A Harsh Spotlight

When Vladimir Goussinsky walked out of jail here last Friday night, he was not just another released prisoner waiting to be formally arraigned.As the television screens showed, Goussinsky’s three days in prison left the media tycoon and leader of the Russian Jewish Congress looking like a tired and nervous middle-aged Jewish clerk with a host of unsolvable problems.

But the ongoing government campaign against Goussinsky, which landed him for three days last week in the Butyrskaya prison and has him charged with embezzling $10 million, has turned the shy, controversial mogul into something of an international cause celebre.The campaign is also just the latest episode in a life that has turned from that of an ordinary Soviet citizen into a reported billionaire who is the controversial focus of government attention.

Goussinsky, 47, grew up in a Jewish family that, like millions of other Soviets, suffered under the oppressive weight of Stalinism.His grandfather was executed in 1937 during the Great Purges, and his grandmother spent nine years in a Soviet prison camp.

Like most Soviet Jews, Goussinsky knew little about Judaism when he was growing up. But the outside world didn’t let him forget about his background.

“I had to fight often when someone called me a Jew-face,” Goussinsky recalled in a 1998 JTA interview.People who know him closely say these childhood fights gave him a strong desire to fight for other Jews and help them respect themselves.

Goussinsky studied at the Moscow Institute of Petroleum. He never graduated, but during his student years he was one of thousands of Jewish youths who flocked to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on Jewish holidays, especially on Simchat Torah, to demonstrate their pride in their Judaism – ignoring the KGB agents who were taking pictures of the crowd.

But that was the extent of his Jewish involvement as a student.In 1986-87, the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening to the West and restructuring of the Soviet economy, Goussinsky began making money in a tiny metal-works cooperative.He quickly and mysteriously managed to become wealthy, and by 1989, when he founded the Most bank, he had entered not only banking but real estate.

Analysts say Goussinsky capitalized on his close ties to the Moscow government and especially to then-deputy mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who would later assume the city’s top post.The Moscow government deposited the city’s huge accounts into Goussinsky’s bank. It made him, overnight, one of the wealthiest people in Russia.

In 1993, he entered the media business, launching a newspaper and establishing a television channel. NTV quickly became one of Russia’s three national TV channels.

NTV became known in 1999 for its opposition to Russia’s war in Chechnya. This stance did not endear Goussinsky to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was brought in by Yeltsin to run the government in part to accelerate that war.

Goussinsky and six other financiers banded together in 1996 to fund Yeltsin’s victorious re-election campaign when it appeared possible that Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov might defeat him.The first attack on Goussinsky came in December 1994, when presidential security service agents raided his offices and harassed his security guards and other personnel.

The then-head of the presidential security service later said that Goussinsky’s nemesis, fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky, had asked him to arrange Goussinsky’s murder.

Fearing a possible arrest on charges similar to those that recently landed him in jail, Goussinsky left the country and spent seven months abroad.

When Goussinsky returned to Moscow, he decided to become involved in the Jewish community. Crities say that Goussinsky began bankrolling the Jewish community to “buy” international Jewish support to fight off future embezzlement charges. Others differ.

“Goose,” says one friend, using Goussinsky’s nickname, “could have bought his security much cheaper” than the millions of dollars a year that he donates to the RJC. “He is crazy over Jewish things, Israeli patriotism and all that. He really wants to help Jews here to become proud and self-respecting.” He points to Goussinsky’s Israeli passport and his 25 percent ownership of Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.American Jewish groups are also behind Goussinsky.

Fifty-two members of the U.S. Congress have rallied behind him, sending a letter to President Clinton to press Russia to “formally justify” Goussinsky’s arrest.But even Goussinsky’s critics agree that he made valuable contributions to the revival of Russian Jewish life by turning Jewish philanthropy into a respectable activity and demonstrating that the Jewish community in Russia can be self-supporting and financially independent.Goussinsky is also participating in international Jewish philanthropy. He is one of 14 philanthropists who have pledged a total of $70 million to support Birthright Israel, the program that sends young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel.

The fortunes of Goussinsky, who supported Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, in his failed bid for Russian presidency last year, began to take a nosedive last August, after Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister.Putin quickly established an informal alliance with Berezovsky and with the Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities, the Russian Jewish Congress’ rival.This rivalry escalated last week, when a group of Lubavitch rabbis elected one of their own, Rabbi Berel Lazar, to be the chief rabbi of Russia.

Adolph Shayevich, backed by Goussinsky, has long served in that role.Even if the current case is dropped, a statement made June 15 by Russian President Vladimir Putin indicates that Goussinsky’s prospects appear to be bleak.

Putin – who was out of the country at the time of Goussinsky’s arrest and has said it was “probably an excessive measure” – said he does not understand why prosecutors are busying themselves with the charges that led to Goussinsky’s detention and are not paying attention to $200 million that Goussinsky allegedly owes Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly.

If Gazprom calls in these debts, it could bring Goussinsky’s media empire to bankruptcy.