In the January 20th issue of the New Yorker, Connie Bruck profiled Jewish businessman Leonard Blavatnik in a piece titled, “The Billionaire’s Playlist: How an oligarch got into the American music business.”
In September, 2010, Andrew Hamilton, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, stood before a crowd of dignitaries and announced, “Leonard Blavatnik is a man who has truly lived the American Dream.” Hamilton was presiding over a ceremony to launch the new Blavatnik School of Government, and to celebrate its namesake, who had pledged a hundred and seventeen million dollars to finance its construction. Hamilton’s speech gave the barest elements of an up-by-the-bootstraps story: Columbia University, Harvard Business School, the founding of a “highly successful industrial group.” He didn’t mention that Blavatnik, who was born in Ukraine, had made his fortune in the tumultuous privatization of aluminum and oil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Blavatnik now lives mostly in London and New York, and his public-relations people strenuously object when he is called an oligarch. In a press release, Oxford described his gift as “one of the most generous in the University’s 900-year history” and dutifully referred to him as an “American industrialist and philanthropist.”
Blavatnik’s most audacious acquisition is a company: Warner Music, which he bought, in 2011, for $3.3 billion. Associates say he liked the idea of owning a firm that was both quintessentially American and known worldwide. One of them told me, “Len doesn’t love music—he loves what it can do for him socially.” When Blavatnik took over Warner Music, executives suggested that he visit the company’s offices around the world, to reassure employees that he would be a good owner. But the employees were dismayed by Blavatnik’s taste in music, which runs to Leonard Cohen and Theodore Bikel, who portrayed Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” They also were disturbed by his life style.
Leonid Valentinovich Blavatnik was born in 1957 in Odessa. After Blavatnick got rich, he bought a hundred-and-sixty-four-foot yacht and named it Odessa. “Blavatnik talked about what it was like to be this little Jewish kid, walking around with a violin case in this provincial Russian city—which I gather wasn’t a completely pleasant experience,” Blair Ruble, a former director of the Kennan Institute, in Washington, D.C., recalled. Jews were generally kept out of the best schools; when Blavatnik reached college age, he studied at the Moscow Institute of Transport Engineers, the the Department of Automation and Computer Engineering.
In the late nineteen-seventies, the Soviet Union began allowing Jewish to emigrate and many of them came to the United States. In 1978, when Blavatnik was twenty-one, he and his family arrived in Brooklyn, and he began trying to make money, in the ways that were appealing to a smart immigrant at that time. Blavatnik began raising money—perhaps from Russian Jews in Brooklyn, one associate says. According to his friends’ estimates, he returned to Russia with between fifty thousand and half a million dollars. He was persistent; he stood outside the Vladimir Tractor Works, buying stock vouchers that had been distributed to employees, and eventually got control of the company.