The entrepreneur who changed how the world sees Russia How Sergey Petrov went from anti-Soviet officer to captain of industry to person of interest
“Rolf” founder Sergey Petrov, whom police charged on June 27 with illegally withdrawing money to an offshore company, has spent his whole life fighting against “the regime” in Russia and dreaming about liberalism’s ultimate victory. After becoming a leader of the country’s auto market, he joined the parliamentary opposition and started working to develop civil society. Meduza looks back at the career of one of Russia’s most successful entrepreneurs, who has no plans to return home, while threatened with felony criminal prosecution.
In 1982, twenty-eight-year-old Air Force Major Sergey Petrov became one of the organizers of a political reading group at his military unit in Orenburg. The eager young soldiers read Adam Smith, printed leaflets, and prepared economics courses, so that there’d be people ready to build everything anew, “after it all collapsed” (they expected something like the events in Poland to occur at any moment).
The organizers of the reading group were arrested and personally interrogated by Alexander Danko, the head of the district’s military counterintelligence unit. According to Petrov, the exchange went something like this: “Listen, major, what is it you want?” Danko asked him. “You want everything here to be like it is in America?” Petrov answered: “Well, generally speaking, yes. At least, when it comes to legal institutions.” “So you’re doing this for the people?” Danko asked. “Naturally,” Petrov told him.
Petrov and his comrades were expelled from the Communist Party and booted out of the armed forces. He then enrolled at the Soviet Trade Institute. The moment it was possible, Petrov created his own company, which almost immediately became the largest in the market.
Starting out in 1989 as just a small car-rental operation in Moscow, “Rolf” was the first in Russia to get a dealership from a foreign partner (in this case, Mitsubishi). By the late 1990s, the company was actively developing its retail business, becoming the biggest multi-brand car dealer in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then in other cities across Russia.
“In our market, most of the companies are quite closed, and it takes a long time to get to the bottom of what’s happening internally,” “Avtostat” analytical center director Sergey Tselikov told Meduza. “‘Rolf’ has always stood out from these businesses. The company is just an analyst’s dream: it’s as open as you could imagine, and they account for every penny. They saw forming the market as their mission, and they ran schools for general directors, sharing their knowledge. It’s a unique business, and it would be a huge loss for the country, if it’s destroyed.” “Rolf” became the market leader in every sense of the term: not only was it almost always the biggest company with the largest assortment of imported cars, the largest revenue, the most branches, and the highest profits, but it also led the industry in corporate ideology. “The most profitable business is an honest business,” Petrov argued in 2009, albeit somewhat paradoxically for most Russian entrepreneurs. And he did what he could to follow this maxim.
By 2009, Sergey Petrov was the 51st richest businessman in Russia, according to Forbes magazine. By this time, however, he no longer practiced business. In 2004, Petrov stepped down as president of his company to take up politics. From 2007 to 2015, he served as a State Duma deputy from “Just Russia” (though he never actually joined the political party).
“He once chartered a private plane to take a group of deputies to some Russian backwater,” Petrov’s old party colleague Gennady Gudkov told Meduza. “And we got to talking on the plane. I was completely amazed by his intellect and personal integrity. It turned out that this extremely affluent person was totally sympathetic to the opposition against the current authorities. From then on, we made up this crudely assembled oppositionist team: me, Dmitry Gudkov [Gennady’s son], Valery Zubov, Sergey Petrov, and Ilya Ponomarev.” Gudkov Sr. thinks Just Russia’s relative success in the 2011 parliamentary elections was due to Petrov’s sound policy work with Sergey Mironov, when the party managed to grow its presence in the State Duma by 12 percent (also thanks in large part to a widespread protest movement against United Russia, the country’s ruling political party). Gudkov says he believes the team of oppositionists within Just Russia who joined the 6th State Duma in December 2011 managed to stand out for several actions, like voting against the so-called anti-terrorist “Yarovaya law” and abstaining from the vote on annexing Crimea.
“Is it possible to find 10 honest state prosecutors in our vast country? Without a doubt. But not with the current government in power,” Petrov said in 2011, when Just Russia still had hope that major reforms were on the horizon. By 2016, when Ella Pamfilova took charge of the Central Elections Commission, Petrov’s hopes had dwindled. “All this is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said of the authorities’ efforts to create the appearance of honest elections.
Outside his work with Just Russia, Sergey Petrov did a lot to develop the country’s civil society and specific projects. For example, he financed the magazine Russkaya Zhizn (Russian Life), a purely intellectual publication that had little to do with politics (and is unrelated to the American magazine of the same name).
In early 2017, the television station REN-TV aired two “documentary films” — “Project Failed: Secret Accounting” and “Black Cash for Liberals” — that accused Sergey Petrov of supporting anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Later that year, Petrov left Russia.
In mid-2018, Petrov returned to managing his business. While he was away from the helm, Russia’s auto market had shrunk by almost half, and Rolf had even lost its leading position to “Major Auto.” 2018 proved to be Rolf’s best year in its history, however, and the company’s share of Russia’s car-import market reached 7.2 percent. But Petrov was now spending less and less time in Russia, and he’d retreated from politics entirely. “All of us in our small circle knew that he left to spare his business any trouble,” Gennady Gudkov told Meduza. “He realized that his political activity wouldn’t go unpunished, but he didn’t want to let his business be ruined. He was very proud of his business, and hoped they’d leave it alone, if he kept away from Russia and left politics. Unfortunately, those hopes have been dashed.”
In March 2019, Forbes included Sergey Petrov on its list of 15 businessmen who changed the world’s view of Russia. A month later, Petrov learned that the Russian police are building a criminal case against him.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock