From Chukotka to Chelsea

He's only 36 - and he's Russia's second-richest man. He's a close friend of President Putin and governs an obscure Arctic province. Now he's the owner of one of Britain's most glamorous Premier League football clubs. Terry Kirby enters the billion-dollar world of Roman Abramovich
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The Independent Football

Hitherto, not much has united the extensive Russian community in London with the world of the Chelsea football club supporter, but yesterday, amid both groups, there was only one topic of conversation.

Forget who was or wasn't invited to President Putin's banquet last week, or whether Gianfranco Zola would be leaving Stamford Bridge. What everyone really wanted to know was, who is Roman Abramovich and why would a man who considers a Siberian province practically his personal fiefdom, want to buy a glamorous but debt-ridden British football club?

Abramovich may not be a well-known name in British footballing or media circles - although he soon will be - but in his home country he is respected as a man who started with nothing and, by the age of 36, became the second richest man in Russia and the governor of the Siberian province of Chukotka. He is, according to the Russian business analyst Mikhail Krutikhin, "the real financial genius of the bandit-capitalism epoch".

Abramovich is only in his mid-thirties and was in his early twenties when the Eastern Bloc - and the power of the former Soviet Union - crumbled. He has spent most of his adult life in the post-Cold War era of turbulence and emerging capitalism (some people called it "bandit capitalism"), of Gucci-clad gangsters in a lawless Moscow, of people getting rich extremely quickly as the old order died away. It must also be remembered that Abramovich was a protégé of Boris Berezovsky, the most controversial businessman of the era - a man who became a millionaire very quickly, mixing between business and politics with ease.

There is nothing about Abramovich himself to suggest that he has risen by anything other than orthodox means. But, as David Mellor - a former Conservative heritage secretary and a well-known Chelsea supporter - put it yesterday, "I hope his money has been obtained in ways that are above suspicion... We hope this man stands up to scrutiny.''

So what do we know about Abramovich, and why does he want to buy an English football club? Doesn't he have enough problems as it is running part of Siberia?

Abramovich was born in 1967 in Saratov, which lies on the Volga river in southern Russia. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by relatives in Moscow and the northern region of Komi before spending time in the Soviet army, as most young people did at the time.

Quite what happened between his time in the army and his emergence in the post-Soviet world is unclear, but it is known that he attended Moscow State Law Academy and obtained a law degree before joining the Moscow office of Sibneft, the fifth largest Russian oil producer. By 1992, he was being befriended by Berezovsky and was drawn into the circle around the then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. By 1996, Abramovich was a director of Sibneft and, when Berezovsky fell out of favour, Abramovich took over his interests in the oil industry. Now he controls more than 80 per cent of Sibneft; 50 per cent of Rusal, the Russian aluminum monopoly; and 26 per cent of Aeroflot, Russia's national airline, among other holdings. He also has a stake in TVS Television, one of four national channels in Russia and one of the few broadcasters that still dares deviate from the government line. Forbes magazine lists Abramovich as the second-richest man in Russia, worth about $5.7bn (£3.5bn).

Abramovich has also continued a tradition among Russian entrepreneurs of a simultaneous rise in the political world. In Russia, governors of the regions can have enormous power both locally and nationally and are able to control the access to their territory's natural resources, such as oil or gas. Last year, Khazret Sovmen, a key player in Russia's goldmining industry, became President of the Republic of Adygeya in the northern Caucasus, and Alexander Khloponin, owner of the Norilsk Nickel company, gave up his position as governor of Taymura to become governor of the Krasnoyarskiy Kray region, the industrial powerhouse of Siberia.

Abramovich also selected Siberia as his regional power base, choosing an area about as far away from Moscow as it is possible to get. Chukotka lies across the Bering Strait from Alaska and is largely a cold and desolate region of Arctic tundra, mostly peopled by reindeer herders. In the aftermath of the fall of Communism such regions suffered enormously as their economies struggled to survive without the central support on which they had relied for so many years.

In Chukotka, Abramovich has invested millions of pounds' worth of his own money, building homes, improving schools and public buildings for the area's 73,000 population. He has provided the region's first guest house and its first hairdressing salon, as well as supermarkets and cinemas. He has ensured that the wages of public sector workers are paid on time. "He is treated like a god there, the people love him,'' says Aliona Muchinskskaya, the London correspondent of the Moscow Komsomoletz newspaper.

Although there is much speculation that Abramovich has invested so much time and money in Chukotka that he is using it as a stepping stone to a political career in Moscow, the answer that the tall, stooped, and somewhat self-effacing man gives is more simple. "It's a new endeavour for me," he says. "I've never run a territory. I've never talked publicly to people. I've got to try it just to see whether I like it." Possibly the same philosophy underpins his desire to own a football club in Britain - certainly, it's a desire shared by other wealthy men, such as Silvio Berlusconi and Sir Elton John.

Abramovich does not appear to have the same flamboyance that those men share and is unlike to enjoy the same abrasive relationship with the media as the often acid-tongued Ken Bates, the man whom he is succeeding as the owner of Chelsea. Abramovich, married with four children, is said to be a very private man, who, when he is not in Siberia, prefers to be with his family on his country estate near Moscow.

Earlier this year, Abramovich failed in an attempt to buy Cska, the biggest sporting club in Moscow and the richest one in Russia. Having been repelled, Abramovich seems to have set his sights on its equivalent in British football and, according to reports that were circulating yesterday, had also considered making bids for Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Ironically, out of all the clubs in this country, Chelsea is the one most patronised by the Russian community in London, many of whom live in the Chelsea, Fulham and Putney areas.

"I don't know why it's the case, but so many of my friends support Chelsea," says one Russian who has lived in London for the past 12 years. "I suspect it's because Chelsea, although very English in name, is a very international, glamorous club with lots of overseas players. When we heard the news, everyone was cheering like crazy."

Also in Russia's billionaires' club...

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Once a powerful communist youth leader, Khodorkovsky is now Russia's richest man ­ and, according to Forbes magazine, the 26th richest person in the world ­ with an estimated fortune of £4.9bn. Chairman of Yukos Oil, which he brought up when the government auctioned it off in 1995. Yukos recently merged with Roman Abramovich's Sibneft, making it the world's fourth largest oil company.

Mikhail Fridman

Chairman and founder of Alfa Group, a huge conglomerate that includes a chain of grocery stores, a bank and Tyumen Oil, the fourth largest Russian oil provider. Thought to be worth £2.6bn.

Boris Berezovsky

Fifty-seven-year-old ex-car-dealer whose empire encompasses oil, aluminium and media; worth between £1bn and £2bn. Former ally of President Putin who fell out with him and fled Russia in 2000 amid allegations of fraud; now based in London. Survived a car-bomb attack in 1994. Earlier this year, a long-running libel case against Forbes magazine was settled when Forbes admitted that there was "no evidence that [Berezovsky] was responsible for any murders" and that "it was wrong to characterise [him] as a mafia boss". Now fighting extradition proceedings connected with an alleged £8m fraud in the 1990s. (He claims the charges are politically motivated.)

Viktor Vekselberg

A self-made Ukrainian oil baron, with an estimated wealth of £1.5bn, who made his fortune by teaming up with Alfa Group to take over the TNK oil company. A merger this year with the Russian arm of BP has boosted his value even further.