For most of this century, Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, 53, has been building a huge fortune while trying to divest himself of a dangerous reputation. He presents himself now as a philanthropist and a would-be peacemaker in this country diseased with corruption and wounded by war. And he might be both.
But his personal history during the wild days after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s is full of holes, and stories of mob connections have often filled in the blanks.
So, when news broke recently that Akhmetov had bought the most expensive—and infamous—mansion on the French Riviera, the move raised a lot of new questions about Akhmetov’s public relations judgment, his current business practices and, inevitably, his past.
Villa les Cèdres, as it’s called, was bought and built up in 1904 by Belgium’s King Leopold II, who had amassed an enormous fortune through the brutal colonization of what he called, incongruously, the Congo Free State. There Africans worked under horrific conditions on rubber plantations and in the mines and, between harsh treatment and disease, hundreds of thousands died. It was “slaughter on a staggering scale,” as one historian wrote , “the collateral damage of a perfidious, rapacious policy of exploitation.” As Leopold’s British biographer put it, “He was greedy for money and chose not to interest himself when things got out of control.”