Mayor Bloomberg, the recipient of the first Genesis Prize / Getty Images
You know that Jewish charity that gave a $1 million prize to Michael Bloomberg, who can hardly count his billions? A feature in last week’s New Yorker sheds some light on the Russian oligarchs behind the award.
For instance: In the early 2000s, BP executives thought that German Khan was carrying a gun to business meetings.
It wasn’t clear to the executives why he needed the gun. “[H]e had other people with guns,” one told Connie Bruck, as reported in this amazing New Yorker profile.
German Khan and Mikhail Fridman are partners with the subject of the profile, Leonard Blavatnik, in an investment consortium called AAR. They are also among the founders of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a huge Jewish foundation funding Jewish charities around the world. The new $1 million Genesis Prize, bewilderingly bestowed on Bloomberg in 2013, is funded by the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
Khan and Fridman aren’t actually named on Genesis’s website. The face of the operation is Stan Polovets, AAR’s CEO. But the New York Times, among other outlets, has identified them as two among the five founders of the charity.
In Bruck’s story, Khan and Fridman come across as tough-guy brawlers. Fridman started out as a window-washer; Khan as a t-shirt salesman. Both are now billionaires. Khan is described in one anecdote in the piece as traveling with six prostitutes; Fridman is quoted equating entrepreneurship with war.
Bruck’s description of AAR’s tactics in snapping up struggling and state-owned Russian oil companies in the late 1990s is stunning. The official in charge of the auction through which AAR bought state-owned oil company TNK, for instance, wound up on the board of TNK after the purchase. (Bruck notes that he was not charged following an investigation.)
AAR’s subsequent contentious acquisition of two other oil firms, Chernogerneft and Yugraneft, sounds like a gang war. The deals involved oil company militias bearing AK-47s, a judge appointed by an official who was also TNK’s chairman, and an auction in which AAR somehow bought Yugraneft for $180 million, though Yugraneft had produced $1.2 billion in oil the previous year. This is all really worth reading about in full in Bruck’s piece — the apparent brazenness is stunning.
All this seems to raise questions about Fridman and Khan, whose philanthropic group is increasingly central to the U.S. Jewish not-for-profit apparatus. In recent years, Genesis has helped fund the Six Points Fellowship, Limmud, PJ Library, Moishe House, the Folksbeine Yiddish Theater, and lots more. They’ve backed Yad Vashem, an institute at Brandeis, and all sorts of Jewish cultural initiatives in the Former Soviet Union.
(Genesis funded a now-defunct Forward blog in 2012.)
Of course, Khan and Fridman aren’t the only people funding Jewish charities whose business records have attracted attention from regulators. Some of those men have been profiled by Bruck herself. Her work over the past few decades can serve as a secret history of American Jewish philanthropy. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t show up in the bios they hand out at the Federation gala.
In 1988, Bruck wrote a book called “The Predators’ Ball” about junk bond king Michael Milken, who later faced indictment and prison for some of the activities described in the book. Milken has since refashioned himself as a philanthropist; he and his family give heavily to Jewish causes. Ronald Perelman also figured heavily in the book; he’s now an even more prominent Jewish donor.
Other Bruck subjects include Sheldon Adelson, Eli Broad, Haim Saban, and Sam Zell — all of them major Jewish philanthropists, all of them complex in their own ways. All of those pieces are worth a read.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.