November 01, 2007

The Difficulty of Being Oligarchic

Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born metals and steel magnate ranked 142nd on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires, has been making headlines of late. The owner of Kommersant publishing house, a Gazprom subsidiary, and several television channels, Usmanov recently purchased a long-contested collection of Russian animated films, as well as the art collection of Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya. He also frightened British football fans by buying a sizeable share of the team Arsenal. 

In 1992, the U.S. company Films by Jove, owned by actor Oleg Vidov and his wife, Joan Borsten, purchased all international distribution rights (excluding the former USSR) to some 1500 films produced by Soyuzmultfilm studio. For years, Soyuzmultfilm questioned the legitimacy of the deal, made at a time when the organization’s legal status was in flux.  Meanwhile, Films by Jove restored and translated the films, sold different compilations on DVD, and aired the films on PBS and Bravo. The disagreement was resolved when Usmanov stepped in this summer and purchased Jove’s contract for an undisclosed amount (experts estimate $10-12 million). Usmanov then sold the rights for one ruble to a recently created state-owned children’s channel, Bibigon. 

Usmanov told Echo Moskvy radio station that his goal was to make sure no possible legal issues arise in the future, “so that our children can calmly watch cartoons without fear.” Interestingly, however, the Jove deal never restricted rights to show the films in Russia. Others speculated on the real motives behind the purchase. “When Mikhail Khodorkovsky found himself in trouble with the regime, Victor Vekselberg bought Faberge’s Easter Eggs ‘for Russia,’” said political scientist Alexei Mukhin. “Usmanov’s cartoons have the same explanation.” 

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