Like everything else about his colorful life — which ended abruptly and violently in a hail of bullets on a Moscow street in early November — Shabtai von Kalmanovic’s large collection of Judaica has been both shrouded in mystery and subject to exaggeration.
There is no quick and easy way to describe Kalmanovic’s bizarre existence. He was at times both an agent of the Soviet KGB and the Israeli Shin Bet; he made his money under shady circumstances in apartheid-era South Africa; he recently transformed himself into a promoter of women’s basketball, and he was even once rumored to be romantically involved with Liza Minnelli. His end, Moscow police are speculating, came as a result of a business deal gone bad. Speaking on Russian television, a representative of the police team investigating the murder — which took place while Kalmanovic was in his car and stopped at a traffic light — reported that 19 bullets were found littered around the scene. “There’s no doubt this was a contract-style crime,” the policeman said.
Briefly mentioned in all the stories describing the strange life and death of the diminutive Russian oligarch was his beloved collection of Jewish art and religious objects. Housed in specially outfitted rooms in his office, the assortment of mostly 18th- and 19th-century Torah scrolls, mezuzas, menorahs and archival documents had been growing over the past 13 years. Kalmanovic was a proud collector, and he enjoyed escorting visitors past the glass display cases,
telling the story of each object’s provenance. He also loved to boast about how much he had acquired. He even told a Los Angeles Times reporter that his was “the largest collection in Eastern Europe.”
That, it turns out, was an embellishment. In the wake of his violent death, though, there is interest in understanding what he did possess, especially as the Moscow Jewish community begins construction on what will be the largest Jewish museum in the world — a project that is slated for completion in 2011 and will include a wing of Judaica.
“Well, it was sort of a joke, but I think it was definitely [the] biggest in Moscow” Lidia Chakovskaya said in reference to Kalmanovic’s grandiose claims about his collection. Chakovskaya, who has overseen Kalmanovic’s collection for the past three years, is an Oxford-trained art historian who specializes in early Jewish art and works at the State Institute of Art History. “If you count books and documents and postcards and ritual silver, then you actually come to quite an impressive number,” she said.
Chakovskaya was vague when describing how Kalmanovic acquired his collection. In calls to the Sotheby’s auction house and the major American dealers of Judaica, not a single person had heard of Kalmanovic. “If his collection was significant, believe me, I would have heard of it,” said Jonathan Greenstein, a New York-based auctioneer of Judaica.
According to Chakovskaya, Kalmanovic bought many of his objects from others who brought them back from the West. He also acquired much of his collection, she said, from antique shops in Ukraine. His objective, she said, was never to have the most expensive objects.
“The idea of the collection was not to collect as many valuable things as possible, but to collect a collection as such, to make a precedent that there is a Judaica collection in Moscow,” Chakovskaya said.
The extent of Kalmanovic’s Judaica collection is notable in part because he was not particularly tied into Moscow’s Jewish community, according to local communal leaders.
Indeed, Kalmanovic was a collector of much more than Judaica: Other rooms in his offices were filled with Fabergé eggs, Soviet realist art and hand-carved chess sets from before the revolution.
Kalmanovic seems to have had a complicated relationship with his Jewishness. His collection was a sign that he embraced it to some degree. But there were other moments in his past when his actions toward other Jews could best be described as disdain.
Born in Lithuania in 1947, Kalmanovic applied to immigrate to Israel with his family in 1971. Like many other Soviet Jews at the time, he was offered a deal by the KGB: If he supplied the agency with periodic information, his application for an exit visa would be expedited. He agreed. But unlike others who, once in Israel, never again contacted the Soviets, and reported their deal to the Israeli authorities, Kalmanovic actually stayed in touch with the secret service and, according to a later indictment, periodically offered them information over the next 17 years.
In the meantime, he also made money in Africa. According to a 2001 book by R.T. Naylor, “Economic Warfare: Sanctions, Embargo Busting and Their Human Cost,” Kalmanovic first set up shop in Bophuthatswana, one of the Bantustans established by South Africa’s apartheid regime. He took advantage of the extremely low labor cost and the lack of regulations so that he could start a construction company whose main function was to win public contracts and then sublet them out to cheaper companies, reaping an easy profit. After South Africa, he moved to Sierra Leone, where he became a huge player, running dozens of farms and mines and even the public transportation system.
In 1986, however, his KGB spying caught up with him, and he spent the next six years in an Israeli jail.
As soon as he was released, he went to Russia and started various businesses, taking advantage, like other emerging oligarchs at the time, of the chaotic economic environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
His great passion over the past few years, however, was women’s basketball. He poured millions of dollars into supporting the team he owned, Spartak Moscow, by contracting the most talented players of the Women’s National Basketball Association and providing them comfortable existences in mansions on the edge of Moscow. He also made his way into the center of Moscow’s glitzy social world and became friendly with Iosif Kobzon, a kind of Russian Frank Sinatra who croons in Yiddish and is rumored to have deep ties to Moscow’s criminal underworld.
Kobzon and many other actors and musicians were at Kalmanovic’s funeral November 4, an elaborate affair at the Vidnoye Sports Complex outside Moscow, which was covered for the occasion in thousands of red roses.
His burial a few days later was much more modest. It took place in Israel’s Petah Tikva, where his daughter lives.
Standing at his graveside, she eulogized her father. “I want you to know that I am proud and always will be proud of being your daughter,” she said. “You did not put me to shame. You were a spirited Jew and an ardent Zionist.”
The question of what will now happen to Kalmanovic’s Jewish collection is still unanswered. His daughter has not said what her intentions are for the collection. Chakovskaya said that Kalmanovic had always hoped to open his own museum. Short of that, she said conversations had been under way for his Judaica to be displayed in the new Jewish museum. Being a private collection, Chakovskaya emphasized, it could go anywhere, though she is hoping that it stays in Moscow.
“I don’t know about the destiny of this collection,” said Mikhail Chlenov, an ethnographer who is the secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. “The only thing I can say is that the Jewish community and the Jewish organizations certainly are interested that these objects will be somehow exhibited as a collection of Kalmanovic. How and where is not yet clear.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com
This story "The Life, Death and Judaica of a Russian Oligarch" was written by Gal Beckerman.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. 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. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman