Petr Aven is an international businessman, economist, and number 20 politician at the Russian Forbes, a member of the board of directors of the LetterOne Group, and owner of the Alfa Holding Consortium along with Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, and Alexey Kuzmichev.
Petr Olegovich Aven (b. March 16, 1955) heads the Alfa Banking Holding, which includes the Russia’s largest private bank.
He is a member of the board of directors of the LetterOne Group. The L1 Group was established in 2013 to invest in international projects in energy, telecommunications, and technology.
In 2015, Petr Aven and Alfred Kokh published Gaidar’s Revolution: The Inside Account of the Economic Transformation of Russia, drawing on their experience of the Russian government and the former first minister for the economy, Yegor Gaidar.
John Lloyd of the Financial Times called it “an illuminating study of the reformers who sought to revive Russia’s post-Soviet economy.”
Born in Moscow, his father, professor of computer science, Oleg Aven, was half Latvian and half Russian, and his mother was from a Jewish family. Petr Aven graduated from Moscow State University and held a Ph.D. in economics.
Subsequently, Petr was a senior researcher at the All-Union Institute for Systems Studies at the USSR Academy of Sciences and then spent time at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.
Aven was the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations of the Russian Federation and conducted some high-level trade and economic missions to Western capitals. In 1994, Aven met Mikhail Fridman and became an Alfa Bank shareholder, serving as a member of the Supervisory Board of the Alfa Group Consortium.
Aven, along with Stan Polovets and three fellow Russian Jewish billionaires, Mikhail Fridman, Alexander Knaster, and German Khan, founded the Genesis Philanthropy Group, whose purpose is to develop and enhance Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.
“For the most part the only thing that fascinated and fascinates me is reading.”
• I grew up in an atmosphere of a balance between freedom and control. Mainly, my father and a Jewish grandmother raised me; they imparted to me the ability to enjoy the achievements as well as the very desire to set up and achieve my goals.
• When I was a kid, reading books the day and night fascinated me; nothing else was exciting for me. Generally speaking, even now, nothing has changed (Petr Aven is rightfully one of the smartest business leaders in Russia—author’s comm). I started to read very early and was capable of reading very fast and spoiled my eyes as a result.
• I distinctly remember some striking moments from my childhood. For example, when Yuri Gagarin flew into space, I was six years old, and I remember the football games we went to with my father. By the way, my dad (Oleg Ivanovich Aven—professor, a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, an eminent computer technology specialist—author’s comm.) and his friends, the Soviet scientists, bosses of the major state enterprises, were the role models for me.
“I had no doubt the necessity to apply the market economy model in Russia. An entire self and team confidence, European education and support of internationally known economists helped not to drive crazy.”
• I have chosen my profession independently. My father and the school wanted me to do math. I wanted something different, humanitarian – economics was a compromise — and after graduating from the best Moscow physicomathematical school, I was enrolled in the Economics Faculty of Moscow State University and later received a Ph.D.
• The Russian government. This period of my life started with meeting Yegor Gaidar (Prime Minister of Russia from 15 June 1992 to 14 December 1992 was appointed by the First Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Petr Aven was at the Gaidar’s team as the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations for the Russian Federation—author’s comm.).
I worked at the Institute for System Studies of the USSR Academy in the same room with Yegor Gaidar. We were both from successful Soviet families, and we understood each other very well. However, Yegor in some ways had a wider horizon and better understood the life since he had used to live in Cuba and Yugoslavia.
In 1991–1992, we implemented the reform model that we had developed at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.
I became the minister of foreign economic relations of the Russian Federation at the Yeltsin- Gaidar government (a blueprint for the economic transition of the Soviet Union as part of IIASA’s Economic Transitions and Integration project—author’s comm).
The market prices, free trade, privatization, and convertible currency were the conceptual bases of the Russian economic reform in the 90s. We felt like aliens to the Russian government since we were the scientists and had never worked for the government before.
However, we finally managed to implement the conceived economic reforms because we knew exactly what to do and we believed in ourselves. We did not care that the Soviet bureaucrats were looking at us as the absolute idiots.
We were confident because of our European education, the team approach, and the support of such internationally renowned economists as Rudi Dornbusch, who co-wrote the famous textbook on macroeconomics with Stanley Fischer. So, the misunderstanding and shock of the Soviet officials did not undermine our self-confidence.
Also, there were young, American economists, our peers and at that time not so world famous, but very smart. For example, my advisor was David Lipton, who today is the first deputy head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and director of the Earth Institute.
We used to discuss what we were doing every night along with Gaidar at the dacha. Their pieces of advice and support gave much confidence. Yegor Gaidar had been burning himself at work. It is also sad to admit that many members of the Gaidar’s team first row are no longer alive.
For instance, Alex Golovkov, chief of staff of the Russian Government, and Boris Fedorov, minister of finance. Tatyana Yumasheva, daughter of the first president of Russian Federation: “Dad always trusts the young. So, (he) chose the Gaidar’s team to perform the economic reforms, because they were desperate, ready to take decisive action young people who can pull the country out of the crisis. They burnt themselves but built a market economy in Russia, the fruits of which we have right now.”
Yeltsin was a great leader and just felt that he had better radically change absolutely everything, so Gaidar was a symbol of the scale and one-time changes. Boris Nikolayevich, in my opinion, liked Gaidar’s determination, honesty, responsibility, willingness to do a lot at once, and the absence of any political ambitions. Gaidar dealt very well with the “storm” circumstances, but had a hard time resisting the public psychological attack; we were not ready for the political struggle.
We were well-educated and smart boys from good Moscow families, which was not enough to win the multi-pass bureaucratic games. However, at some point, we had such necessary resources to win these games with the support of the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and members of his closest team, Gennady Burbulis and Andrei Kozyrev.
In a retrospective assessment, it would have been better if we had built the political coalitions and attracted people from the force authorities’ structures. We were not ready for this. It was a mistake. Another error was poor communication with people and the absence of an organized propaganda.
ALFA CONSORTIUM. INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS. L1.
“Business – is a drug.”
“We are competing with ourselves.”
“I think we have the best lawyers in the country. In business we forgive nothing and nobody.”
• The main advantage of the partners’ relationship is a formality: despite the fact that someone has kept a friendship, someone has not. It is like a family with inherent responsibility and reliability, honesty, and complete openness.
We are trying to take care of, protect, and rescue each other. Indeed, we are different people, but the basic principles and spiritual values, including the Jewish heritage, are the same. Thanks to the so-called Jewish identity, we have never had the fundamental ideological differences.
• Business is a military operation. Business is my rock, and if I do not have that, then the entire drive and a feeling of youth and energy would be wasted, and I want to be young, energetic, active, and successful. Money is only a measure of success.
• At work, I spend more time with Mikhail Fridman, but outside of work in the past ten years, I have spent more time with German Khan than with anyone else. I have never hung out with Alexei Kuzmichev. However, we are at that level of mutual understanding so that we do not need to communicate consistently; we have known each other for more than 20 years, and sometimes, we even get bored because we can easily predict the reactions and thoughts of each other.
• We are using every opportunity within the legal field to protect our interests and make money. We have the best lawyers in the country. In business we forgive nothing and nobody.
• Entrepreneurial skills: I believe that the entrepreneurial propensity is innate. Maybe I do not have this propensity (said the most successful business person in Russia – author’s comm). I feel like a scientist rather than a business person or a governmental official. I was not going to do business, most likely I would be a professor.
• I went into the business in 1993. After working for the Government of the Russian Federation going back to science was boring, and also I had to make money. That is why I made a small company, came up with various debt instruments to trade, and started collecting money under this idea. Then I met guys from Alpha (together they created the Alfa Consortium from a small company – author’s comm.), which had similar ideas in mind and planned to sell rupees, to buy the commercial debts of the former USSR, etc.
After several successful transactions, I met with Mikhail Fridman in May 1993. Although we are very different people, our union was built on a pragmatic basis: I needed the money, and he needed the ideas and useful contacts at the government.
We had started to spend a lot of time together to get to know each other better since the business could not exist at that time without personal relations of trust. We almost immediately went on vacation together and introduced our wives to each other.
By the way, our wives were both pregnant at that period, which is amazing. Now, our daughters (Daria Aven and Lora Fridman—author’s comm.) are best friends, study at Yale University, and even used to live together.
Daria learns history and plans to work in the beauty business; my son Denis will receive a degree in mathematics and economics at Yale University and plans to work in the investment bank in New York a year later. Not to mention, it is nice that our children rely only on themselves since the parents’ money does not play any significant role in a child’s career in the United States.
• I have been doing mainly two things—banks and lobbying at the national and international levels. I am currently passionate about building the massive and long-term systems, which will work without the partners and my personal involvement. Therefore, we are striving to bring our business to a truly international level. Doing this is a major challenge. Russia is still a central economic area in which we operate.
However, the proportion of our business in Russia is reducing toward increasing of foreign business. What exactly we are trying to do right now is to acquire the international assets and then build and manage the foreign companies in the oil and gas, telecommunications, and banking areas.
For example, we just bought a bank in Austria and still are waiting for a state approval. We have banks in
Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Amsterdam, and we plan to develop a European banking online service with a particular focus on the 7 million Russian-speaking people who live abroad.
• We hire the most professional people from all over the world, and our team is multinational. On the banking project in Austria, we have the Czechs, Poles, Russians, Hungarians and Indians. LetterOne Energy’s Boss John Brown, the ex-boss of BP (one of the world’s seven “supermajor” oil and gas companies – author’s comm.). He is an outstanding, smart, brilliant presenter and is deeply knowledgeable on many issues. Unfortunately, Russian business, even so big as we are, face cultural challenges while expanding abroad.
There is always a kind of inferior subconscious attitude. Russian businesspeople frequently are considered as representatives of distant provinces who somehow have earned a lot of money from nowhere.
Even within the Jewish world, this fragmentation is present. Also, we feel the political pressure against Russia on our international business. Recently, we sold the British assets of DEA and bought instead the Norwegian assets because of the UK government’s ban of the deal.
LIFE PHILOSOPHY, CHARACTER
“Faced with God, I would say only one thing – thank you. For everything.” “But as long as my mouth has not been stuffed with clay, only gratitude will sound from it.”
• The most important parts of my life are my children and self-realization.
• Happiness is the maximum realization of the potential you have been given in this life. I am blessed being able to manage different things such as businesses, books, and lectures.
• I have many things that I do not like about myself; primarily, a psychological instability called the Jewish anxiety is the most irritable. Reliability is a feature in people I value the most.
• The worst sin is cowardice. The main fear is the well-being of my children. The source of pleasure is a balance of love, work, and travel.
• I have to live on — a simple Jewish rule which gives strength. I cope with the emotions without hurrying and consistently. We have a simple rule: I would tell my younger self to fight and not give up.
BORIS NEMTSOV. MEMORIES.
Boris was my good and reliable friend, and he was a wonderful, sincere, smart, and honest guy with a quick reaction. He did not care about money while he was a top governmental official, which is not very typical nowadays. He was a very warm person with a great charm. We met in 1991 when I was a minister, and Boris became a governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast. We were on the business trip in Germany together. Boris Nemtsov went by his views and got where he is right now.
• My closest friends are from childhood, from the university, and those with whom I have been working for more than 20 years. Two of my closest friends are Shalva Breus and Andrei Sokolov; with them, I can talk heart to heart.
• I like to travel, and we used to travel a lot with my wife Elena and my kids; we went to such very different places in the world as Chile, China, Japan, Argentina, and Africa. Most of all, I like the energy of New York, London, and Moscow. They are my kinds of cities.
• Also, I like to write books and articles. Year ago we issued a joint book with Alfred Kokh in memory of Yegor Gaidar, and now, I am writing a book about the 90s in Russia.
• I love the theater. The most recent play I watched was Kirill Serebrennikov’s production of Nikolai Nekrasov’s ‘Who In Russia Lives Well’? One of my favorite movies is Cabaret, a 1972 musical film directed by Bob Fosse. I am currently reading the Two She-Bears by Meir Shalev.
Author’s impression of Petr Aven
Rarely do I allow myself to express an opinion of the interviewee, but Petr Aven is an exception. Petr is the most interesting person with whom I have ever spoken. The unique combination of intellect, wisdom, and professionalism are combined with sincerity, inner warmth, emotions, and some vulnerability, which is read only in his eyes. Eyes are known to be the mirror of the soul. Indeed, his soul is very deep and complex. Notwithstanding the sadness he faces, it seems that he accepts everything the life is giving to him, finds the inner strength, and keeps going no matter what.
Now, I know with whom I personify the line of Joseph Brodsky: “Only with the grief I feel solidarity. But as long as my mouth has not been stuffed with clay, only gratitude will sound from it.”