The outspoken Russian banking tycoon Oleg Tinkov managed to tread a fine line over the three decades it took to build up his multibillion-dollar fortune, staying neither too close to nor too far from the Kremlin.
But this week he became the highest-profile Russian entrepreneur yet to attack President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I don’t see ANY beneficiary of this crazy war! Innocent people and soldiers are dying,” he wrote in a series of Instagram posts. “How will the army be good, if everything else in the country is shit and mired in [nepotism] and servility?”
Meanwhile, Tinkoff Bank, the lender that Tinkov founded 16 years ago, has emerged as an early winner from the western sanctions regime that has hit many of its rivals.
As one of Russia’s biggest non-state-run banks that has so far avoided being directly caught by sanctions and stayed on the Swift global bank messaging system, Tinkoff has benefited as domestic competitors suffered.
In the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, customers flocked to open accounts at the bank, while many more who already held accounts transferred their savings from industry leaders Sberbank and VTB, which collectively control almost half the Russian banking market.
Before this week’s outburst, Tinkov had taken a more considered approach to discussing Russian politics. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2015, he spoke repeatedly of his close relationship with Putin, although more recently he has said he has never visited the Kremlin.
The 54-year-old son of a coal miner and seamstress balks at the label “oligarch”, preferring to be seen as a self-made businessman who has not needed to rely on Kremlin connections to win big contracts.
“He is the quintessential self-made entrepreneur as opposed to an oligarch,” said David Nangle, founder of VEF, an emerging markets fund management business, who has known Tinkov for almost two decades. “He should be held in high regard.” VEF was at one point one of Tinkoff’s biggest investors.
Yet Tinkov’s attempts to distance himself from Putin and the Kremlin have done him few favours this year. He was last month placed on the UK sanctions list, which led to him having his assets frozen, being barred from doing business with UK citizens and companies and being prohibited from travelling to or from the UK.
At the time, Tinkoff Bank insisted this would “in no way affect” the group, as Tinkov was no longer a majority or controlling shareholder and had no direct influence on the way the business was run. Tinkov has sold down his stake in the business to 35 per cent during the past two years.
The bank this week declined to comment on its founder’s social media posts but said that he no longer worked for the lender, which is run by Oliver Hughes and Pavel Fedorov.
Tinkoff’s London-listed global depositary receipts — certificates that allow investors to bet on Russian stocks on global markets — have fallen from $112 in October to $3.19 when they were suspended in March.
And Tinkov has claimed that the collapse in price — combined with the rouble’s fall — has caused him to lose his billionaire status. Forbes estimates that his fortune has dropped from $4.7bn to less than $700mn since the start of the war.
Born in the Siberian coal town of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, Tinkov showed promise as a competitive cyclist in his teenage years. But after doing military service he pursued a career in business, initially trading sought-after western goods across the Soviet Union.
He went on to launch and sell a series of high-performing consumer businesses tied to his personal brand, aping his idol Richard Branson — from music stores and a record label to a frozen dumplings company he sold to Roman Abramovich, as well as a beer venture he sold to InBev.
Tinkov’s devotion to Branson even extended to staying in the Virgin Group founder’s personal suites at his properties around the world.
On one occasion, Tinkov booked himself and his wife into Branson’s room at his private game reserve in South Africa. “Rina and I slept in Richard Branson’s bed and I told her that we had no choice but to engage in sexual intercourse in honour of Richard, which we succeeded in doing,” he recounted in his autobiography.
It was at another of Branson’s properties, the Caribbean island of Necker, that Tinkov unveiled his plans for Tinkoff Bank. What began as an online credit card company in 2006 has evolved into Russia’s third-largest consumer lender, with more than 20mn customers.
The success of the bank catapulted Tinkov into the global billionaires’ club and made him one of Russia’s richest people. Early backing from investors including Goldman Sachs set the foundations for the business, while the company’s London listing in 2013 doubled Tinkov’s personal fortune.
Despite rejecting the status of oligarch, Tinkov enjoys the trappings of a Russian tycoon’s lifestyle, including ownership of a string of lavish palaces, villas and ski lodges across Europe and North America.
He also owns the world’s first private icebreaker yacht — a 77-metre, six-deck vessel, complete with two helicopters, a submersible and two snow scooters — designed to take guests to the polar regions for extreme skiing trips.
While Tinkoff once sponsored the Tinkoff-Saxo Tour de France team, the bank still sponsors Russian Premier League football and world number two tennis player Daniil Medvedev, who was this week banned from playing at Wimbledon this summer.
Tinkov is no stranger to run-ins with western governments. In 2020, he was arrested in London after being accused of under-reporting his assets to the US Internal Revenue Service by more than $1bn after taking Tinkoff Bank public and days before he renounced his US citizenship.
He posted £20mn in bail and was initially ordered to surrender his passport and be electronically monitored, having to stay at a flat near Holland Park in west London from 7pm to 7am, avoid travel hubs and remain within the M25.
Tinkov later settled the case, paying $507mn and avoiding extradition to the US. But the day after his indictment was unsealed, he revealed he had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia and had already undergone chemotherapy.
He has spent most of the past two years receiving treatment in London, though early in 2022 he appeared to have relocated to Mexico, according to his social media posts.
Having already gone further than other oligarchs who had called for peace in Ukraine, Tinkov this week concluded his volley of social media posts by stating: “Kremlin officials are shocked that neither they or their children will be off to the Mediterranean in the summer. Businessmen are trying to save the rest of their property.”
In English, he added: “Dear ‘collective West’ please give Mr Putin a clear exit to save his face and stop this massacre. Please be more rational and humanitarian.”