GENEVA- On that day of December 2008 when Elena Rybolovleva decided to divorce her very rich and very unfaithful husband and ask him for $6.3 billion, she remembered a reflex that every wealthy Russian businessman has: profilaktika (or “prevention”). She wrote a letter to the General Prosecutor of Geneva (the city where she had been living since 1995) to warn him that if “anything” ever happened to her, her husband Dmitri Rybolovlev, the former fertilizer tycoon and Russia's 13th richest man, should be considered the No. 1 suspect.
The Ural-born oligarch was actually applying profilaktika when he was forced to quickly relocate his wife and daughter to Geneva in the 1990s, to protect them from the mafia.
“He’s the one who taught me the rules. Now I’m playing the game”, says the woman who just filed one of the most expensive divorces in history. On both sides, high-priced lawyers are waging battle, something that contrasts with Elena’s discreet, almost shy politeness. She refuses to let our photographer take a picture of her.
In this story, everything is excessive. First, you have the “hole” that the Rybolovlev couple left behind in Cologny, in the upscale suburb of Geneva. You can see the huge construction site from the other side of Lake Léman. Each week a surveyor comes to the hillside to assess mudslide risk. Part of the Palace of Versailles was supposed to be replicated here, with underground swimming pools, gyms, limousines and an art collection. But the divorce procedure brought the whole thing to a halt.
According to Swiss Law, each will get half of the fortune amassed in their 21-year marriage. But appraising the fortune and listing the couple’s assets is a difficult and endless task. There are two gorgeous chalets in Gstaad, Switzerland, worth 211 million dollars, a townhouse on rue de l’Elysée in Paris, worth 24 million dollars, a yacht, a couple of airplanes, and so on.
The war between the 45-years-old spouses started when Dmitri transferred most of his fortune, including his shares in his company, into two Cyprus bank accounts without telling his wife. He is the sole beneficiary of these accounts, along with his two daughters, 11 and 22.
Mrs. Rybolovleva’s lawyers consider this transfer as a way to hide his assets from his wife. They believe there is more than $12 billion in these accounts, whereas Mr Rybolovlev’s attorneys claim the amount is closer to two billion.
Protecting the children
Elena Rybolovleva says she is not fighting “for the billions” but rather to stand up to “an oligarch who thinks money can buy everything and put him above the law.” She also says she wants to protect her daughters from this “make-believe world.” She recently had to explain to her daughter what was wrong with her father’s invitation to be flown to Los Angeles “to have tea with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears.”“My daughter has to learn that the singers were not coming for her, but for a fee of tens of thousands of dollars,” Elena says. “Right now she understands, but how long will that last?”
At the end of 2008, worried that her unfaithful husband was about to hide part of his fabulous treasure, Elena had the couple’s assets frozen in the UK, the U.S, Singapore, the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus. This is when she discovered the new Cyprus accounts and learnt that the couple’s art collection (which includes about fifteen Picassos, Monets, Degas and Van Goghs) have also been sent to Mediterranean tax haven.
The irony is that she “naively” helped to transfer the masterpieces from Russia to Geneva, Singapore and London “to prevent them from being seized by the Russian government.”
In 2011, Dmitri moved from Switzerland to Monaco, where his oldest daughter Ekaterina was living. They are both enjoying the high life. After renting the villa of late dictator Mobutu at Cap-Martin, on the Riviera, the father, daughter and paternal grandparents are now living in a 2,000-m2 mansion, bought for $317 million.
The former fertilizer tycoon also achieved a life-long dream when he bought the AS Monaco soccer club in December 2011. At the time, the U.S press was having a field day with “the real estate deal of the century:” a 600-square-meter penthouse with a view of Central Park, bought by Ekaterina for $88 million. Elena Rybolovleva, who says her husband “manipulated” his daughter, has filed a lawsuit in New York.
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