Russian oligarch’s $4.5 billion divorce settlement may be ‘the most expensive in history’


Dmitri Rybolovlev at a soccer match with an unidentified woman. (Philippe Merle/AFP/Getty Images)

It was 2008 when the news hit: Dmitry Rybolovlev was getting a divorce. A Swiss court had frozen the many bank accounts belonging to the Russian billionaire, known as the “Fertilizer King,” and he was left reeling.

Sure, the 47-year-old Russian had been unfaithful. But Elena Rybolovlev, the woman he trusted more than anyone in the world — the woman he’d been with since they were kids — knew all about that. “He was not a model husband,” Sergey Chernitsyn, a spokesman for the oligarch, told the New York Times in 2012. “Mr. Rybolovlev never denied the infidelities, but the wife knew about it for many years and passively accepted it.”

That assumption, however, was inaccurate. And Elena was soon dropping litigious bombs in her petitions. She obtained a court order freezing his assets “to satisfy the monetary award that will be issued in her favor.” She wanted $6 billion — about half of his fortune at the time. Then she described her husband’s “young conquests with his friends, and other oligarchs.”

What followed: years of divorce wranglings that culminated this week in a $4.5 billion settlement that one lawyer calls the “most expensive divorce in history.” (Who knows if this is true? Some billionaires, if they get divorced, seal the documents. But Rupert Murdoch didn’t. His divorce cost him $1.7 billion.)

Rybolovlev vs. Rybolovlev, however, was open to reporters. And its paper trail lays bare the insular, real-estate-addled world of a Russian oligarch whose money bought Swiss chaletsthe most expensive property in New York City, a $100 million Donald Trump mansion in Florida, and one of Greece’s most famous private islands.

But before the paramours, the real-estate purchases and the privatization of Russia’s state industries that allocated insane sums of money to a select few, there were two kids named Dmitry and Elena. It was their first day at the School of Medicine in Perm, an industrial city of 1 million in central Russia, when they met. By 1987, when Dmitry was just 21, they were married without having struck a prenuptial agreement of any sort.

Who could have predicted his inexorable climb? He morphed from a doctor to an entrepreneur to a stockbroker to a banker — and, finally, ascended to the chairmanship and majority shareholder of Uralkali, a $34 billion fertilizer company. He was anointed the Fertilizer King.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MARCH 29: Dmitry Rybolovlev attends the Rose Ball 2014 in aid of the Princess Grace Foundation at Sporting Monte-Carlo on March 29, 2014 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Dmitry Rybolovlev in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Soon, he assumed the many trappings of his throne. After Rybolovlev batted away a murder charge and brief imprisonment for the killing of a competitor, he relocated his family to Switzerland in the mid-1990s, where the family bought several properties and up to $1 billion worth of artwork. They raised a daughter, Ekaterina, who developed an affinity for riding horses and buying very expensive houses.

The purchases came at a time when Elena was already planning her eventual divorce, a spokesman told the New York Times. Heedless of that fact, they secured an oceanfront Palm Beach County mansion — a fact that only became clear years later — from none other than Donald Trump. The price tag: $100 million, and reports circulated speculating that Trump had bamboozled Russia’s Fertilizer King.

Later, Rybolovlev denied even owning the house, which had malfunctioning air-conditioners, and mulled whether to destroy it. Indeed, the accommodations were not up to snuff for daughter Ekaterina. Her one night at the residence was reportedly spent inside the pool house. The oceanfront manor was simply “unlivable,” a spokesman said.

The next purchase was, perhaps, more comfortable. Setting a record for the highest single transaction in New York’s history, Ekaterina plopped down $88 million for a 15 Central Park West, a nearly 7,000-square-foot penthouse previously owned by banker Sandy Weill. She said she planned to use it while visiting New York — when, of course, she wasn’t on her private Grecian island.

The island of Skorpios, where shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis married Jackie Kennedy in 1968, went for $153 million, and Ekaterina reportedly planned to use it for leisure and as an investment.

Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, courtroom theatrics raged. Swiss newspaper Le Temps ultimately published a devastating article about the matter called “One oligarch, one divorce, two abysses.” It spoke of paintings, l’affaire de Trump, and a $100 million yacht named “Motor Yacht Anna.”

The article so angered the Russian grand poobah that he threatened to sue any media outlet that would dare cover the divorce.

“In case you have planned to do it, please refrain,” a Geneva lawyer told the Associated Press. “That is all. And there is a please. … If by any chance you are going to print anything about my client, then you are formally put on notice that my client reserves his right, maybe, to do something about it, with any legal action that would be necessary.”

She described the preemptive tactic as a “general sprinkling of the press landscape.”

The news media, however, would investigate the fracas for years, leading to Monday’s coverage of the settlement. Lawyers said the appellate process ought to winnow the $4.5 billion. “There will definitely be a new appellate review and therefore this judgment is not final given the existence of two levels of appeal in Switzerland,” Tetiana Bersheda told the AP.

But of course Elena got more than money. She also got some real estate: a couple of opulent chalets in Gstaad, Switzerland and other properties in Geneva.

She also confirmed her custody of their 13-year-old daughter, Anna.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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