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The Globe and Mail’s interview with Dmitry Firtash in Vienna included a bodyguard, lawyer and various PR officials. (HERWIG PRAMMER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The Globe and Mail’s interview with Dmitry Firtash in Vienna included a bodyguard, lawyer and various PR officials. (HERWIG PRAMMER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The rise and fall of Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash Add to ...

She did more than that. She once accused him of being in a secret partnership with the notorious Ukrainian-born, Russian mobster Semion Mogilevich, who is on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list. Ripped-off Canadian investors will remember him as the dark force behind the Toronto Stock Exchange’s YBM Magnex, which claimed to make magnets and did not, earning him, in 2003, a pile of U.S. Justice Department indictments for fraud, racketeering, money laundering and other forms of misbehaviour.

The evolution of a trader

Mr. Firtash has seen happier days. He may still be a billionaire but he stands to lose it all if he goes to trial in the United States, and he can’t count on his vanishing cohort of allies in Ukraine, among them Mr. Yanukovych, to provide him with cover. “Firtash is a man with a dreadful reputation,” said Taras Berezovets, a political analyst who runs the Kiev think tank Politech. “He is known as the man who supported the regime of Yanukovych.”

Dmitry Firtash does not travel light. The cast of characters in support of his interview with The Globe and Mail, held at the offices of a Vienna communications firm, included a bodyguard; his lawyer; a London PR man flown in for the occasion; the Kiev communications man for Group DF, the umbrella company for his Ukrainian and international businesses; the head of Inter Media Group, his TV company in Ukraine; and Robert Shetler-Jones, the Briton who was chief executive officer of Group DF until 2012 and is now its deputy chairman.

Fluent in Russian, Mr. Shetler-Jones acted as Mr. Firtash’s interpreter during the meeting. Not present, except by phone to clear up a misunderstanding about the conditions of the interview, was Lord Tim Bell, the London PR guru who helped to steer Margaret Thatcher to three general election victories. Evidently, Mr. Firtash still has a lot of money to spend.

Mr. Firtash is tall, slim and well groomed, with salt and pepper hair and a carefully manicured beard of maybe five days’ growth. He wore a light blue shirt – no tie – light blue blazer and grey pants of obvious high quality.

For a man of such power and formidable reputation, his voice is surprisingly soft. He spoke at a measured pace and liked to answer his own questions. “Why did this happen? Let me explain …” he would say. He has three children, one from his first wife, two from his second and current wife, Lada, who is chairman of the Firtash Foundation, which runs the family charities. They are – or at least were until his arrest – regulars in the London social scene and own a house near Harrod’s, in Knightsbridge, complete with underground pool.

Mr. Firtash’s rise to the top of Ukraine’s oligarch heap is remarkable when you consider he came from nothing, admits he was an academic underachiever and didn’t get his big break as a gas trader until fairly late in his career. But he took outsized risks that occasionally paid off, had an instinct for business and was skilled at forming relationships. “I always had a feeling about people,” he said.

Mr. Firtash was born in the town of Sinkiv, in western Ukraine (the largely non-Russian-speaking part of the country). The son of a truck driver and an accountant who worked in a sugar refinery, young Dmitry was expected to do what other Soviet-era boys did, which was to attend the schools assigned to them, join the military and then work in a collective farm or hellish factory. The only unusual feature of his youth was his work in the family greenhouse, a sort of off-the-books operation that brought in a few extra kopecks and gave Dmitry an early taste for business.

He attended Krasnolimansk Railway Vocational School and learned how to drive steam trains. “I was middling in my abilities at school,” he said. “When I tell people I was a train driver, they laugh. I know how to throw coal into a boiler.”

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