In his lively introduction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the recent General Assembly in Washington, Leonid Nevzlin reminded the audience just how unexpected and unusual a role this was for him.
“There was a time not so long ago when I couldn’t even imagine standing here in this place, in this country, only blocks from the decision-making capital of the world, with this responsibility,” Nevzlin said, describing his life as a businessman and apathetic Jew in Moscow before he made aliyah in 2003 and became a heavyweight among Jewish philanthropists.
His prominent speech — which earned him a standing ovation by the collected leadership of the American Jewish federation world — was the privilege given to him as international chairman of the yearly gathering and its major sponsor. And though the exact figure has not been disclosed, organizers of the G.A. have told the Forward that his money played a significant part in making the three-day event happen. Nevzlin’s charity, NADAV, was also conspicuous as one of the main organizers of the conference’s many forums and workshops.
The speech represented a crowning moment of what has been a complete rebranding effort by Nevzlin, 50, erasing his past as a Russian oligarch who just narrowly escaped jail, convicted in absentia last year in a Moscow courtroom to life in prison for ordering the murder of five people. A recent article about him in Forbes magazine — which estimated his wealth in 2004 to be $2 billion — was headlined, “The One Who Got Away.”
Israel, which has refused repeated attempts to extradite him to Russia, has helped greatly in this transformation. He has become an important philanthropist there, using his charity to fund projects that promote “Jewish peoplehood” and to gain influence and respectability in the process. This past September, he made a donation of $6 million to establish the Museum of the Jewish People, a new iteration of Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum.
Now, with a very visible onstage handshake with the Israeli prime minister and a visit with President Obama at the White House as one of 50 invited guests during the G.A., Nevzlin is effectively positioning himself to become a philanthropic force in the United States, as well.
According to Dede Feinberg, co-chair of this year’s G.A. and former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Nevzlin’s problems with the Russian authorities were not an issue in granting him the chairmanship. “I did not know about it. And it was only after the G.A. that I asked,” Feinberg said. “And I learned that he was completely exonerated by courts in Israel. I said, okay, good enough for me.” Feinberg was referring to Israeli courts’ refusal to extradite Nevzlin.
The only hint in Nevzlin’s speech that he has a past that still hounds him was his mention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the onetime head of the Yukos oil company, who is now sitting in a Siberian jail, serving a nine-year prison sentence. Nevzlin was Khodorkovsky’s deputy, and together with him he held the controlling shares in Yukos, a multibillion-dollar enterprise that made them both very rich and powerful in the 1990s.
In October 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested for tax evasion and fraud, accused of embezzling $25 billion. He and his supporters, however, have blamed Vladimir Putin for inventing the charges as a way of breaking up the influential business empire. Khodorkovsky was then the richest man in Russia, and he made no secret of his political ambitions, funding opposition parties and democracy efforts.
The same month that Khodorkovsky was arrested, Nevzlin entered Israel on a tourist visa and began his self-imposed exile.
“My friend Khodorkovsky never came to terms with his Jewish identity, and that’s one of the reasons why Putin and his henchman have gotten him and many others behind the barbed wire of the modern-day Gulag,” Nevzlin told the G.A. in his speech.
Though he had been involved in reviving Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, it’s clear that Nevzlin immigrated to Israel not only because, as he put it in his speech, “it was time for me to join the Jewish people,” but also because he was escaping the fate that his friend and business partner had met. Nevzlin and his representatives did not return calls for comment on this story.
Not long after Nevzlin left, the Russian authorities charged him with a whole range of criminal offenses. He was said to have contracted out Yukos’s head of security — who is now serving a 24-year jail sentence and has denied both Nevzlin’s guilt and his own — to kill individuals who were getting in the way of Yukos’s business dealings. Among the dead were Valentina Korneyeva, a Moscow businesswoman who owned a building in central Moscow that Yukos’s holding firm, Menatap, wanted to buy, and Vladimir Petukhov, mayor of Nefteyugansk, where Yukos’s largest production unit was based.
Twice the Russian authorities tried to extradite Nevzlin, but both times Israel’s State Attorney’s Office denied the request, citing insufficient evidence. In 2006, the argument even reached Israel’s High Court of Justice, which concurred with the State Attorney’s Office.
Last summer, Russian courts tried and convicted Nevzlin in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison. Earlier this year, in response to an appeal, they upheld the verdict and ordered him to pay 5.5 million rubles, about $235,000, in compensation to the victims and their families.
Nevzlin has maintained that all the accusations against him are baseless, politically motivated fictions invented by Putin and his circle. The Russian authorities have continued to pursue Nevzlin’s extradition, even demanding that the United States, where he now travels frequently, hand him over. But his visit to the White House with Jewish leaders offers strong proof that he has been given a de facto exoneration by America’s government. The White House confirmed his visit and his meeting with Obama on November 9, but not whether he was vetted by the state department or any other government agency.
Meanwhile, his life in Israel has revolved largely around his philanthropic efforts. He set up an institute on Eastern European and Russian Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has funded many projects through his charity, NADAV— named after himself and two other Yukos shareholders, Vladimir Dubov and Mikhail Brudno. Run by his daughter, it tries to confront what Nevzlin said in his G.A. speech was the biggest threat facing the Jewish world: “A failure to articulate a single, global Jewish identity.”
In addition to donating heavily to, and leading, the renewal of Israel’s Diaspora Museum, Nevzlin is on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the board of trustees of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal.
Misha Galperin, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he was responsible for the marriage between Nevzlin and the Jewish Federations of North America, organizers of the G.A. He thinks that Nevzlin’s appearance at the gathering marks his entrance on the American Jewish scene. “Many people were quite taken with him,” Galperin said.
Asked if Nevzlin’s past had been an issue, Galperin bristled and wondered whether one would ask the same question of Natan Sharansky, the new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel who was accused by the Soviet Union of being a CIA agent and sentenced to 13 years in jail. “The two cases have absolutely the same validity,” Galperin said, “none.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman