A Real Page Turner

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Celina Lafuente De Lavotha   Contributor

Malkin

Photo: Karen Assayag 

He coufounded one of Russia's biggest private banks, sat in the upper house for nearly a decade and launched an ambitious charity in Ethiopia. Now Monaco resident Vitaly Malkin takes on the role of published author. You might not like what the billionaire philosopher has to say. And that's just fine by him. 

“I strive to live in the present, convinced that the past no longer exists and the future is just an illusion. My zest for life and pleasure is an inherent human right."

In June 2018, passengers on the London underground stared at scads of posters for Dangerous Illusions, a book that claimed to ask “the most important question of our time.” But the more puzzling question became who was the author Vitaly Malkin?

I first meet the Russian writer at a boardroom in the imposing Tour Odeon, Monaco’s tallest high-rise, where he is resident. The billionaire oligarch, ranked 1062 on Forbes Billionaires 2008, tells me that Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us Of Happiness is in fact the first in a trilogy, which comes as no surprise considering the illimitable reference in his foreword—“this is a call to arms.”

“Writing this book has never been about personal vanity,” he says. “I wanted it to be anonymous but my publicist changed my mind, saying without my name nobody would buy it.”

And what a name he has. The 67-year-old cofounded Rossiysky Kredit, at one point Russia’s third largest private bank and held a seat as a senator for nearly a decade in the Federation Council.

Born in Pervouralsk, in the Ural Moun- tains, on September 16, 1952, Vitaly Borisovich Malkin describes his younger self as a quiet homebody who by age 15 developed a sense of restlessness that has never left him.

His father, “a staunch communist” until the arrival of the Perestroika movement in the Eighties, was deputy director of a large industrial enterprise (a title that outweighed its annual salary) who spent long hours tinkering in his garage, and reading only newspapers. Mom, on the other hand, held a Ph.D in Medicine, and he grew up surrounded by her passion for books, some 4,000 titles lining the shelves in her library.

Having witnessed the conditions that lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the growing unrest of the nation, Malkin admits that, as a young boy, his disdain for the ideologies of Lenin, Stalin and Marx helped forge his values of liberty, independence and emancipation, which he holds to this today. “I learned to stand firmly on my own beliefs and conclusions,” and adds he doesn’t seek validation of his ideas.

He followed his dream of becoming a scientist, graduating with honors from Ural Polytechnic University and earning a Ph.D in Physics from Moscow State University of Railway Engineering in 1983. Malkin worked as a researcher in Moscow until 1989.

In the early Eighties, he met and developed a friendship with Bidzina Ivanishvili (No 365 Forbes Billionaires 2019), who would go on to become the Prime Minster of Georgia from October 2012 to November 2013, and the two partnered to launch a private bank, Rossiysky Kredit (Russian Credit), in 1990, just as the Russian economy was speeding down the road towards free-market capitalism.

By 1997, it was the third largest private bank in the country. The following year it was converted into a joint stock company, but, along with the majority of Russian banks, it took a hit from the 1998 financial crisis and became insolvent, and it was taken over by the state-backed Agency for Restructuring Credit Organizations.

In 2004, having left Rossiysky Kredit, Malkin was appointed by President Putin as senator in the Upper House of the Federal Assembly of Russia, representing Buryatia, a region bordering Mongolia, where he was at the time the largest taxpayer despite residing in Moscow.

He stepped down from his position as senator in 2013 after being accused of being “an Israeli citizen in the capacity of the senator,” according to the Russian state news agency Itar-Tass. He acquired Israeli citizenship in 2004 but proved, based on official documents, that he was not in possession of this nationality during his last term.

Putting his political career behind him, Malkin decided to experience life in Europe and for the past eight years has divided his time between the Principality and Paris, with his wife and three small children (he also three children from a previous marriage).

Behind the business deals and political debates, Malkin has long been committed to philanthropy and humanitarian actions. Back in his senator days, in order to support political efforts to improve the socio-economic situation in Buryatia, he created the Foundation Era, which implemented a series of philanthropic projects. With a budget of 65 million rubles ($2.3 million in 2006), it contributed to the construction of a new stadium, two theaters, and offered scholarships to gifted children, among other projects.

“As a meritocrat, I am convinced that we must rescue talented, intelligent kids from the system’s oblivion.”

 

A new chapter in his philanthropic career opened ten years ago, when, on a family trip to Egypt, he learned that an estimated 90% of women living in the affluent Cairo area had been circumcised, more commonly known as female genital cutting (FGC), the ceremonious cutting of all or part of the clitoris and labia, often performed around puberty.

“I discovered the hidden reality of the seemingly normal secular society where women rarely wore a hijab outdoors. Egyptian girls seemed completely modern but when I knew the majority had been excised, I understood how our perception of the surrounding reality is limited and far from the truth,” Malkin describes.

FGC was criminalized in Egypt in 2016, but more than 200 million girls and women from 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are victims of the act.

In 2014, Malkin became very involved with a 5-year program with UNICEF training local doctors to educate their patients, and treat victims of FGM in Ethiopia through the Espoir Foundation. This ambitious project paved the way to hire the first ever gynecologists to practice in the Afar and Somali regions of Ethiopia, and launch new positive dynamics of work with local communities and their religious leaders.

Malkin is clear that “he’s never been and never will be a distant benefactor. My investment should have the biggest impact possible.” As he explains, “From day one of our partnership, I’ve been involved in the development of our plan of actions. It was important that we adopt the correct and efficient work prac- tices that I learned from my own business experiences—the money I invested in this project must have an important Return On Investment in terms of eradicating FGM.”

Never one to shy away from opportunity, Malkin’s societal impact did not end with his philanthropic projects. In 2011, the Russian could no longer withstand the hypocrisy and impenetrable respect for “so-called religious values,” which he saw causing harm to societies across the globe in the most awful ways. He began researching human sciences, religion, and history. His findings ended up filling 400 pages in the book Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Denies Us Of Happiness, published in English by Arcadia in June 2018, as well as in 6 other European languages.

His says his main objective was to launch a public debate on the dangers of religious chimera to help people emancipate themselves from harmful illusions and become happier in their lives.

“Writing a book for me has always been about sharing my knowledge with others and helping them, I hope, to improve their lives. It was the same philosophy I used with my humanitarian actions in Buryatia and Ethiopia.”

His spectacular book launch was at the legendary Crazy Horse in Paris. (What else would you expect from a man that once rented an entire perched village 50 kilometers from Monaco for a private party?)

Today, Malkin, assisted by a group of researchers and specialists, is working on new editorial projects which he believes can push forward his emancipation agenda and create more sexual, political and economic liberty.

He sees his mission to tell the uncomfortable truth about sex and power, colonialism, and even the migration crises. If you’re looking for political correctness, read a different book. 

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Celina Lafuente De Lavotha   Contributor