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Oleg Deripaska (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Oleg Deripaska (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

At home with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska Add to ...

Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire who is said to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's favourite industrialist, has gone unshaven for at least three days. He is in grey training pants, a white T-shirt and a dark blue fleece. His nine-year-old son Peter and the family's Labrador retriever, Leo, scurry about. It is 10:30 at night and Mr. Deripaska is relaxed, that is, as relaxed as anyone with 240,000 employees, a empire that nearly collapsed two years ago and a frisky dog trying to drag the table cloth (and all the plates with it) onto the floor can be.

We are in the Deripaska family chalet about 20 kilometres outside of Moscow. A small ski hill next to the chalet is floodlit, exposing a few of the security guards who are an eternal presence in his life. Mr. Deripaska flops onto one of the cushy, low-slung chairs, orders tea from the kitchen staff and invites me to call him Oleg.

The bookshelves are laden with classic Russian novels and books on modern Japanese design - Mr. Deripaska loves Tokyo. Peter, who speaks English with a British accent (he and his sister share a British nanny) is showing us how Leo can dance on his hind legs. His father laughs. "Very intelligent dogs, Labradors," he says.

The modern chalet is big but not ostentatious. "I am not in Aspen, I live in Moscow," he says in an English that has improved markedly since I last interviewed him in his Moscow office in early 2008. Less than a year later, he was fighting for survival as the financial crisis shredded the value of his holdings.

Exactly how Mr. Deripaska managed to save Rusal - the aluminum company that was the main source of his wealth - and other investments, is still a matter of debate. Certainly he won a standoff with foreign creditors, but some think he would be dead and buried without a little help from his Kremlin friends, who evidently had no desire to see his investments seized by non-Russians. When his fortunes turned desperate in the bleakest months of the crisis, Mr. Deripaska's long-standing record of plowing his fortunes back into Russia, no doubt helped his cause; some of his fellow oligarchs chose instead to acquire overseas trophy assets like American and British sports teams.

Because he knows I am Canadian, he tells me how Peter has developed a passion for Canadian maple syrup. I wonder where he gets the stuff and before I can ask, he explains that his son was given a load of syrup by Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk. The booty formed part of the cargo of Mr. Munk's yacht and was transferred to the Deripaskas' in Montenegro, where the two billionaires are developing a superyacht marina. As it turns out, maple syrup is not the only bit of Canadiana on Mr. Deripaska's mind. Two others are the Vancouver Olympics and Hydro-Québec.

Mr. Deripaska visited Vancouver (and attended the Russia-Canada hockey playoff) to get ideas for his developments at Sochi, the southern Russian town that will host the 2014 winter Olympics. Hydro-Québec might hold the key to his global hydroelectric ambitions. He told me he leaves Sunday for Montreal to discuss a possible partnership. "They have knowledge and expertise," he says. "We're looking for a partner to build new hydro plants."

Winning the aluminum crown

The dining table is covered with cakes and fresh fruit that are rare treats in frozen Russia: Pomegranates, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, oranges and small, sweet apples that were grown on Mr. Deripaska's farm. I wolf down a pork chop and fried potatoes and sip on Scotch. He sticks with tea, ignores the fruit and half-heartedly tackles a piece of cake.

Mr. Deripaska is 43, tall, slim and in good shape, thanks, apparently, to a careful diet and sporadic, though vigorous, bouts of cross-country skiing. With his stubble beard and close-cropped hair, he looks more like one of his security guards than the owner of Russia's most diversified industrial group, Basic Element, whose holdings range from uranium mines to Gaz, the car and truck maker that recently struck a deal with General Motors to produce small Chevrolets in Russia. There are more than 100 other companies in the empire, almost all of them private, in a bewildering array of industries. They include hotels, airports, defence and banks. Mr. Deripaska has a business that makes log cabins and another that publishes the Russian edition of Hello! magazine. Last year, the group's total revenues (unaudited) were $24.2-billion (U.S.).

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