Chris Noth—the American actor known to the average Russian as Mr. Big from “Sex and the City”—came to Moscow last weekend thinking he was going to a fundraiser for a children’s hospital. Instead, he landed in the middle of one of the bigger, stranger scandals in recent memory.
“No, tell me what happened?” Noth said when he was asked if he knew what had happened with last year’s gala for the charity.
What happened was this: On December 10, 2010, Vladimir Putin mounted the stage at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg and said, “Like the vast majority people, I do not know how to sing or play an instrument, but I enjoy doing it. So you’ll just have to bear it.” Then he picked a few notes on the grand piano, and burst into a rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”—in English. It was amazing. And the celebrities in the audience—Sharon Stone, Gerard Depardieu, Kevin Costner, Mickey Rourke—thought so, too. Stone sang along and flashed the peace sign. Goldie Hawn clapped her hands. Costner stood. Monica Bellucci looked dumbfounded.
The event had been organized by the Federation Fund, a charity for children with cancer. And yet, despite the big Hollywood names in attendance—not to mention Putin himself—almost no one had ever heard of the Federation Fund. It was all rather strange.
So Russian reporters started raking the muck. What they found was that apparently the Fund wasn’t even an officially registered entity at the moment of Putin’s performance; it became an official legal entity only eighteen days later, on December 28th. Moreover, the Fund seemed to be linked to a man named Vladimir Vladimirovich Kiselev. In fact, it was hard to understand Kiselev’s exact relationship to the Fund. On one hand, he insisted that he is only a board member of the Fund; on the other, he insisted that he covered most of the expenses on his own, “out of my nightstand.” How, exactly, did that work?
And who, the Russian press wondered, was this guy? It was said he was an old friend of Putin’s from his St. Petersburg days, but Kiselev assiduously denied that the two even knew each other. At the same time, Putin’s press secretary confirmed their acquaintance. “Of course they know each other,” he said. What, observers thought, was going on? An old profile from the St. Petersburg press began to circulate. It suggested that Kiselev, once the drummer in a popular “official” Soviet rock group, was intimately connected not only to Putin but also to the world of organized crime. Kiselev denies this. He was, however, a wheeler and dealer in St. Petersburg in the nineties. He worked on the 1996 reëlection campaign of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the leading reformer of the day and a mentor to Putin; Dmitry Medvedev; and Alexei Kudrin, the current finance minister. Who was in charge of that campaign? Putin. In the early part of that decade, Kiselev organized the White Nights Festival, and he turned for help to Sobchak’s wife, the politician and scholar Lyudmila Narusova. “Very quickly, I became convinced of his adventuristic character, and stopped associating with him,” she told the business daily Vedomosti. She did so just in time. “Twentieth Trust,” another fund that was a White Nights sponsor, was later the subject of a criminal investigation for allegedly using state funds to sponsor the festival and buy Spanish real estate. The investigation was dropped in 2000, when Putin became President.
Then, on March 3rd of this year, a woman named Olga Kuznetsova wrote an open letter, republished by several Russian press outlets. Her daughter Liza was severely ill and had been visited in St. Petersburg’s Hospital No. 31 by Sharon Stone, who gave the girl her necklace. And yet, Kuznetsova claimed, no money had reached Liza, or the hospital. She wondered where the money had gone, and what had been the purpose of December’s fanfare. “I know people are ready to do a lot for their own gain,” she wrote. “But really, are they willing to do it with the help of sick children?”
Anatoly Ryvkin, the head physician of Hospital No. 31, explained this as a simple misunderstanding born of a mother’s acute psychological anguish. “Liza was not promised anything; this was just meeting the stars,” Ryvkin explained. “But she got much more attention than any of the other children, and someone whose child is so seriously ill, you grab on to any hope you can.” He added that the hospital did, in fact, receive $4.5 million worth of equipment over time.
But there was confusion as to the timing: When, exactly, did that money get there? Ryvkin couldn’t say, nor could the Fund. Did it come before or after Kuznetsova’s letter and the massive scandal it kicked up, all the way up to Putin’s office? He announced, through his press secretary, that it would be taken care of—and the money appeared. Was that cause-and-effect or coincidence, or had the money already been en route? And, though Hospital No. 31 says it did get equipment, it had to buy it through government tenders, which, as I’ve written about in the magazine, have become a major vehicle of corruption, especially in the purchase of medical equipment. Was that the case here? Unclear.
And was that all of the money raised? Kiselev claimed that no money was raised at all, but, according to a guest at the December event, it cost a million dollars to sit next to a celebrity. Was there money at stake, or not? And what was Kiselev aiming for, exactly?
This summer, just when the scandal—and the confusion—died down and the news cycle flowed on, strange billboards started popping up on Moscow streets: the Federation Fund was having another charity concert, in July. This time the lineup was no less impressive: the city was filled with the giant smiling faces of Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Larry King, Steven Seagal, Isabella Rossellini, Andrea Bocelli, Francis Ford Coppola, and, most surprising, Woody Allen. Did they know about the uproar over the previous event? Did they care?
Covering six stories on the Garden Ring was the face of a lovely brunette. “Elena Sever,” the billboard explained, “Patroness of the Fund.” Who was she?
Kevin Costner was coming back. Had he not been informed of the scandal?
Was Putin coming again?
The Russian press got to work, as did the rumor mill. The billboards, it turned out, had been donated by the City of Moscow, which had just banned advertisements that covered city buildings. Elena Sever, it was said, was an actress and the wife of Fund head Kiselev, who was supposedly raising her profile and grooming her for a show-business career. (Kiselev will not confirm or deny this.) Despite the lavish advertising campaign, there were no tickets to the event, and to attend guests had to contribute a hundred thousand dollars of medical equipment to hospitals. Did they? Kiselev wouldn’t say. And yet, according to the New York Times, only two of the hospitals listed on Federation’s Web site said they knew of the Fund. The phone number listed on the billboards didn’t work. There was no venue announced. Larry King cancelled. Dustin Hoffman cancelled. The by-now notoriously vile-tongued Vladimir Kiselev hung up the phone on one Russian journalist, and, asked by another about the rumored cancellations, said, “They’re all participating unless they get diarrhea.” (When I called him for comment, he said, “How do I know you’re a journalist? What if you’re a spy?” Then he hung up.)
Hearing about all this on a warm July evening overlooking the smoggy distances of Moscow, Chris Noth became visibly concerned.
“What?” he said. “Really?”
Another journalist agreed that there were an unusual number of rumors about the Fund.
“Is that, like, a Moscow tradition?” Noth laughed.
Then he came back with a Russian woman in a long green skirt: Anna Zaytseva, a Moscow-based Hollywood agent.
“I brought her over because of what you said,” Noth explained, “because it didn’t sound right. So I said, ‘Hey, what’s that about? I hadn’t heard about that.’ I like to get you guys straight.”
“I was just telling Chris about the situation with the press because it was a kind of misunderstanding,” Zaytseva said. “The truth is this foundation doesn’t give money for kids for surgeries or whatever, they are buying equipment for the hospitals, and they think it’s more important, not because they don’t want to support kids but they can save more lives if they’re buying expensive equipment—like, really expensive.”
Zaytseva also offered a classically Russian response to another reporter’s question about the Fund’s lack of transparency, and the confusion and rumors this created. “They don’t understand—why should they be transparent if they don’t gain money from people?” she said. “They are taking sponsors’ money, and they are transparent with the sponsors.”
And, in fact, amid the soggy hors d’oeuvres, each of the tables had a wire-bound packet of documents and spreadsheets to prove the Fund’s legitimacy. The packet also included two thank-you letters from hospitals that had received help from the Fund, one in St. Petersburg, one in Moscow. The letters were written days before the event and were identically worded. (“These are standard texts,” explained Ryvkin, the head of Moscow’s Hospital No. 31. “If your colleagues didn’t create this scandal, maybe the letter could have been written in more human, less officious language. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.”) And, of course, there were pictures of Putin and Sharon Stone holding hands.
I won’t go into the concert itself except to say that it was a comedy of cliché and error, that many of the tables were empty, that some were filled with the elderly parents of Interior Ministry employees, that Woody Allen performed with his band without saying a word, that someone spotted Taiwanchik, a notorious figure from the world of organized crime, that Jeremy Irons looked like an early-eighteenth-century baron just come from the hunt, that he hadn’t heard of the rumors and was not pleased when he did hear, that Isabella Rosellini had only read of it in an English-language newspaper delivered that morning to her hotel but was unfazed by it, that experiencing the slick and withering rage of Kiselev backstage was an utter contrast to the clammy sap of the show just behind us. “Everything that you write, I couldn’t give less of a crap,” he said. “You can write whatever you want, and I will continue to do whatever I think is necessary. This, this is paper. And you know what happens to paper.”
The veil of rumor and Kiselev’s refusal to clarify anything for the press, however, had the feel of a different set of papers. It all felt like a remixed version of “Dead Souls”: an unknown man appears in town and tosses around striking amounts of cash. Most of the locals are impressed, but some question his motives—rightly, but without any real understanding of what he is doing. Rumors, crazy rumors, inaccurate rumors, swirl, the façade crumbles, he is shamed, and, with the jig up, he gives up his scheme to trade one intangible thing (dead souls) for another (social standing), and slinks away.
A couple of days before the concert, I spoke to Kiselev’s former colleague. They were both involved, although Kiselev’s role is unclear, in bringing Madonna’s scandalous 2006 tour to Moscow. (In the show, she is crucified, something the Russian Orthodox Church didn’t much like.) “When I first met Kiselev, he instantly started sticking photos of him with Putin in my face,” the former colleague told me. “But people who really know Putin, they aren’t concert organizers. They got pieces of Gazprom, of Russian Railways. They are private, quiet people. They don’t stick photos in your face.”
This description echoed what Ivan Makushok, another one of Kiselev’s former colleagues, told Vedomosti. The two had crossed paths in the office of Pavel Borodin, the head of the Office of the Presidential Administration under Yeltsin. “A person with cosmic projects would come to Borodin,” Makushok said of Kiselev. “He would drop lots and lots of names right away. He behaved, I think, very riskily, like in that joke: Someone asks Rockefeller, ‘Will you marry your daughter to Ivanov the welder?’ He says no. ‘And how about to Ivanov the millionaire?’ ‘I’ll think about it.’ So then they go to the bankers and ask, ‘Will you give a million to Rockefeller’s son-in-law?’ ”
Kiselev was not actually doing the work of planning Madonna’s concert, said Mikhail Shurygin, the president of NCA, which did the lion’s share of the organization for the event. “It was an undeniably negative experience, and I thank God I am not in any way involved in Kiselev’s current projects,” Shurygin told me. (At the gala last weekend, I asked Kiselev about the Madonna concert, but he told me that he would only answer questions about the events of that day, July 9th.)
Despite his lack of involvement, the former colleague said, Kiselev muscled his way in, claiming credit and connections in high places. “He got his way by bluffing,” the former colleague said. “He would storm in and demand this and that, and if he was denied he’d scream, ‘Do you know who I am?! I am friends with Vladimir Vladimirovich!’ ” (And Putin’s presence at the 2010 gala helped.) “Of course, no one would call to verify that,” the colleague continued. “Can you imagine calling Putin and asking, hey, is this guy really friends with you? And he got even the seasoned, older bureaucrats this way. They’d call saying, ‘This guy says he’s friends with Putin—what if he is?’ ”
That is, Kiselev lives by exploiting another key element of Putin’s power vertical: information only goes one way—down. There really is no way to send a real question back up to the top. What if you’re wrong, and what if your head rolls for that? And once one bluff goes off, the rest is inertia. This is why Kiselev has been so hateful of the Russian press: they raise questions about his past, and about his motives. “I’m being polite with you because you are foreign,” Kiselev said backstage, his light blue eyes sparkling with bile. “If you were Russian journalists, I’d tell you to go four-letters yourself.”
Before the concert started, as Zaytseva talked, a light rain began to fall. Mr. Big surveyed the group of journalists arrayed before him. “You’re The New Yorker, and you’re—?”
“The New York Times.”
Dead Souls [TNY]