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Game over for Abramovich?

Vladimir Rodionov/AFP/Getty; Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty

As the Russo-Ukrainian war turns the screws on Russia’s oligarchs, Roman Abramovich has put Chelsea Football Club up for sale.

Why now?
Abramovich, worth $12.3bn, hasn’t been sanctioned yet by the West, but there’s a growing clamour to do so. Last Saturday, the 55-year-old said he was transferring “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to the club’s trustees – essentially a PR ruse, as it didn’t affect his ownership. After that failed to quell public anger, he went further, saying he would sell the club, write off the £1.5bn it owed him in loans, and donate “net proceeds” of the sale – likely to be more than £1bn once legal fees have been covered – to a charity supporting the victims of the war. Security at his £150m, 15-bedroom Kensington mansion have also been told to expect viewings from potential buyers. But nowhere in any of his statements has been explicit condemnation of Vladimir Putin.

How close are Putin and Abramovich?
Very. Abramovich, one of the oligarchs who made his fortune in Russia’s turbulent 1990s, backed Putin as heir to President Boris Yeltsin. He even interviewed candidates for Putin’s first cabinet in 1999. After Putin came to power and took control of Russia, the oligarchs either fled the country, ended up in prison or pledged loyalty to their new tsar. Abramovich was one of the latter, and from 2000 to 2008 Putin sent him off to be governor of the chilly Siberian region of Chukotka, where winds are strong enough to sweep dogs off their feet. “He’s a young guy,” Putin reasoned, when mulling whether to send him to another distant governorship afterwards. “Let him work.”

How did Abramovich make his money?
He was born in Lithuania to Jewish parents who both died before he was four; his childhood was spent with grandparents in the desolate northern Russian region of Komi. After dropping out of university, Abramovich had a brief spell in the Soviet army, where he sold stolen petrol to officers for profit. Then, using 2,000 roubles he was given by the parents of his first wife Olga, he went into business, first selling rubber ducks from his Moscow apartment, but soon trading in everything from oil to pig farms.

When did he hit the big time?
When he teamed up with Boris Berezovsky, one of the Yeltsin era’s most powerful and wealthy oligarchs. Many of the biggest assets privatised in post-Soviet Russia changed hands via the notorious “loans for shares” scheme. In exchange for loaning the government cash (and supporting Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election bid), the oligarchs were given the mineral wealth of Russia for a pittance. The economist Paul Gregory called it “the single largest heist in corporate history”. Abramovich and Berezovsky paid just $100m to acquire the oil giant Sibneft – a fraction of its true value. In 2005, Abramovich sold it back to the state for $13.1bn.

What about Berezovsky’s share?
That became the subject of the largest private court case in British history. In 2011, Berezovsky sued Abramovich for £3bn, serving his former business partner with legal papers in Hermès on Sloane Street. Berezovsky alleged that Abramovich had bullied him out of his 50% stake in Sibneft in 2000, when Berezovsky had to flee Russia after falling out with Putin. Abramovich maintained that he always owned the whole thing, and that he hired Berezovsky merely as krysha, mafia slang for “protection”. The judge ruled against Berezovsky, who soon fell into a deep depression. In 2013, he was found dead, apparently by hanging, in his Berkshire mansion. Friends suspected foul play and the coroner refused to rule out murder.

When did Abramovich buy Chelsea?
In 2003, for the princely sum of £140m (it’s now reportedly worth at least 10 times that). He poured money into the club, leading the former Arsenal co-owner David Dein to complain: “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.” In her book Putin’s People, the journalist Catherine Belton quotes a source that alleges Putin personally directed Roman Abramovich to buy Chelsea as a way of bolstering Russia’s image in the West. Abramovich strongly denies this unsubstantiated claim and took Belton to court over it.

What else did he spend his money on?
About £200m in property in “Londongrad”, as Britain’s rouble-soaked capital is nicknamed. He also has a £28m 19th-century villa in the south of France, and more plush pads in America, the Caribbean and Israel. Celebrities like Kanye West, Orlando Bloom and George Lucas have attended his multimillion-pound New Year’s Eve parties. Abramovich is particularly known for his two huge yachts: the £430m Solaris boasts 48 cabins, a gym, a sauna, and bulletproof windows; the 533ft Eclipse, which cost a reported $1bn to build, includes its own nightclub. But for all that, when once asked where he regarded as home, Abramovich replied: “I live on a plane.” Handily, he owns several, including a £264m Boeing 787 thought to be the world’s most expensive private jet.

Any children?
Seven – five from his second wife Irina, a former air stewardess, and two from his third, the art collector Dasha Zhukova. His third-oldest child, 26-year-old showjumper Sofia, was one of the few oligarch-linked Russians to criticise Putin after the invasion. She shared an Instagram post saying that “the biggest and most successful lie of [the] Kremlin’s propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin”. Abramovich himself, caught between Russia and the West, can’t afford to be so punchy – though he could flee to Israel, where he holds citizenship. Given he has pumped about $500m into Jewish and Israeli charities, the country probably wouldn’t extradite him. Whatever happens, the oligarch’s tough orphan upbringing means he’s unlikely to be fazed by losing chunks of his vast wealth.