Live From My Yacht: Tycoon Trolls Putin Foe on YouTube

  • Billionaire Usmanov takes to YouTube to refute Navalny claims
  • Traffic surges amid back-and-forth over corruption allegations

Russian billionaires tend to prefer the minimalist school of public relations, sticking to “no comment” and leaving the hard work to their libel lawyers.

So when Alisher Usmanov, whose $14 billion fortune makes him Russia’s sixth-richest man and includes a stake in Britain’s Arsenal Football Club, suddenly took to YouTube with home-made video broadsides against opposition leader Alexei Navalny earlier this month, Russian social media lit up. The clips drew millions of viewers. A government official even chimed in. 

Alisher Usmanov

Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

In the process, Usmanov broke a Kremlin taboo against engaging directly in public with the government’s most prominent critic. Blacklisted by state media, Navalny is demonstratively ignored by top officials. President Vladimir Putin seems to go out of his way to avoid even mentioning his name. (The Kremlin, without using his name, denies that.)

But Usmanov, 63, personally responded to a widely watched online video that Navalny released in March accusing him of donating $90 million in real estate to a fund benefiting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Both deny Navalny’s charges.

‘I Spit on You’

“I spit on you Alexei Navalny,” the billionaire said in the first video, released May 18. Wearing a grey polo shirt and speaking directly into the camera -- which it later emerged was a staffer’s iPhone -- Usmanov expounded for 12 minutes about what he called the activist’s lies. He mostly referred to Navalny, 40, with the informal pronoun “ty,” which in Russian is usually a sign of disrespect unless used among friends or with a child.

He said he’d spent six years in a Soviet prison in the early 1980s, calling those later-expunged fraud and bribery convictions fabricated, while Navalny has served much shorter terms and is still on a suspended sentence. He dismissed as slander Navalny’s suggestions he’d been convicted of rape. “Of the two of us, you’re the criminal,” Usmanov said. The cases against Navalny are widely viewed as politically motivated.

“I sense the horrible envy of a loser,” Usmanov said, calling Navalny a failed businessman. “I live in happiness, unlike you.”

Navalny, who has relied on Internet videos for years as a key way to get his message out given the lack of access to national media, picked up the fight. Ironically sticking to the respectful form of address, he reposted Usmanov’s video on his own channel, saying it otherwise wouldn’t be fair because he has so many more followers.

On Yacht

“We’ve turned Alisher Usmanov -- one of the richest oligarchs in Russia -- into a video blogger,” boasted Navalny, who aims to run against Vladimir Putin in presidential elections next year. When Russian media later discovered that the tycoon had recorded his clip on his 156-meter yacht, Dilbar, located at the time off the French Riviera, Navalny touted the news in his daily web broadcast.

Usmanov’s second video less than a week later was shorter than his debut, but had a more professional look and was less indignant. He vowed to leave the rest of the battle to his lawyers in a libel case being heard this week in Moscow. Navalny, who denies the libel charges, fired back in yet another video.

In emailed comments to Bloomberg, Usmanov said he didn’t want to leave Navalny’s allegations unanswered because that might be interpreted as a sign they were true. “I decided not to be silent,” he said, adding that the Internet was the best way to get the message out. “Television or newspapers don’t have that kind of audience,” said Usmanov, an early investor in Facebook and currently owner of one of Russia’s largest dailies, Kommersant.

This week, Usmanov announced a contest on his page in the Russian social network he owns for the best parody, sticker or other meme related to the videos. The prize: an iPhone just like the one he used to record his initial clip and an autographed t-shirt.

Maria Zakharova, who as spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry has brought the agency onto the Internet, effused in Facebook that Usmanov’s web-video debut “will be studied at universities by specialists in rhetoric and PR.”

But “this all benefits Navalny, for whom it’s the more attention, the better,” said Gleb Kuznetsov, a political consultant who advises the Kremlin. At the same time, “by getting into a public polemic with him, Usmanov deprives Navalny of the ability to say that the members of the super-elite is scared of direct dialog with him because they have something to hide,” he added.

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