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Mikhail Fridman in Moscow in 2019.

Mikhail Fridman in Moscow in 2019.

Photo illustration: 731; Photographer: Pavel Golovkin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The Big Take

Broke Oligarch Says Sanctioned Billionaires Have No Sway Over Putin

In an exclusive interview, Mikhail Fridman—one of Russia’s original oligarchs—argues that punishing billionaires like him shows a troubling misunderstanding of power in Russia.

When I first called Mikhail Fridman to ask if he would talk about what it’s like to be sanctioned, he all but hung up on me. A couple of days later, he said he still didn’t think it was a good idea. After further back and forth he finally agreed, proposing we meet at a hotel in London’s Mayfair district. I countered with his home, Athlone House, a Victorian estate he bought in 2016 for £65 million ($85 million at the current exchange rate). He didn’t like that, which is how we ended up at a cafe in North London, speaking for almost two hours against the constant sound of an espresso machine grinding in the background.

Wearing a blue cashmere sweater, a T-shirt, and jeans, he arrives a few minutes early, looking slightly frazzled. In the two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, the world as he knew it—as we knew it—had ended. Fridman hadn’t thought Putin would launch a full-scale invasion; in the runup to the war, he says, he’d told colleagues at LetterOne, his private equity firm in London, that he couldn’t imagine Russians fighting Ukrainians. This thought reflects his personal story: Fridman, 57, was born and raised in the Soviet Union in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. He was a first-wave oligarch, making a fortune in banking and energy before Putin’s rise to power. His parents are Ukrainian citizens who until recently lived part of the year in an apartment in Lviv, a city known for anti-Russian sentiment and leadership in Ukrainian nationalism. “I know every corner of that city,” he tells me. “I always thought Ukraine would resist.”