The laid-back head of a Russian state bank was an unusual choice of emissary -- and brought an unusual present. What was he after?
- By Amie Ferris-RotmanAmie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.
MOSCOW — When Sergei Gorkov met Jared Kushner at Trump Tower in New York last December, he came prepared to charm him, the Russian way: with an appeal to the motherland.
According to written testimony presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, the head of the Russian state investment bank VEB presented Kushner with a gift: art, along with a “bag of dirt,” from Kushner’s ancestral village in the former Russian imperial territory of Belarus. It was an unusual present, from an unusual figure in the ongoing Trump-Russia saga — one unlike most Russian bureaucrats.
Just over a year ago, shortly after becoming the head of VEB, Gorkov held a private event for his new staff. The banker staged a gathering that, according to those who have met him, reflected his personality: modern, nontraditional, and with an altogether different guest list from the typically buttoned-up sorts of people that fill the ranks of Russian banking and government. According to a news report, and some who were in attendance, the bank hired musicians who belted out 1980s Russian classics celebrating change, such as the perestroika hit “Peremen!” or “Changes!” — the song by rock legend Viktor Tsoi, often associated with the collapse of the Soviet order. Gorkov also flew in a limbless Australian Christian evangelical, Nick Vujicic, in order to deliver a motivational speech. Afterward, the company screened a short film, heralding what it said was a new era at the bank and the end of “feudal” bureaucracy — quite a departure from ordinary Russian state apparatchiks, who tend not to question the rigid structures by which they work.
Gorkov and VEB, or Vnesheconombank, came to the world’s attention earlier this year when it was reported that Gorkov had met for just under half an hour with Kushner, the son-in-law and senior advisor to President Donald Trump, not long after Trump secured the presidency. That December meeting is now under scrutiny from both Congress and the Justice Department, as part of their investigations into the Trump campaign’s links to Russian officials.
The White House and VEB have different versions of what went down in the meeting. In the testimony presented this week, Kushner said he’d taken the meeting because he was told Gorkov was someone “with a direct line to the Russian president who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration and best ways to work together”; Kushner said specific policies were not discussed. VEB, meanwhile, has described the meeting as part and parcel of its own development strategy. The bank was hit with U.S. economic sanctions as a result of Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis and its 2014 annexation of Crimea and is keen to see them lifted. It remains unclear what was actually discussed for those 20-25 minutes, the time frame later given by Kushner, that day. VEB declined to respond to questions and said Gorkov did not have time in his schedule for an interview.
Interviews with people familiar with Gorkov, however, paint a picture of an atypical figure in the Russian banking world: a charismatic, innovative technocrat, unusually low-key for a man so high up the chain of Russian power. It seems likely that the choice of Gorkov to serve as an interlocutor with the incoming administration was careful and deliberate on the part of the Kremlin — the meeting between him and Kushner was, after all, arranged by the former ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak. What’s not clear is: Why him?
“[Gorkov] likes to do things differently. He’s pretty rare in that sense,” said a Moscow-based investor who has pitched to Gorkov on several occasions. “Maybe he was sent as an experiment,” he added, “to try a new approach with the Americans.”
Almost all of the dozen people contacted by Foreign Policy spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation surrounding Gorkov. But most described the media-shy, soft-spoken native of central Russia as an anomaly: While his official declarations show an annual salary of $4 million, vast residences outside of Moscow, and a collection of cars including two Porsches and a Mercedes-Benz, Gorkov largely stays out of the limelight and Russian tabloids. He’s a graduate of the Academy of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, but not a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. His appearance isn’t glitzy or brash. Unusual for Russia’s banking elite, next to nothing is known about his wife and three children — unlike the Russian oligarchs and those operating around him in government, who hold lavish parties abroad with pop stars and fly their pet corgis around in private jets.
When Gorkov lived in London a decade ago, he rode the public underground system — unthinkable for a man of his stature, where chauffeur-driven, expensive cars with tinted windows are de rigueur.
“People of that level tend to be extremely inaccessible. They rarely start their meetings on time and can cancel last minute,” recalled a London-based banker who met Gorkov on several occasions. “But not him. He comes across as a man without a big ego. He hears your views. He doesn’t challenge them in an aggressive way.” In a recent interview with the Russian press, Gorkov said he picked up Arabic to speak “to the sheikhs” and that he had earlier dabbled in the study of Chinese. In his previous role as deputy chairman of Russia’s top lender, Sberbank, Gorkov introduced a Western-style grading system for his employees, according to a Forbes profile — a very unusual practice in Russia.
“It was obvious why [the Russian government] sent Gorkov to the States. It had to be someone with no oligarch status. Someone innovative,” said Pavel Vrublevsky, the founder of Russian online payments firm ChronoPay, which shares business interests with VEB.
At 48, Gorkov isn’t exactly young. Still, in interviews he is regularly described as “youthful” and “laid-back.” Similarly, in Russia, “innovation” and “disruption” aren’t exactly buzzwords. But those who know him say Gorkov has embraced the ethos of the tech world: Since taking over at VEB, he has successfully pioneered the use of blockchain, the underlying technology behind digital currencies like bitcoin and ethereum; he plans to roll out a pilot of the technology at VEB in the fall of this year. Channelling his inner Mark Zuckerberg, the banker recently gave a lecture to young people in the Black Sea city of Sochi wearing a hoodie.
When Gorkov took up the reins at VEB, the bank was in dire financial straits, following a Russian recession sparked by sanctions — which hit VEB directly — and low oil prices. Gorkov launched what he calls “VEB 2.0,” a six-year, wide-ranging strategy aimed at boosting investment in Russia, including in the IT sector. So far, he has managed to sign deals worth $2 billion with China. Last week, VEB made headway with its blockchain prototype, rolling it out for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. At the same time, analysts told the New York Times that the state has spent about $10 billion to prop up the bank over the past three years.
It’s not clear how involved the Kremlin was in orchestrating the other meeting for which Kushner is facing scrutiny, which took place in June 2016 and involved Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and a motley crew of characters including Moscow lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, British music producer Rob Goldstone, a Russian translator, a Russian-American lobbyist with ties to the Russian intelligence services, and a businessman.
But the Gorkov meeting was almost certainly different. Gorkov runs a major state entity that is nearly a century old and effectively serves as a slush fund for the Kremlin’s pet projects. Its loans are often wielded as political tools: In the Soviet era, the bank used to operate as Moscow’s credit guarantor to fellow communist countries, propping up programs in Cuba, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe; in recent years, it has given the state money for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and offered loans to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov to build an industrial park. Any decision to send Gorkov to serve as an intermediary with the Trump transition team would have been considered deliberately at the highest levels.
Gorkov’s unusual personality could have played a role in his selection. It’s possible, sources say, that the Kremlin saw certain parallels between Kushner and Gorkov that could go on to form the basis for common ground. The two men share an interest in tech: Kushner was recently appointed head of the White House Office of American Innovation, tasked with modernizing government services and IT.
But if Gorkov was sent to win over the president’s son-in-law, it may not have worked. At the end of the meeting, according to Kushner’s testimony, the two said their goodbyes, and he has had “no reason to connect with him since.” The sanctions that have hurt VEB show no signs of being lifted and, if anything, could be reinforced by Congress. And the gifts of soil and art do not appear to have left the impression that Gorkov might have hoped: Kushner declared in his testimony that they were from “Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from”; in fact, Kushner’s family is from a town called Novogrudok.
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