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The media mogul who failed Meduza profiles Alexander Mamut, the Russian oligarch who lost his empire when his luck and clout ran out

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Razumny / Vedomosti / PhotoXPress

Alexander Mamut made most of his fortune by mediating complex corporate conflicts, but friends say he always dreamed of being more than a simple billionaire. Mamut apparently wanted to embody Russia’s “rich intelligentsia” and it was in this pursuit that he spearheaded the Strelka Institute “cultural cluster,” supported musicians like Zemfira, and sponsored a flood of art projects. His ambitions extended to the mass media, as well, leading him to buy LiveJournal and Rambler in the hope of creating an Internet holding company with the biggest audience in Russia. For all this zeal, the media business is where Mamut lost his reputation as an “outspoken liberal” and fell into crippling debt. In late 2020, he lost Rambler to Sberbank and the money from the sale went to pay off his holding company’s loans. Today, Mamut teeters on the brink of defaulting on his debts to Trust Bank. Meduza correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva looks at how a media mogul ended up like this and what role urban planning, the mass media, and politics played in his story.

Warning about a possible conflict of interest: Galina Timchenko and Ivan Kolpakov, whose names appear in this story and who cofounded Meduza with Ilya Krasilshchik, previously worked at Lenta.ru. In fact, it was Alexander Mamut who fired Timchenko as editor-in-chief in 2014, prompting most of Lenta.ru’s newsroom to resign in protest. Neither Timchenko, Kolpakov, nor any Meduza staff who used to work at Lenta.ru participated in the creation of this story or even saw this text before it was published, though Timchenko was interviewed, as you’ll see below.

“When you’re dealing with Mamut, deal carefully”

In the fall of 2008, Alexander Mamut pulled the rug out from under Vladimir Yevtushenkov and the negotiators at the mobile network operator “MTS” when he secretly hammered out the purchase of the “Euroset” cell phone retailer, buying the company for $350 million from Evgeny Chichvarkin and Timur Artemev. Until Mamut’s acquisition was announced, MTS was in protracted talks with Euroset. Chichvarkin later said that he suspects Yevtushenkov dragged out the negotiations in the hope that an ongoing criminal investigation into alleged smuggling at Euroset would force him to sell the company for cheap.

Mamut apparently ingratiated himself to Chichvarkin and Artemev by posing as “an absolute liberal” who inspired confidence. Immediately after the deal, however, Mamut contested the assessed value of Euroset’s warehouse supplies and corporate debts, leading to counterclaims and litigation that weren’t resolved until 2011. It’s unclear how much of the $350 million ever reached Chichvarkin and Artemev, though Euroset’s founders nevertheless say they’re grateful to Mamut for buying their business. “We have money and we’re not ruined,” Artemev says today, though he warns others to “deal carefully” when negotiating with Mamut.

Whatever Mamut’s issues with Euroset’s valuation, he made a killing on the deal. Almost immediately after the acquisition, he sold 49.9 percent of the company to “VimpelCom.” In 2012, he sold the rest of the business to firms and entrepreneurs tied to the billionaire Alisher Usmanov. According to Forbes, Mamut earned more than $1 billion himself on the Euroset deal. This was a professional highpoint, but it wasn’t the first time he’d negotiated at this level. Alexander Mamut was already worth $950 million in 2007, thanks to his work resolving — and sometimes creating — corporate conflicts.

A little help from his friends

In 1990, armed with his law degree from Moscow State University and the legacy of his famous Soviet attorney parents, Mamut created “ALM Consulting,” a law firm that later signed a partnership deal with the London law firm “Frere Cholmeley Bisсhoff.” One of Mamut’s colleagues from back then told Meduza that ALM was one of the first firms in Russia to start selling offshore companies and fronting other groups in business deals. The enterprise became a crucial resource for the country’s new entrepreneurs who needed help organizing ownership schemes, establishing banking operations, and navigating complex international legal and trade transactions, the investor Oleg Boyko told Vedomosti in 2012, describing his business with ALM Consulting.

Mamut’s consultancy firm linked him to the most powerful businessmen in Russia at the time, and one of his first employees at ALM was a young lawyer named Igor Shuvalov, who would later serve many years as Russia’s deputy prime minister, before taking over the VEB.RF State Development Corporation.

The real avalanche of cash came in 1996 when the oligarchs bankrolling Boris Yeltsin’s re-election used ALM to funnel money through offshore accounts to the president’s campaign. For his good deeds, Mamut received an invitation to Yeltsin’s victory banquet at the Kremlin and became a volunteer advisor to the president’s team. Gradually, Mamut gained a reputation as an administration insider.

In late 1999, however, former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov publicly accused Mamut and Alexander Voloshin, the president’s new chief of staff, of bribing State Duma candidates. Around the same time, Mamut was also implicated in a money-laundering scandal that involved removing funds from Russia without paying the necessary customs or taxes — a controversy that eventually forced him to leave his own bank, K.O.P.F. (The bank itself later claimed that Mamut was technically never a direct stakeholder.)

More than a decade later, Mamut would thank Andrey Melnichenko for rescuing him by inviting him to chair the supervisory board at M.D.M. Bank, which Melnichenko co-owned. But this relationship soon soured, as well, and Mamut stepped down from the bank in late 2001. 

When Mamut lost his wife the next year, the oligarch Roman Abramovich stepped in to help get him back on his feet. Supposedly with a phone call to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Abramovich helped Mamut resolve a protracted shareholder conflict at the investment firm “Troika-Dialog” between top managers and the Bank of Moscow, a former employee told Meduza. Also in 2002 (again with Abramovich’s support), Mamut negotiated the sale of the Bank of Moscow’s shares in Troika to himself and the firm’s executives, simultaneously becoming the head of the board of directors. For the next three years, Mamut tried to expand his stake in the firm (despite agreeing not to do this), before the other shareholders finally bought him out.

Alexander Mamut (left), Oleg Deripaska (center), and Roman Abramovich (right) attend an event held by the Public Foundation for Promoting Russian Science in Moscow in February 2001
Dmitry Dukhanin / Kommersant

Immediately after leaving Troika, Mamut joined the board of directors at “Ingosstrakh,” a major insurance company controlled by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Journalists soon learned that Mamut now owned at least a third of Ingosstrakh’s shares. Years later, he claimed that he earned the money needed for this acquisition by selling his stake in another insurance company called “RESO,” but the banker Alexander Lebedev says Deripaska had merely entrusted the Ingosstrakh shares to Mamut temporarily in the wake of his wife’s death, wanting to give his friend a little extra income.

Instead, after two years on the board, Mamut secretly sold his stake in Ingosstrakh to a Czech investment firm for $700-750 million. 

Deripaska contested the deal, but the sale ultimately went through. In the end, he had to settle for torpedoing Mamut’s control of a bookstore chain by buying out Mamut’s co-owners for $30 million (reportedly twice the market value of their shares). And then the company went bankrupt.

Throughout his fight with Deripaska over Ingosstrakh, Mamut kept busy, completing the monster deal with Euroset and earning an additional $500 million by selling his telecommunications company “Cortec” to “VimpelCom.” Mamut instantly used this money to buy Suleiman Kerimov’s stake in the metals mining company “Polymetal International.”

An enlightened oligarch

Alexander Mamut won the hearts and minds of Russia’s artistic intelligentsia by spending through the nose on projects in culture, urbanism, and the media. These ventures promised no quick profits, but he pursued them vigorously, nevertheless. 

During a dinner in 2006, Mamut supposedly approached the American entrepreneur Andrew Paulson (one of Afisha’s cofounders) and expressed a vague but devout interest in “the Internet.” The two men went on to create an Internet-focused investment firm called “SUP Fabrik,” which they later renamed “SUP Media.” A year after acquiring the rights to manage the Cyrillic segment of LiveJournal (then Russia’s most popular blogging platform), SUP Media bought LiveJournal outright for $30 million. 

Unable to turn a profit, Mamut and Paulson later brought on board the billionaire Alisher Usmanov, selling him half of SUP Media in part for a stake in the news website Gazeta.ru. The partnership didn’t work out, however, and Usmanov’s 50-percent share in SUP Media returned to Mamut after three years. Mikhail Kotov, Gazeta.ru’s former editor-in-chief, told Meduza that Mamut showed little interest in the news publication after he acquired it. 

Instead, Mamut devoted himself to rescuing the “Art-Strelka” cultural space that emerged in a former chocolate factory on Balchug Island in central Moscow. In the spring of 2009, he discussed the initiative with several wealthy and influential friends, who ultimately decided to create a nonprofit educational institution to cultivate innovations in media, architecture, design, and urbanism. Mamut and businessman Sergey Adoniev each agreed to invest $2.5 million in the “Strelka Institute” in its first three years of existence. 

The project formally launched in May 2010 and quickly became one of Moscow’s hottest spots, hosting glamorous parties and establishing Alexander Mamut at the center of the city’s art world. According to the magazine Elle and an associate who spoke to Meduza, Mamut’s money and promotion were crucial to propelling the musician Zemfira Ramazanova to stardom. (Spokespeople for Zemfira declined to answer Meduza’s questions.)

In 2012, Mamut even agreed to publish a satirical book by Dmitry Bykov that prominently featured poems about presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Andrey Vasiliev, the Kommersant journalist who managed the project, told Meduza that Mamut greenlit the book without hesitation. “Those were different times,” says Vasiliev.

Alexander Mamut (center) at a joint reception for Yota and Forbes in Moscow, 2012
Artem Goloshchapov for Forbes / PhotoXPress

Changing with the times

When Russians staged mass protests against fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections, Mamut sympathized with the demonstrators’ grievances. “I saw a lot of lively energy in our civically inspired compatriots and youth,” the billionaire told RBC, a year later. Mikhail Kotov, then Gazeta.ru’s editor-in-chief, says Mamut called them “protests of dignity” and believed the activists merely wanted to be heard.

For all his spending on cultural projects and personal devotion to liberal concepts, Alexander Mamut was a practical businessman who understood like many others that Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 meant the dawn of a new reality. 

Mamut acclimated quickly, working to make himself indispensable to Vyacheslav Volodin, the presidential administration’s new domestic policy czar. He convinced Volodin that he could offer the Kremlin inside access to Moscow’s “oppositionist hipsters” by buying the entertainment and lifestyle magazine Afisha and becoming the creative class’s employer, says a source who was close to the presidential administration at the time. 

Left to right: Alexander Mamut, President Vladimir Putin, First Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin, and Chief of Staff Sergey Ivanov before a seminar meeting on domestic policy issues outside Moscow on October 23, 2013.
Mikhail Klimentiev / TASS

SUP Media’s future as a business relied on a good relationship with Volodin. Mamut nurtured this connection and completed a deal in early 2013 (reportedly synchronizing carefully with Volodin) that merged SUP Media with Vladimir Potanin’s “Afisha-Rambler” holding company. The personnel decisions that followed were the beginning of the end of Mamut’s liberal legacy.

First, almost immediately after the merger, “Afisha-Rambler-SUP” hired Alexey Goreslavsky, the former head of the pro-Kremlin website Vz.ru, to manage the company’s Internet projects. Mikhail Kotov then resigned from Gazeta.ru, leaving the publication to his deputy editor, whom Mamut promptly fired and replaced with Svetlana Babeyeva, a journalist from the state news agency RIA Novosti. Mamut made this change on the same day as Moscow’s mayoral election in 2013, when opposition candidate Alexey Navalny won more than 27 percent of the city’s votes, nearly forcing a runoff.

Kotov says Mamut changed his handling of Gazeta.ru after deciding to ditch his unprofitable media ventures in exchange for access to large government contracts to promote urbanist ideas in Moscow. Consequently, in 2013, the Strelka Institute launched a commercial consulting bureau. The new business enjoyed Volodin’s favoritism. Beginning in 2015, the firm started winning major state contracts for urban improvements and beautification, earning more than 6 billion rubles ($81.3 million) over the years.

Mamut also cultivated a close relationship with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. For example, when Sobyanin visited Rambler&Co’s headquarters in October 2015, Mamut’s four biggest media outlets — Lenta.ru, Gazeta.ru, Championat, and Afisha — all published synchronized interviews with the mayor. “It was a scandal and everyone laughed about it,” a former employee at Gazeta.ru told Meduza. By now, however, Mamut didn’t care about journalists’ gossip.

“Papa is hungry”

Alexander Mamut and Vladimir Potanin announced the merger of their media assets in March 2013. Potanin’s conglomerate “Interros” united its holding company “Afisha-Rambler” (which included Afisha, Lenta.ru, and Rambler.ru) with SUP Media. Mamut and Interros each received half of the new business, which they named “Afisha-Rambler-SUP.”

At first glance, it was a lousy deal for Potanin, whose assets were clearly worth more money. The merger also gave Mamut managing shareholder rights. But there was a catch: if Interros was unsatisfied with the joint company’s performance, Mamut was required to buy out his partners within 3.5 years at a fixed price of $295 million. In reality, Potanin had sold Rambler to Mamut for installment payments, not merged their businesses, says a former senior executive at “Profmedia,” which managed Interros’s media assets.

According to RBC CEO Nikolai Molibog, who managed Afisha-Rambler in 2013, Mamut’s investment strategy was to merge and acquire as many different Internet assets as he could in pursuit of a broad online audience. But Mamut stumbled when it came to monetizing this traffic.

By early 2013, the search engine and online portal Rambler had already lost its shot at becoming a RuNet leader. Mamut’s plans to pit the website against Google and Yandex alienated the team in place, and the foreign consultants he hired had a poor grasp of the industry in Russia, says a former board member at Afisha-Rambler-SUP. Infatuated with all things iPhone and Apple, Mamut even recruited Peter Zakharov to serve as the new conglomerate’s CEO. Zakharov had previously managed Apple’s business in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India. He didn’t last a year in the job.

Rambler’s new boss struggled to connect with his staff. One manager who later left the company recalls Mamut’s awkward pep talks where the billionaire described himself as a father figure to the company. “He offered the following argument: you’ve been living without a papa but now you have a papa and papa is hungry,” says Meduza’s source, adding, “Nobody could believe what was happening to us.”

Before Mamut took over, Afisha-Rambler product director Dmitry Stepanov and development director Viktor Lamburt hoped to transform the website into a central Internet hub that would redirect users to various media portals. Stepanov and Lamburt tried to explain machine learning to Mamut’s team, but the new management rejected outright the idea of sending away Internet traffic. Stepanov and Lamburt eventually left Rambler and realized their concept at Yandex, where the “Yandex Zen” personal recommendations service became a runaway success.

After firing Zakharov in 2014, Mamut decided to take over as CEO himself, changing the business’s name to “Rambler&Co.” The business apparently lost money in 2013, forcing him to seek a loan to finance the company’s continued day-to-day operations. Mamut borrowed the money from Otkritie Bank, where he was a minority shareholder with a 6.67-percent stake.

Working with an audience of 42 million people, Mamut had understandably high expectations for the business. “It quickly became clear, however, that the core audience was much smaller, and there was traffic but it was useless. It was impossible to build any kind of service model with it,” a former senior manager at Rambler&Co told Meduza.

Alexander Mamut’s chaotic managerial style has caused problems wherever he’s gone. According to a former executive at Rambler&Co, Mamut’s leadership approach mirrors the “counterbalance policy” practiced inside the Russian government. He apparently hires people to perform overlapping jobs, forcing them to compete against each other. Many simply leave and find work elsewhere.

Despite Mamut’s capacity for rapidly embracing innovations and aggressively recruiting new personnel, he’s also ignored sound business advice on multiple occasions. In 2017, for example, no one on his staff was able to persuade him that it would be a mistake to add a 10-percent surcharge on all movie tickets purchased through “Rambler.Checkout.” After a revolt by Hollywood studios, the company had to abandon the ticketing fee.

The campaign to reshape Russia’s filmgoing industry followed Mamut’s acquisition of “Formula Kino” and “Cinema Park” — two of the country’s biggest movie theater chains. Besides trying to squeeze consumers at the ticket counter, Mamut also installed new executives at both companies, upsetting the careful control of costs that made Formula Kino a genuine “cash cow,” says Yuri Kirillov, the chain’s former director. At one point, the entire advertising department, which accounted for roughly 10 percent of Formula Kino’s annual revenue, resigned en masse to join a competing theater chain.

Mamut’s risky experiments and disruptive interventions are all the more remarkable given that he purchased the two cinema companies (for more than $400 million) on behalf of Otkritie Bank shareholder Vadim Belyaev, who was supposed to buy him out later, according to Forbes Russia.

“The board isn’t yet whipped into shape”

Of all the new media assets now under Mamut’s control, Lenta.ru caused him the biggest headache by drawing enormous traffic while insisting on editorial independence. For example, Alexey Goreslavsky (then Rambler&Co’s deputy director for external communications) urged Lenta to accept an advertising contract with Rosneft that would have required the news outlet to “block all negative coverage” about the oil company. When Lenta editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko (now Meduza’s CEO) refused the deal, it went instead to Gazeta.ru. As “punishment,” Timchenko says, Rambler&Co doubled Lenta’s revenue targets for the fourth quarter of 2013.

In 2014, the hacktivist group “Anonymous International” documented Goreslavsky’s collaboration with the Kremlin by leaking his correspondence with Timur Prokopenko, a domestic policy deputy supervisor in the Putin administration. “They listen at Gazeta, but the editorial board isn’t yet whipped into shape, so there are still some slipups,” Goreslavsky complained in one message. “At Lenta, they have their own position on everything. Galya [Timchenko] says she has this or that ‘standard’ and she won’t budge.”

After the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Mamut called a meeting with Timchenko and Lenta special correspondents editor Ivan Kolpakov (now Meduza’s editor-in-chief), presenting the two journalists with a binder filled with printouts showing how staff at Lenta had supposedly ridiculed Russia’s athletes in posts on social media. Mamut said the Kremlin had collected the incriminating materials as leverage against Lenta. Timchenko says she laughed and told her employer that the dossier would have been 10 times thicker if she’d managed the research herself.

Around this time, Lenta.ru started attracting more than 3 million unique visitors a day — an industry milestone that privately led Mamut to compare the website to Russia’s most-watched national television network, says Timchenko.

The next month, in March 2014, Russia’s federal media censor slapped Lenta with a warning for publishing a story that quoted “Right Sector” leader Dmytro Yarosh (though the authorities didn’t actually outlaw his Ukrainian nationalist group until November 2014). Just a few days later, Mamut fired Timchenko and replaced her with Goreslavsky. Viewing the decision as a surrender to Kremlin censorship, 68 of the Lenta.ru newsroom’s 84 employees promptly resigned in protest.

The newsroom at Lenta.ru on March 13, 2014, a day after Alexander Mamut fired Galina Timchenko
Evgeny Feldman
Galina Timchenko’s vacated office
Evgeny Feldman
Lenta.ru staff sign a mass resignation letter
Evgeny Feldman

By firing Timchenko in response to such a small censorship conflict — without defending his chief editor at all and before the authorities even threatened felony investigations or police raids — Mamut jettisoned the last of his credibility as a liberal freethinker. Many now saw him as a “cowardly comrade,” says one media manager who at the time was negotiating a partnership with Mamut. Longtime friend and former Kommersant editor-in-chief Andrey Vasiliev told Meduza that Mamut isn’t the obedient, groveling type, which means the signal he got from the Putin administration “must have been so compelling, unambiguous, and very clear that it wasn’t a signal at all but a direct order.” 

Whatever the impetus for dismissing Timchenko and cleaning house at Lenta, Rambler&Co started attracting major advertising contracts afterward, including deals with VTB Bank, Russia’s Deposit Insurance Agency, and the Culture Ministry. According to an employee at Rambler, Gazeta.ru and Lenta.ru have completely blocked certain subjects for the past five years, such as reports about opposition protests and content that might reflect negatively on certain advertisers. Mamut extricated himself from this process and entrusted it directly to people inside the Putin administration, says Meduza’s source. 

“Going to pieces”

In late 2016, Mamut’s buyout agreement with Interros finally came due. The deal’s $295-million price tag hurt especially for two reasons: Russian currency depreciation over the preceding three years had more than doubled the acquisition’s cost in rubles, and media assets generally were far less profitable now, thanks to the country’s economic downturn. 

Mamut nevertheless found the money, relying in part on another loan from Otkritie Bank, though he had to pledge the company’s main assets as collateral. Months later, federal regulators intervened and announced Otkritie’s restructuring, putting it under new management and transferring its distressed debts to Trust Bank. (A source at Trust Bank told Meduza that Mamut borrowed 4.3 billion rubles — roughly $59.3 million — to fulfill his obligations to Interros.)

Falling profits and rising dependency on third parties for Internet traffic plagued Mamut’s media assets. By early 2017, Rambler&Co earned most of its revenue through contextual ads placed by “Yandex.Direct.” Once vibrant, independent publications, Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru now tailored their content to trigger appearances on news aggregation services run by Yandex and Google, resulting in a hodgepodge of clickbait that ranged from “relentless” to “sad and uninspired,” a senior media executive told Meduza

This ruthless pursuit of traffic has been a success (a manager at Rambler confessed to Meduza that the company itself doesn’t understand why Google sends so many people to Lenta), but it didn’t exactly pay off for Mamut, whose political clout in Moscow waned over the next several years.

Mamut’s ties to Mayor Sobyanin deteriorated when the Strelka Institute publicly blamed City Hall for mishaps in renovations to Tverskaya Street, says a source with knowledge of their relationship. Since the spat, Strelka hasn’t won any new major contracts in the capital.

It was also unwelcome news for Mamut when Sergey Kiriyenko replaced Vyacheslav Volodin as Putin’s domestic policy czar. Besides bad blood that dates back to the late 1990s (when Mamut impugned Kiriyenko’s management skills), Rambler&Co also lost Alexey Goreslavsky to the Kremlin for a job overseeing Kiriyenko’s Internet agenda. 

Alexander Mamut attends an Urban Areas and Public Spaces Development Council meeting chaired by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. Moscow, April 2017
Anna Isakova / State Duma Photo Service

Despite all these setbacks, Mamut managed to maintain team morale at Rambler thanks to his exceptional powers of persuasion, a former senior executive at the company told Meduza: “The company was going to pieces and people were quitting left and right, but he could still gather everyone, deliver a fiery speech, and people would believe, though they didn’t understand a word.”

Saved by Sberbank

The changing times also aggravated Alexander Mamut’s debt burden. Otkritie Bank had always been friendly and generous, but Trust Bank now methodically demanded repayment. In 2018, Mamut paid back more than $140 million of what he borrowed from Otkritie, but he owed more money still and risked losing Rambler&Co’s key assets if he defaulted. 

Then, like so many times before, Mamut pulled a rabbit from his hat. In the spring of 2019, he sold 46.5 percent of Rambler Group to Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, for 11 billion rubles (more than $149 million). The deal included all of Rambler&Co, but it was Mamut’s recently acquired “Okko” streaming service (not his Internet holding company or its news outlets) that most interested Sberbank CEO Herman Gref, who is particularly fond of “big ideas” that he can cite in meetings with President Putin, one of Mamut’s associates told Meduza

Sberbank CEO Herman Gref (left) and Alexander Mamut at a Sberbank event in Moscow in February 2019.
Dmitry Korotaev / Kommersant

In presentations to Sberbank, Mamut laid out a grand strategy for building Okko into a new “end-to-end entertainment ecosystem.” He’d acquired the business just a year earlier without spending a dime, merging it with his company by granting Okko’s owner, the “Era Capital Foundation,” a small stake in Rambler Group. A source told Meduza that the deal with Sberbank should have netted Era Capital about $90 million.

The deal with Sberbank, however, didn’t bathe the company’s shareholders in cash. All 11 billion rubles went to Rambler, which used the money to repay its loans. On the other hand, Mamut was left with his own 46.5-percent stake in an Internet holding company that was now unburdened by debt and flush with about 7 billion rubles ($95.1 million) earmarked for development. After the sale, Mamut officially stepped down as Rambler Group’s CEO, though Meduza’s sources at the company say he continued to participate actively in executive decisions. 

Taking on Nginx and losing Rambler

On December 12, 2019, Russian law enforcement raided the Moscow office of the I.T. company “Nginx,” which created the eponymous web-server that now powers about a third of all websites around the world. Police officers spent several hours interrogating the firm’s co-founders, Igor Sysoev and Maxim Konovalov, in connection with a criminal case concerning ownership claims over the rights to the Nginx web-server. Sysoev and Konovalov were accused of violating Rambler Internet Holding’s intellectual property rights by selling Nginx to the American company “F5 Networks” in May 2019 for $670 million. The lawsuit cited 51 million rubles ($692,580) in damages.

Though spokespeople for Rambler described the case as a campaign to “restore justice on the issue of ownership rights,” a company called “Lynwood Investments CY” (through which Mamut once owed a British book retailer) was actually responsible for filing the charges. It turned out that Rambler had previously “ceded the right to bring claims related to violations of the rights to Nginx.”

News of the police investigation came as a shock to Sberbank, which had no knowledge of an outstanding dispute with Nginx’s creators. Gref rushed to mediate the conflict and end further police actions against Sysoev and Konovalov, who are both well known and widely respected in Russia’s Internet industry. Sberbank promptly convened an emergency board meeting at Rambler Group, arguing that Mamut’s failure to disclose information about the intellectual property case constituted a breach of contract. Rambler’s board of directors subsequently ordered the company’s management to terminate the contract with Lynwood and do everything possible to end the criminal inquiry, which was closed the following summer. Mamut’s firm retained the right to claim damages in its own interests, however, and later filed a lawsuit against Nginx in the United States for $750 million.

A former employee at Rambler told Meduza that still enormous debts drove Mamut to these desperate measures. In early 2020, by selling his helicopter manufacturer “Kopter,” he managed to repay 4.5 billion rubles ($61.1 million) in loans to Trust Bank. That summer, Mamut raised more money by selling 20 percent of the Strelka Consulting Company to the “VEB.RF” state development corporation, reuniting with Igor Shuvalov, who worked with him at ALM Consulting back in the 1990s.

Following the scandal with Nginx, Sberbank decided to buy a controlling 55-percent stake in Rambler by acquiring another 6.95 percent of the business, including 1.5 percent from Mamut’s holding company. Meduza estimates that the deal may have netted him about 355 million rubles ($4.8 million). 

Despite selling away control of Rambler and jettisoning other assets, Alexander Mamut’s debt problems persisted. In June 2020, his various companies still owed another 23.5 billion rubles ($319.3 million) to Trust Bank. To make matters worse, he personally guaranteed all these loans. 

In October 2020, Sberbank acquired the rest of Rambler, becoming the company’s sole owner. In exchange for his remaining 45 percent of the business, Mamut received a first-installment payment of 3 billion rubles ($40.7 million). A second payment will be determined and delivered within a year.

After the buyout, Sberbank started replacing Mamut’s executives with its own people. Sources at Rambler describe the new managerial philosophy as “closer to wartime communism.” One employee told Meduza that Rambler’s media assets are now under even stricter orders to withhold news coverage of opposition protests. Sberbank’s sensitivity to the issue is extreme: for example, an article published in Afisha Daily about proper clothing for long walks in winter weather apparently upset the outlet’s shareholders because the article appeared on January 23, 2021 (the same day that tens of thousands protested against Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment).

Spokespeople for Rambler&Co told Meduza that its online audience is unrivaled in Russia, claiming that the company’s media outlets welcomed more than 1.2 billion unique visitors in 2020, according to analytics available at “Yandex.Metrika.” Meduza reviewed these numbers, however, and found that Rambler’s websites actually recorded 1.2 billion visits, not unique visitors, last year. According to the media research company “Mediascope,” moreover, Rambler&Co’s traffic for the past six months hasn’t exceeded 40 million monthly visits.

Too delicate and dubious for this business

Lately, Mamut has devoted himself largely to keeping his remaining assets out of the hands of creditors and courts. In December 2020, Trust Bank head Alexander Sokolov revealed that the lion’s share of Mamut’s outstanding, now overdue debt (still 23.5 billion rubles — about $319.6 million) is owed by his movie theater business. In fact, beginning in January 2021, Trust Bank debited 450 million rubles ($6.1 million) in holiday earnings from Mamut’s cinemas to pay down his debts. 

Mamut and Trust Bank are now suing each other about overdue interest rates and repayment extensions. The litigation is ongoing despite the fact that Trust Bank actually agreed in 2019 to restructure Mamut’s loans and even expressed readiness to lower his interest rate, extend the loan term, and postpone interest payments. The coronavirus pandemic upended these plans, however, and Mamut was unable to fulfill the restructuring agreement’s terms. 

Credit institutions today publicly question Mamut’s business prowess. One former partner told Meduza that Mamut is “a good negotiator but a lousy manager.” Another senior executive who worked with Mamut in the early 2000s says the oligarch’s rapid rise to wealth on a “flimsy and unstable” foundation is typical for Russian businessmen. 

Others, like former Afisha Daily editor-in-chief Ekaterina Dementieva, believe that Mamut tried to have it both ways. “You can’t succeed as a leader in the cultural business with so delicate a constitution and such dubious ethics. It’s impossible to roll with the Afisha Picnic outdoor festival if you kept silent about Ukraine, and you can’t gather students at Strelka for a lecture about new media if you destroyed Lenta.ru,” Dementieva told Meduza.

Alexander Mamut (center) attends parliamentary hearings about new “cultural regulations.” Moscow, March 2019.
Dmitry Dukhanin / Kommersant

One of the oligarch’s friends told Meduza that Mamut only agreed to so many compromises because he believed they would pave the way to a better future: “He thought it was right to go with the media. Bow to the authorities today, yes, but everything will be different tomorrow and then the media will educate people and bring culture to everyone.”

Some sources who spoke to Meduza for this story noted that a man isn’t really broke when he still owns a stake in Polymetal International and shares in multiple Western companies. It’s true that Mamut’s “A&NN Investments” firm says even now that it controls assets worth $2.4 billion. 

Meduza asked Alexander Mamut to comment on the content of this story but his representatives’ only response was to threaten our newsroom with legal action.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Anastasia Yakoreva with additional reporting by Tatiana Lysova. Edited by Valery Igumenov and Tatiana Lysova.

Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock

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