reznik’s collection of expensive paintings and relaxed on his Sasha-I yacht. At the time nobody was embarrassed by the fact that Reznik is a friend and companion of the leader of the Tambov criminal group, Gennady Petrov. It was from him that he got one of his houses on Mallorca and the yacht Sasha-I
Among Reznik’s friends was another of Gref’s confidants, Ashot Khachaturyants. In 2007, he was deputy director of the FSB Border Guard Service, supervising the State Border program. Khachaturyants’ career is amazing. In the 90s, he was engaged in business and even lived in Argentina for a while, then came Gazprom, then the Ministry of Economics under Gref, after which he was delegated to the FSB for several years. In 2008, Khachaturyants returned to Gref as the head of a Sberbank division, called Sberbank-Capital.
This structure was created as an investment division, but almost immediately turned into a firm to deal with the bank’s bad debts. In 2009 Khachaturyants said his famous phrase: “Why should anyone be afraid of us? We are not raiders,” although the Sberbank subsidiary was being accused of taking over businesses. This may have been caused by the way it operated: businessmen took loans from Sberbank, but against the background of the 2008 and 2014 crises, they were losing clients and counterparties and were unable to service the loan. The bank assigned their debt to Sberbank-Capital, which, in exchange for writing off the debt, offered the borrower to hand over a controlling stake in their company for a nominal fee. If the borrower agreed, Sberbank Capital would bring its own people into the company and start managing it. At the same time, either deliberately or due to inefficiency, things in the company would get worse and worse. The owners would be asked to increase the capital by issuing additional shares, during which the remaining shares of the former owners would be diluted or simply bought out by the bank. If the owners were obstinate, criminal cases were often initiated against them. In both scenarios, the business would eventually be sold to outside investors, to whom Sberbank sometimes even provided a loan for their purchase. The new owners were sometimes connected in one way or another with Gref’s managers.
Such a story happened to Sergey Poimanov, the owner of Pavlovskgranit. In 2008 he borrowed 5 billion rubles from Sberbank to buy out the 47 percent of the company he did not own. The financial crisis soon hit and Poimanov wanted to restructure the debt. The bank agreed, but on the condition that he surrender 51% of the shares to Sberbank-Capital. Poimanov resisted. In response, the bank demanded the entire debt to be paid back immediately, while obstructing Poimanov’s attempts to re-lend elsewhere
While Poimanov was looking for a solution, Gref’s friend Yuri Zhukov, the owner of National Nonmetallic Company (NNK), a competitor of Pavlovskgranit, got in touch with him. He offered to help with Sberbank, but only if Poimanov would merge Pavlovskgranite into NRK. Zhukov even brought Oleg, son of the head of Sberbank, to the meeting, “as if to confirm his abilities,” Poimanov said in an interview with The Project. Poimanov declined the offer and Sberbank-Capital simply destroyed him.
In 2010, Poimanov’s company was put up for auction, with a preliminary valuation of the asset. The valuation was done for Sberbank by NEO-Center, which concluded that the entire business was worth 3 billion rubles, i.e. much less than even the loan from Sberbank to buy 47% of Poimanov’s company. It is difficult to call this valuation independent: at that time Oleg Gref was co-owner of NEO-Center
As a result, the shares of Pavlovskgranit were sold to offshore companies
In February 2020, almost at the same time that Poimanov was released from prison, Khachaturyants left Sberbank and was temporarily put in charge of the Russian Football Premier League. He did not work there for long, though. Khachaturyants spent most of his career working in governmental posts
Khachaturyants owns two companies in Florence, Italy. One of them
Naturally the former manager of a state bank as Russian soccer and FSB officer preferred to live in Italy as well. Khachaturyants owns more than 40 pieces of land in Tuscany, not far from the village of Trespiano, with a total land area of 12 hectares. There are three houses on them, as well as a helipad. These assets may now be worth about $10-15 million.
Among his friends, Gref is known as “Gena” and is compared to the crocodile of the same name from a Soviet cartoon
Bilalov recorded these words and is now presenting the recording in an American court
Kozak along with oligarch Yevtushenkov and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin are Gref’s closest acquaintances, so close that they even prefer to live together
It all started back in the noughties, when the head of Sber worked in the government: Evtushenkov regularly invited Gref, Kozak, and Sobyanin to his wellness club in a picturesque spot in Serebryany Bor, on the banks of the Moscow River
While the construction was in progress, Gref was likely living in another 500 m2 house on the 3rd Line of Serebryany Bor
The fact that Gref loves Serebryany Bor and probably lives there was reported in the noughties by secular media
The luxury village built by Yevtushenkov is now surrounded by a fence, and the houses are registered to offshore companies, the ultimate beneficiary of which was Sistema, Yevtushenkov’s company
Mansions in Serebryany Bor built for Yevtushenkov, Gref, Kozak and Sobyanin.
Bilalov says that in the end the officials decided not to live in the houses built for them by Evtushenkov: “They were probably afraid that if someone found this residence, corruption would be evident.”
However, this didn’t stop Gref from purchasing real estate from another of his acquaintances on another occasion. Away from prying eyes, in Baden-Baden, Germany, the same place where the bank’s business jet flies with enviable regularity, Gref owns an apartment at 35 Sofienstrasse. Bilalov arranged it for Gref. “I had a house there, so I sold him the apartment at such a humane price,” Bilalov says, without mentioning the purchase price.
Extract from the German land registry, verifying the name of the owner of the apartment
The market value of the apartment now is 300-400 thousand euros. This sum is more than affordable for the head of Sber. But, according to Bilalov, Gref needed the apartment in Baden not for a luxurious pastime.
It was a place of secluded recreation for the country’s chief banker – he would go there with friends for May and winter vacations. A local resident and an employee at the nearby Fabergé Museum confirmed that they saw Gref here regularly before the war: the banker once asked for an after-hours tour of the museum for his teacher.
Love for castles and other luxuries ↓
In Russia, Gref eventually settled in a luxurious mansion on Rublyovskoye Highway, in Arkhangelskoye – a four-story
Kozak also lives nearby
Gref, Kozak and Sobyanin are united not only by friendship and proximity, but also by political ambitions. Bilalov recalls once asking Gref why he needed the Moscow Golf Club. The answer was that Gref needed a place for meetings that the secret services would not be able to wiretap. In 2012, when Putin returned to presidency, Gref promoted the idea that Sobyanin would become the new prime minister, while he himself would become his deputy.
* * *
There is one episode that summarizes the story of German Gref told above very succinctly. In the British registry of legal entities one can find a company called Sbercoin Ltd. However, it is not a subsidiary of Sberbank, as the name might suggest. Its owner and director is a Russian citizen, German Gref, although he indicated at the time of registration that he is a resident of the United States
Editing – Roman Badanin
Factchecking – Sergey Titov
The Project thanks the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for their assistance in preparing this material.