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As wartime sanctions punish Putin’s allies, a businessman who used to list his birthplace as St. Petersburg says he should ‘not be punished for something that is not true’

He was Canada’s most famous oligarch, the Russian-Canadian who brought a Trump Tower to downtown Toronto and Formula-1 racing to Red Square in Moscow.

Except, Alex Shnaider now says, a crucial part of that story was never true. He wasn’t Russian, even though his Canadian passport listed his birthplace as St. Petersburg. He was always, he now wants it to be known, Ukrainian.

For decades, as Mr. Shnaider and his business interests weaved in and out of the limelight, the tycoon was content to be called Russian-born, as well as one of Canada’s richest people. He was widely described as a “Russian-Canadian oligarch” as he clutched a golden shovel alongside Donald Trump in 2004 at the sod-turning for the future Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto, in which Mr. Shnaider was the primary investor.

Before he became involved with Mr. Trump, Mr. Shnaider made his fortune in the Eastern European steel-trading business, a murky world where it helped to have, or at least to imply you had, tight connections to Moscow.

Mr. Shnaider referred to himself as Russian in media interviews, and made a splash of launching his newly acquired Formula-1 team in front of the Kremlin walls in 2005, saying he wanted to give racing “a distinct Russian flavour.”

It’s far less convenient now for people to drape themselves in the Russian flag, about 21 months after President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Shnaider says being called Russian made it increasingly difficult for him to do business, or even just his banking, as Western governments scrutinized people, companies and transactions they suspected might somehow be linked to the Kremlin.

In August of last year – sitting on the tarmac of Belgrade airport while police at his destination in France demanded extra security checks before letting his private jet take off – Mr. Shnaider decided it was time to correct his origin story.

The French police, he believes, were giving him extra scrutiny because his passport said he had been born in St. Petersburg. That, he says now, was the result of a mistake that was made when he first arrived in Canada with his family at the age of 13.

Now 55, Mr. Shnaider’s new Canadian passport, issued in February of this year, lists his birthplace as Chernivtsi, a small and elegant city in the far west of Ukraine.

“I suffered discrimination because people mistakenly believed I was Russian. I want to set the record straight and not be punished for something that is not true,” Mr. Shnaider said in his first lengthy media interview in more than 15 years.

Alex Shnaider’s passports from March, 2004, and February, 2023, list his birthplaces as St. Petersburg and Chernivtsi, Ukraine, respectively. Identifying information has been obscured to protect confidentiality.

Speaking to The Globe in the boardroom of his lawyer’s office in Toronto in late August, he said he decided to go through the effort of formally changing his place of birth “because I strongly condemn Putin’s actions and unequivocally support Ukraine.” However, he said, it was wrong to blame all Russians for the Kremlin’s war, pointing out that more than a million Russians have left the country since the war started, and that “some of those who have stayed have ended up in prison.”

After the invasion began, Western governments began hunting in earnest for the Kremlin’s offshore “wallets” – companies and individuals outside Russia that were in fact doing Moscow’s bidding with their money. Those deemed to be acting on behalf of the Kremlin were hit with sanctions and travel bans.

Mr. Shnaider, who has not been added to any sanctions lists, is used to such scrutiny. He and the Trump Toronto project became the focus of media reports (including in The Globe and Mail) and U.S. congressional hearings investigating Mr. Trump’s alleged connections to Russian money and to Moscow while Mr. Trump was in the White House.

The Trump Toronto project, already a spectacular business failure, became a public relations nightmare. Mr. Shnaider, once comfortable with publicity – he used to give journalists tours of his former mansion on Toronto’s Bridle Path, and posed for photographs aboard his private jet – turned into a something of a recluse, only communicating with journalists via his lawyers. He dismisses the media frenzy around the Trump-Russia connections as having been “fed in part by never-proven conspiracy theories.”

Mr. Shnaider says he has “regrets” about the way his management team, Talon International Inc., handled the Trump Toronto project. Talon, which is now in receivership, ended up paying $5.75-million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by investors seeking to recoup their down payments on suites in the 65-storey tower, which was plagued by poor sales and construction delays from the start.

Mr. Shnaider said he has a non-disparagement agreement in place with Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization that prevents him from saying anything more about his dealings with the former U.S. president, who licensed his name to the project before going into politics. Talon sold the property in 2017. The building at the corner of Bay and Adelaide streets downtown has since been rebranded as a St. Regis hotel.

In 2012, Mr. Shnaider, left, cuts a ribbon with Donald Trump and his children Ivanka and Donald Jr. at the Trump International Hotel in Toronto. Five years later, workers remove the ‘Trump’ sign from the hotel, which now operates under the St. Regis brand. Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail; Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

Mr. Shnaider and his businesses were only starting to emerge from that reputational disaster when Mr. Putin launched his assault on Ukraine.

Last February, a few weeks before the first anniversary of the invasion, Mr. Shnaider’s long-time lawyer Symon Zucker sent a letter to The Globe and Mail containing what seemed to be an astonishing claim: It was incorrect, Mr. Zucker wrote, to describe Mr. Shnaider as Russian, as The Globe, Toronto Star, Financial Times, Forbes magazine and other media organizations had been doing for the previous two decades.

Mr. Zucker attached a copy of what he said was Mr. Shnaider’s birth certificate, which stated that his client was born in Chernivtsi, a city near Ukraine’s border with Romania. The document was issued in August, 2022.

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A Ukrainian document lists Shnaider’s birthplace as Chernivtsi.

In a subsequent e-mail to The Globe, Mr. Shnaider provided documents that show he gave “Chernovits, USSR,” – a Russian spelling of Chernivtsi – as his place of birth on the immigration card he filled out on his initial arrival to Canada in 1985. On the same immigration card, his father’s place of birth is named as Leningrad (the Soviet name for St. Petersburg), and an apparent clerical error recorded Mr. Shnaider as also having been born in Russia’s second-largest city. The documents were apparently enough for Passport Canada to issue Mr. Shnaider a new passport, with the place of birth amended to Chernivtsi.

The oft-repeated story had been that Mr. Shnaider moved from Russia to Israel when he was four years old, and from there to Toronto, where he worked in his parents’ deli before he headed to Europe to make his fortune that in various years has been estimated at between US$1.4-billion and US$1.8-billion.

His updated story, The Globe learned by travelling to Chernivtsi, is supported by the hand-written lists of all the newborn babies registered there in 1968. The lists are kept in a thick and worn burgundy book in the busy records office of a city that was once one of the westernmost points in the USSR. There is a handwritten page in the book that matches the computerized record that Mr. Shnaider asked for a copy of in 2022.

“He’s technically Ukrainian,” says Nataliya Stashevska, the director of the records office in Chernivtsi. But she noted that Mr. Shnaider’s parents, Yevsey and Fela, who did live in Chernivtsi for a time, were registered as attending university in Leningrad in 1968, meaning their son could have been born at a hospital there, but officially registered while they were home in Chernivtsi.

Mr. Shnaider acknowledged that his parents went back and forth between Leningrad and Western Ukraine. “I was born in Chernivtsi and as a small child followed my parents as they moved back and forth between both cities. I would sometimes be with my grandparents who lived full time in Chernivtsi. My parents moved to Ukraine and lived there before emigrating to Israel in 1972 when I was four years old,” he said.

Mr. Shnaider’s decision to publicly correct his backstory was made as Ukrainian officials were investigating a series of transactions around the Zaporizhstal steel mill in eastern Ukraine, transactions that gave Mr. Shnaider much of his initial wealth. Kyiv believes the series of deals, which unfolded over several years, benefited the Russian government.

On May 12, Ukraine imposed sanctions on 41 companies and individuals involved in Zaporizhstal – including Midland Capital Management LLC, a company that Mr. Shnaider and his then-business partner Eduard Shyfrin used to acquire the steel mill for a reported US$70-million in 2001 and sell it a decade later at a massive profit. The latter US$850-million deal put Zaporizhstal into the hands of a group of five shell companies backed by Russia’s VEB bank, which was chaired at the time by Mr. Putin. VEB has been under Western sanctions since the start of last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Neither Mr. Shnaider nor any of his current companies were targeted by the Ukrainian sanctions. “I have had nothing to do with this company since it was sold 13 years ago,” Mr. Shnaider said, referring to Midland Capital. Back in 2010, he added, there were no sanctions prohibiting anyone from doing business with VEB. “It was just a bank,” Mr. Shnaider said, adding that it was the buyers who chose to use VEB for the sale.

An employee works at the Zaporizhstal steel mill in Ukraine this past October. Mr. Shnaider and a business partner once owned the mill; then, it went to a group of shell companies backed by VEB bank, whose Moscow office building is shown in 2015. Oleksandr Ratushniak and Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

In addition to the documents sent to The Globe, Mr. Shnaider’s backstory has changed online too. On March 8, a user named “Sergeyisbestchess” altered the place of birth on Mr. Shnaider’s Wikipedia entry to Chernivtsi, after 18 years of it reading St. Petersburg. The same change was made on the page of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario, which described Mr. Shnaider as being born in St. Petersburg during the 13 years he was president of the organization.

While Mr. Shnaider casts his decision to distance himself from his previous Russian identity as being driven by his opposition to Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, some of his former business partners – several of whom are locked in legal battles with Mr. Shnaider – see it as a ploy to avoid being sanctioned.

One of those involved in a prolonged court fight with Mr. Shnaider is Michael Shtaif, a Russian-Canadian oil executive who in 2014 was ordered to pay US$60-million to Mr. Shnaider and Midland for engaging in what an Ontario Superior Court judge called an “unlawful conspiracy” to lure Mr. Shnaider into investing in a Siberian oil venture. Mr. Shtaif has been appealing the judgment ever since, accusing Mr. Shnaider and Mr. Shyfrin of committing perjury in the original proceeding.

Mr. Shtaif’s latest court claim makes sweeping but unproven accusations regarding Mr. Shnaider’s supposed ties to the Kremlin. Among the more startling pieces of evidence attached to Mr. Shtaif’s 2022 motion to set aside the 2014 judgment is a photograph of Mr. Shnaider clutching fists and smiling as he sits on a red couch with Adam Delimkhanov, a top lieutenant of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who is in turn a key ally of Mr. Putin’s. Mr. Delimkhanov commands a militia of fighters loyal to Mr. Kadyrov that last year played a front-line role in the siege that resulted the destruction of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

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Mr. Shnaider holds hands with Adam Delimkhanov, a major ally of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

Mr. Shnaider told The Globe that he had only met Mr. Delimkhanov once and otherwise had no business or personal connections to the Chechen. “I believe that photo was taken in Dubai at a function where we had both been invited as guests. I have never seen him before or since.”

He dismissed the broader accusation of Kremlin ties, saying Mr. Shtaif’s claims had “already been proven to be baseless in numerous judgments by the Canadian judicial system.” Mr. Shtaif told The Globe that he would answer Mr. Shnaider via the courts, rather than in the media.

Questions have long lingered over how Mr. Shnaider initially made his fortune in the 1990s. His former partner, Mr. Shyfrin – after a separate falling-out with Mr. Shnaider – alleged in a 2016 court filing that “Mr. Shnaider was given control of a steel trading business by his father-in-law, Boris Birshtein” and that “Mr. Shnaider knew little about steel trading at the time.” It’s an account that Mr. Shnaider vehemently disputes.

The 75-year-old Mr. Birshtein, a Lithuanian-Canadian who also immigrated to Canada via Israel in the early 1980s, was described in a 2007 report by the Swiss Federal Police as “an ex-KGB officer” who “still maintains his contacts with Russian and Israeli security services.” A separate 1996 FBI report, leaked online, identified Mr. Birshtein as the host of a “summit of Russian organized crime figures” the previous year at which the mafia bosses discussed “the sharing of interests in Ukraine.”

No changes have ever been filed against Mr. Birshtein, and his lawyer told The Globe in 2018 that the allegations against his client were “patently false” and “maliciously defamatory.”

Mr. Shnaider has long maintained that he fell out with Mr. Birshtein in the early 2000s – the father of his ex-wife Simona – and that he played no role in the acquisition of Zaporizhstal, or Mr. Shnaider’s subsequent business successes. He describes his former father-in-law as simply a charismatic businessman “who was at the right place at the right time,” rather than someone with ties to the KGB or the mafia.

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Mr. Shnaider attends a function in Woodbridge, Ont., in 2008 with his then wife, Simona, who is Boris Birshstein’s daughter.Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail

But there were other times when the business activities of the Midland companies seemed to intersect with Kremlin interests.

From 2004 to 2007, Midland Group also owned the Red October steel factory in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. Midland sold the property, which is now filling contracts to produce parts for Russian tanks and submarines, to Rosoboronexport, the export arm of Russia’s weapons-making industry. Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper reported at the time that Mr. Shnaider and Mr. Shyfrin had sold Red October at roughly US$100-million below its estimated value, in exchange for retaining a 25-per-cent stake, as well as the right to export the factory’s products.

Mr. Shnaider says there was never any partnership with Rosoboronexport, and that Midland had to write off its remaining 25 per cent stake in Red October after the factory went bankrupt under its new management.

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Cypriot corporate records list the background of Ermira Consultants Ltd., sometimes described as a 'wallet' of Vladimir Putin.

More recently, Proekt Media – an independent Russian outlet now forced to publish from exile – reported that a Cyprus-registered company called Ermira Consulants was the personal “wallet” for Mr. Putin, involved in everything from helping build the Russian President’s palatial $1-billion residence on the Black Sea to holding the estimated US$500-million in profits from the sale of the Putinka vodka named after him.

Company records retrieved by The Globe show that Ermira Consultants was initially founded in 2003 by Zoulian Ltd., another Cyprus-registered shell company that Mr. Shtaif states in his Ontario Superior Court of Justice claim was beneficially owned by his former business partners, Mr. Shnaider and Mr. Shyfrin.

Mr. Shnaider acknowledged a “service relationship” with Zoulian – “they provided services to hundreds of businesses like ours” – but he says he is not an owner of Zoulian, and has no connection at all to Ermira Consultants. He said Mr. Shtaif’s claims had “already been proven to be baseless in numerous judgments by the Canadian judicial system” and provided The Globe with a letter from Kinanis LLC, a Cypriot law firm that stated that it – not Mr. Shnaider or Mr. Shyfrin – was the beneficial owner of Zoulian and that it would “constitute a libel and slander” to connect Zoulian to Mr. Putin.

Mr. Shnaider says that – frustrated by “out-of-control corruption, organized crime, intimidation, and attempts by sophisticated scam artists with ties to the Kremlin and/or the Russian security apparatus to gain control of assets illegally” – he withdrew from the Russian market in 2011 and hasn’t visited the country since.

He says he stopped doing business in Ukraine at the same time and has now left the steel business where he made his fortune behind. “No trading. No operations. I’m just an investor.” He lives between Toronto, Miami and London.

Asked whether he was still a billionaire, Mr. Shnaider said he didn’t want to publicly estimate his wealth. He said he doesn’t like being called an oligarch anymore, since the term has taken on negative connotations.

Mr. Shnaider says he has been a victim of what he calls “Russophobia” – a phenomenon the Kremlin says is rampant in Europe and North America, but which many academics view as a polemical device used to convince Russians that they are facing an existential threat and need to rally around Mr. Putin.

“Yes, Russophobia is real. I was the victim of it in Europe,” he said. “I felt myself what it is, and I have a Canadian passport. Can you imagine if it’s a Russian that doesn’t agree with Putin? How they feel? What treatment they’re getting? It’s unfair.”

Ukrainian isn’t the only new identity Mr. Shnaider has taken on. Last year, he was named the new honorary consul to Miami for the Caribbean Island of Grenada, a post he says came with a Grenadian diplomatic passport, after a background check conducted by the U.S. State Department.

Mr. Shnaider says he was seen as “a good fit” for the post because of his “strong professional and personal network in Grenada.” The diplomatic job came with arguably another benefit – he can avoid answering questions about Mr. Trump’s latest presidential bid because his post “precludes me from commenting on U.S. politics.”

The Grenadian Foreign Ministry did not reply to e-mailed questions from The Globe regarding Mr. Shnaider’s appointment.

Back in Chernivtsi, the local Jewish community is hoping that Mr. Shnaider’s decision to embrace his roots will result in some of his fortune trickling down their way. “He has not provided any help to our synagogue,” Mendy Glitzenshtein, the city’s rabbi, said when The Globe visited in the spring. “But maybe now he’ll start,” he added with a laugh.

Mr. Shnaider said he had indeed begun to support the work of Rabbi Glitzenshtein’s synagogue since The Globe’s visit, donating funds to help pay for this year’s Passover feast in Chernivtsi. The synagogue has also restored his great-grandfather’s faded gravestone in the city.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly valued the sale of the Zaporizhstal steel mill at $850-billion. The value of the deal was $850-million.

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