Back in the 1990s, Boris Birshtein introduced some Canadian businessmen to Vladimir Putin, then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Almost a quarter-century later, Mr. Birshtein’s son-in-law, Alex Shnaider, became the business partner of Donald Trump on a downtown Toronto hotel.
In between, Mr. Birshtein met with a checkered cast of world leaders, spies and mafia dons.
The question that lingers, even now: Who, besides himself, did Mr. Birshtein represent at those meetings? Was he an asset of the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, as diplomats I spoke to were convinced? Was he associated with the Russian mafia, as police forces in Canada, the United States and Europe believed? Or was he more of a Forrest Gump character, just a businessman with incredible luck and timing?
Here’s a short list of some of the connections Mr. Birshtein developed during his long career in the shadows of international events.
Seabeco: Boris Birshtein’s company, and the centre of his network. Though it exists only on paper now, Seabeco made a reported US$500-million a year in the 1990s. It did so primarily by buying up raw materials produced in the former USSR, and then selling them abroad at inflated prices. Mr. Birshtein and Seabeco also played guide and partner to big Canadian firms – including Molson, Gillette and Magna International – as they entered the ex-Soviet market.
Vladimir Putin: A Winnipeg firm hoping to build a hotel in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s was told it needed to work with Seabeco. When construction of the hotel came to a halt due to a shortage of gravel, Mr. Birshtein introduced the Canadians to the deputy mayor of the city – a young Vladimir Putin – who solved the crisis. Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, later travelled to Canada on an under-the-radar trip that saw him visit Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls.
Boris Yeltsin: In his memoirs, Russia’s first president describes being tricked into meeting Mr. Birshtein by his own security minister. The president and the businessman didn’t get along, and Mr. Yeltsin later accused Mr. Birshtein of providing financial support to a failed 1993 bid to oust him from power. Nearly 200 people were killed after Mr. Yeltsin deployed the army to end the uprising.
Alex Shnaider: Mr. Birshtein’s son-in-law and a former Seabeco employee. Mr. Shnaider became a billionaire largely via a series of deals in eastern Ukraine that occurred while Mr. Birshtein wielded wide influence over the government of president Leonid Kuchma. Later, Mr. Shnaider emerged as Donald Trump’s business partner at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto. Mr. Shnaider, who is now divorced from Mr. Birshtein’s daughter, says his former father-in-law played no role in his success.
Midland Resources: A company co-owned by Mr. Shnaider, and that often seemed to co-operate with the Russian state. A series of transactions saw Midland acquire a steel mill in eastern Ukraine for a reported US$70-million in 2000, then sell it a decade later for US$850-million to a group of shell companies controlled by Russia’s state-owned VEB bank (which was then chaired by Mr. Putin). Mr. Shnaider’s lawyer said some of the money from the mill sale helped finance the construction of Trump Toronto, though he later tried to retract the remark.
The Central Asians: Mr. Shnaider isn’t the only ex-Seabeco employee who wound up as a business partner of Donald Trump. Two of Kazakhstan’s most powerful businessmen, Patokh Chodiev and Alexander Mashkevich, met while working for Seabeco’s Belgium office. Mr. Chodiev and Mr. Mashkevich are connected to Mr. Trump by way of their investment in the Bayrock Group, which led the construction of Trump SoHo in New York and fronted the unsuccessful push for a Trump tower in Moscow.
Semion Mogilevich: Seen as the most powerful figure in Russian organized crime. A leaked FBI report suggests that Mr. Mogilevich attended a summit of Russian mafia bosses hosted in an office Mr. Birshtein kept in Tel Aviv, and at which Mr. Birshtein was present.
Sergei Mikhailov: The head of the notorious Solntsevskaya mafia, Mr. Mikhailov also attended the Tel Aviv summit. Mr. Birshtein’s son, Alon, says he met Mr. Mikhailov at his family home while the Birshteins were living in Switzerland.
Dmitry Yakubovski: An alleged KGB officer who worked for Seabeco in Canada, Mr. Yakubovski fell on the opposite side of Mr. Birshtein in the 1993 effort to oust Boris Yeltsin from power. Amid the fighting in Moscow, three shots were fired into Mr. Yakubovski’s house on Toronto’s Bridle Path. Mr. Yakubovski, now a lawyer in Moscow, left the country soon afterward.