Oleg Deripaska’s strictly invitation-only party at the World Economic Conference in Davos this year was truly a sight to behold.
In an expansive hilltop schloss nestled in the sleepy Alpine resort, waiters’ arms craned with boats of Beluga caviar and magnums of Dom Perignon.
Guests, such as advertising boss Sir Martin Sorrell, whooped as a troupe of Cossack dancers warbled traditional folk music. Later, as the champagne gave way to trays of ice-cold Russian vodka, metro-sexual crooner Enrique Iglesias serenaded nubile models with a string of Latino ditties.
Oleg Deripaska: In 2008, Forbes estimated his wealth at £25bn
Such lavish hospitality was strangely at odds with the evening’s Gatsby-esque host. Deripaska, Russia’s so-called ‘Aluminium King’, is hardly one of life’s extroverts.
Unsmiling, monosyllabic, with deep set eyes, those who’ve met him say he seems happier playing with his labradors than he does conversing with humans.
He doesn’t touch alcohol. He barely eats either, and prefers to answer journalists’ questions over thoughtful sips of black tea.
Despite homes in London, Tokyo and Montenegro, he spends most of his time in Russia’s unglamorous North Caucasus.
Watching him take to the dance floor in Davos that night was as though he were role-playing the plutocrat, like a real-life Bruce Wayne, hiding a far more complex personality. But winning friends and influencing people has been a notable signature to his career.
This week, many of his so-called friends deserted him after the US government targeted him with sanctions, accusing Deripaska of malign activities around the world. Shares in his businesses Rusal and EN+, controlled by his holding company Basic Element, plummeted.
It is the latest twist in an undulating career which began on a farm near Krasnodar. Like many growing up under Soviet rule, Deripaska’s early life was not a happy one.
Shares in Deripaska’s companies have plummeted.
His widowed mother was largely absent trying to find work, leaving grandparents to raise young Oleg. Leaving school in 1986, he was drafted into the Russian army. Demobilised, he studied physics at university before founding a small metals trading operation. By then the Soviet Union was collapsing. Deripaska developed handy ties to Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. He is married to the former president’s step-granddaughter, Polina, with whom he has two children.
By the time he was in his mid-20s, the ‘aluminium wars’ were raging. This was a murky period during Russia’s emergence from the old Soviet era, where company takeovers were riven with violence. Executives and bankers had a strange habit of vanishing.
There is no suggestion, of course, Deripaska was involved in any skirmishes. And after emerging from this sour period unscathed, relations with new president Vladimir Putin flourished. So did Deripaska’s fortune.
By 2008, Forbes estimated his wealth at £25billion, putting him ninth on their world rich list. But it was a summer sojourn in Corfu around then which brought him global prominence.
Deripaska’s yacht Queen K played host to an infamous dinner with (then) EU trade minister Lord Mandelson, shadow chancellor George Osborne and Deripaska’s business associate Nat Rothschild.
Osborne crassly leaked to the press some unflattering comments Mandelson had confided to him about Gordon Brown. Irked at his old school friend’s indiscretion, Rothschild responded by suggesting Osborne tried to solicit a donation from his host. The political fallout rumbled on for weeks. No one emerged with any credit.
Deripaska’s fortunes shrivelled as soon as the financial crisis hit. So did his relationship with Putin. In 2009, the president humiliatingly made him sign a document live on television which safeguarded the future of a factory in Pikalyovo.
He and Putin are nowadays back on good terms, which is just as well. While Deripaska attempts to build bridges with the West, he will, in the meantime, also need the support of his own government if he is to save his crumbling empire.
Life remains a careful balancing act for the Aluminium King. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.