Yuri Valentinovich Kovalchuk was born on July 25, 1951, in Leningrad in the family of famous Soviet historians Valentin Mikhailovich Kovalchuk (1916 – 2013) and Miriam Abramovna Kovalchuk (née Viro) (1918 – 1998). His parents were favoured by the Soviet authorities, as they studied important historical periods: his father was regarded as a specialist in the history of Leningrad during WWII, and his mother was a specialist in the history of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). An older brother, Mikhail (born in 1946, now a well-known Russian scientist), also grew up in the family.
From early childhood, the Kovalchuk brothers were friends with the forthcoming famous Russian statesman Andrei Fursenko. His father, Alexander Alexandrovich Fursenko, was also a well-known historian, and a specialist in U.S. history.
Unlike their parents, the Kovalchuk brothers decided to become physicists. Mikhail (in 1970) and Yuri (in 1974) graduated from the Faculty of Physics of Leningrad State University named after A. Zhdanov. In 1971 Andrey Fursenko graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Leningrad State University. In the fall of 1974, Yuri Kovalchuk was recruited into the army (as a graduate of the university where he studied at the military department, he served with the rank of lieutenant), after demobilisation he began working at the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute. Later, in 1985 he defended his thesis for PhD in physical and technical sciences and in 1987 he became the first deputy director of Zhores Alferov (the future Nobel Prize winner in physics), the dean of the institute. He also worked there together with Andrey Fursenko and Vladimir Yakunin.
In 1991, Kovalchuk left the institute due to a conflict with Alferov. Kovalchuk and Fursenko organised several scientific and technical firms affiliated with the institute, through which they traded computers. The fact that the profits settled in the pockets of Kovalchuk and Fursenko did not serve Alferov. In February 1991, Kovalchuk became VP of the Association of Joint Ventures of St. Petersburg (the ASP). The association was supervised by the chairman of the committee on external relations Vladimir Putin from the side of the mayor’s office. Cooperation grew into a strong friendship, and in 1996 they established the “Ozero” cottage cooperative near Priozersk.
In the same 1991, Kovalchuk participated in the re-establishment of the “Rossiya” bank, established in 1990 to service the funds of the regional committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the CPSU) and the KGB department. The bank’s activity was suspended after the August 1991 coup, but soon the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, instructed Putin to create a fund for stabilising the city’s and the region’s economy using the “Rossiya” bank. In December 1991, Putin sold his shares to ASP member enterprises, including Kovalchuk. Other initial shareholders included Kovalchuk’s friends Viktor Myachin (a former senior researcher at the PTI), as well as Andrei Fursenko and his brother Sergei, who acted through intermediary firms and as founders of the bank. In December 1992, Kovalchuk became deputy chairman of the bank’s board of directors. Soon, the bank began to serve the foreign economic operations of the city administration.
In the early 1990s, Kovalchuk also became one of the founders of CJSC “STREAM Corporation” (Quark), whose activities were associated with the sale of strategic raw materials abroad.
In 1996, Kovalchuk became the Honorary Consul of the Kingdom of Thailand in St. Petersburg.
With the election of Putin as a President of Russia, in November 2000, Yuri Kovalchuk becomes chairman of the board of the St. Petersburg public fund “North-West Center for Strategic Research”, formed using the money of “Rossiya” bank. In May 2004, Yuri Kovalchuk became the largest shareholder and chairman of the board of directors of the bank, which by that time had become known as the president’s friends’ bank. In the same year, the bank acquired the SOGAZ insurance group from Gazprom, shortly after which Gazprom, Russian Railways, Rosneft and other major state corporations became its clients. In 2012, Kovalchuk left the post of chairman of the board of directors of Rossiya Bank but remained its leading shareholder.
Alexei Navalny reported: “Yuri Kovalchuk belongs to Putin’s cohort of oligarchs — people from the president’s inner circle who became fabulously wealthy during the Putin years and who are believed to be only nominal owners of their assets, in fact serving as property holders and localizers of the president’s personal finances. A number of suspicious transactions have been associated with Rossiya Bank, which directly or indirectly indicates an artificial, state-directed increase in the assets of its beneficiaries.
In 2005, Kovalchuk became the largest shareholder of the “Petersburg-Fifth Channel”, a local broadcasting company. In the same year, Kovalchuk bought the REN-TV channel from Alexei Mordashov and Vladimir Bogdanov for USD 100 mln. In 2008, with the participation of Kovalchuk, the National Media Group was created, which included the federal TV channels REN-TV, Channel One, Channel Five, the Izvestia newspaper and other media. The structure acquired a Public Council, which included Mordashov, Bogdanov, Yuri Valentinovich himself, Alina Kabaeva, Andrei Makarevich, Denis Matsuev, Andrei Konchalovsky and Daniil Dondurei. Kovalchuk was called a shareholder of STS, Zvezda, Domashny, the Sport-Express newspaper and the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Yuri Kovalchuk is also one of the largest owners of commercial real estate on Tverskaya Street in Moscow.
Kovalchuk was engaged not only in media. He became the main organiser of the annual graduates’ holiday “The Scarlet Sails”. He also built the “Igora” ski resort near St. Petersburg with bars, restaurants, a hotel and the Ice Palace. In “Igora” in 2013 Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova celebrated her wedding with Kirill Shamalov. Later, in 2018 the couple broke up.
In June 2013, the billionaire, with several partners, developed a project to create the first cabaret theatre in Russia in the Tauride Garden, which was planned to be located on the premises of the former Leningrad cinema. The architect of the reconstruction was the Spaniard Ricardo Bofill, the creative director was Felix Mikhailov, the author of numerous TV shows on Channel One.
Kovalchuk was hardly mentioned in the press until February 2004, when Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin published a statement to the Kommersant newspaper under the heading “Putin has no right to power in Russia.” Rybkin claimed that Kovalchuk and his brother Mikhail (since 2001 – scientific secretary of the Council on Science and High Technologies under President Putin, director of the Kurchatov Institute since 2005), along with Roman Abramovich and Gennady Timchenko, were “responsible for Putin’s business”, whom he named as the biggest Russian oligarch. In his interviews, Rybkin stated that the Kovalchuks, together with Timchenko, controlled the financial flows of Sovcomflot (Modern Commercial Fleet) and the Novorossiysk Shipping Company. He also stated that the Kovalchuks control the personnel policy of the Evrofinance bank, which, according to him, controlled the ORT and NTV television channels.
In their report “Putin – Results”, published in 2010, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov insisted on finding out how and why Kovalchuk and “Rossiya” gained control of the largest non-state pension fund Gazfond and stakes in Gazprom Media and Gazprombank. The authors of the report also claimed that Kovalchuk was only a nominal owner and that Putin himself was the real owner of the “Rossiya” bank’s assets.
In August 2010, the bank took over another subsidiary of Gazprom, Gazenergoprombank (GEP). As a result, Rossiya’s assets increased by 129.5%. This allowed the bank to enter the top 20 Russian banks (by assets) for the first time. As a result of the deal, GEP shareholders received a 16.7% stake in the united bank. According to “Rossiya”, the parties agreed on such a percentage based on the cost of all assets of each of the participants in the transaction. However, the share conversion ratio was repeatedly called into question by experts, since at the time of the merger, the value of GEP’s assets was higher than that of “Rossiya”. According to Interfax, the bank’s assets in 2010 amounted to RUR 104.3 bln, and the assets of the GEP were RUR 138.6 bln.
A month before this deal, Sandalwood Continental, an offshore company linked to another of Putin’s “wallets”, cellist Sergei Roldugin, bought 66,198 Rossiya shares at RUR 200 each. The total value of the transaction amounted to RUR 13.2 mln. Just two days later, Sandalwood Continental resold all shares of the Cypriot offshore company Horwich Trading for USD 14 mln (RUR 434 mln). Thus, Roldugin earned RUR 420 mln by selling shares at 32 times the purchase price.
In 2020, the official fortune of Yuri Kovalchuk was estimated at USD 1.5 bln. His son Boris is the Chairman of the Board of State PJSC Inter RAO. His Nephew Kirill is the president of the National Media Group and his brother Mikhail is the president of the Kurchatov Institute.
Under the direct leadership of Kovalchuk, the most profitable assets were accumulated and Putin’s entourage was pumped up with money using the “Rossiya” bank. These funds were used to further strengthen the power of the ruling company within the country, buying the loyalty of internal and external elites. It is worth noting that since the 1990s, “Rossiya” had close ties with the Tambov and Malyshevskaya crime syndicates, whose representatives were part of its shareholders. It is no coincidence that this bank fell under US sanctions. Having become an extremely toxic asset for foreign investors, it has concentrated on the domestic market and is actively working in occupied Crimea.
On March 20, 2014, Kovalchuk fell under US financial and visa sanctions against Russian citizens involved in the Crimean crisis. The US Treasury Department said in a statement that Kovalchuk is part of Putin’s “inner circle” and is his “personal teller”. Sanctions were also imposed on the “Rossiya” bank. Aiming to demonstrate his support, Vladimir Putin opened an salary account in it.
In July 2020, Yuri and Tatyana Kovalchuk established the Association “Support for the Regional Economic Environment” in St. Petersburg. The main direction of the organization was consulting on business and management issues.
In October 2020, the Tverskoy Court of Moscow arrested a member of the board of directors of the bankrupt company EMK-Engineering, which was part of Kovalchuk’s business empire. The investigation believed that Andrei Chesnokov became the founder of obtaining millions of government contracts from the Ministry of Defense. The case file emphasised that the defendant had citizenship of Estonia and Croatia, where he could hide from prosecution.
In December 2020, journalists from the “Proekt” media published compromising information on Yuri Kovalchuk, calling him “an old friend of Vladimir Putin and the second most influential person in the state.” Kovalchuk allegedly dealt not only with the finances of the head of state but also with issues related to his personal life.
According to the publication, the billionaire’s brother Mikhail Kovalchuk served as head of the Kurchatov Institute, which was transferred to the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in May. The scientific institution was associated with anti-ageing medicine, which the president called “one of the priorities of the Russian Federation”, and also dealt with the problem of the birth of genetically modified children. The activities of the National Intellectual Development Foundation, headed by V. Putin’s daughter Ekaterina Tikhonova, as well as the Direct Investment Fund, headed by Kirill Dmitriev, are connected with this institute. It is believed that it is the Kovalchukov-Tikhonova-Dmitriev group (in fact, the “Family” group) that controls the production and sale of the Sputnik V vaccine.
On December 14, 2020, the Southern Project company (a subsidiary of “Rossiya”) bought the Crimean winery Massandra. The cost of the transaction amounted to RUR 5.327 bln.
According to press reports, in 2021 “Rossiya” bank intended to take control of the entire utility market of St. Petersburg.
In 2021, the Alexei Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation presented a film about Putin’s dacha in Gelendzhik. This investigation also mentions Yuri Kovalchuk as one of the possible owners of this territory.
Moreover, information is actively spreading in the media that Kovalchuk is the buyer of the Wisteria – a country house in the village of Oreanda near Yalta, which was built in 1955 for Nikita Khrushchev, but Leonid Brezhnev especially often rested there. It was allegedly presented by Kovalchuk to Putin after the annexation of Crimea.
In July 2021, Vladimir Putin awarded Yuri Kovalchuk the 4th class Order of Merit for the Fatherland. Thus, he demonstrated that Kovalchuk remains a close friend and enjoys the full confidence of the president, despite constant rumours about the loss of his position.
Moreover, Kovalchuk not only retained his influence in Putin’s entourage but also strengthened it. In the 2021 parliamentary elections, for the first time since the 1999 elections, not four parties, but five have passed to the State Duma. The fifth party was the New People, which won a total of 13 seats in the lower house of parliament. It was founded by businessman Alexei Nechaev, and one of the most famous politicians in its composition is the former head of Yakutsk, Sardana Avksentieva. According to Meduza, the party was financed by the Kovalchuk brothers.
Also, in December 2021, Yuri Kovalchuk increased his influence on the media and social networks. The USM holding of billionaire Alisher Usmanov sold a controlling stake in the company that owns the shares of VK (the former Mail.ru Group) to the Sogaz insurance group. Its largest owners are Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s nephew Mikhail Shelomov and Gazprom.
In February 2022, the Republic.ru media published the results of a study. According to it, four Crimean wineries and two viticulture enterprises – Massandra, Novy Svet, Inkerman, Bakhchisaray Wine and Cognac House, Zavetnoye Agrofirm” and “Burliuk”, with a total of more than 5950 ha of vineyards (all located on the annexed Ukrainian territory) formally belong to the structures of the “Rossiya” bank, but in fact – to Yuri Kovalchuk. Thus, he is the largest winemaker in Russia.
Kovalchuk has close contact and an alliance with Sergey Kiriyenko, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. The head of the Federal Antimonopoly Service Maxim Shaskolsky (appointed on November 11, 2020) is considered Yuri Kovalchuk’s henchman. Also, the Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov enters the orbit of Kovalchuk’s influence.
Last week, the head of the Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office with a demand to study the governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov. According to Prigozhin, a review against the head of the city should be carried out “on the possible fact of the creation by the governor of an organized criminal community in St. Petersburg to plunder the state budget and enrich the corrupt officials who are part of his entourage.”
Such a conflict between Prigozhin and Beglov can be seen as an attempt to undermine Kovalchuk’s influence on the processes in St. Petersburg.
Moreover, on November 4, 2022, Prigozhin opened the “Wagner Centre” business centre in St. Petersburg, based on which he plans to develop military technologies.
It is precisely based on attempts to monopolise the technology industry (including in military affairs) that the long-term war between Yuri Kovalchuk and another representative of Putin’s inner circle, the head of the Rostech corporation, Sergei Chemezov, continues.
Recently, the result of such a war was the accusation against Ksenia Sobchak regarding the extortion of a large sum of money from representatives of the Rostec corporation. As a result, Sobchak left Russia and went to Israel. This event provoked active discussions in the public plane.
According to available information, Sobchak’s actions were actively financed by Yuri Kovalchuk, and her public projects acted as a controlled opposition. Earlier, at the suggestion of Kovalchuk, the idea of nominating Sobchak as a candidate in the presidential elections was implemented.
Accordingly, in the case of Sobchak’s departure to Israel, there is also no question of attempts to oppress the opposition in Russia. The situation is completely in the plane of inter-clan wars in Putin’s inner circle.
In early November 2022, the British edition of The Times published an article in which, citing sources in the Russian government, it was stated that Yuri Kovalchuk was one of the few in Putin’s entourage who not only knew about the planned invasion of Ukraine but also actively pushed Russian president to a resembling scenario.
All that is known about Kovalchuk’s wife is that her name is Tatyana and she is a shareholder of “Rossiya” bank (with USD 600 mln she was ranked third in the 2019 ranking of the Russian wealthiest women).
The son of Yuri Kovalchuk, Boris, was born on December 1, 1977, and obtained a law degree. During 2006-2009, he headed the Department of Priority National Projects and was an assistant to the First Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. Since 2009, he has served as Deputy General Director for the Development of the state corporation Rosatom. In the same year, he was appointed acting head of JSC Inter RAO UES and since 2010 – a Chairman of the Board. Owns 2,429,000 shares of PJSC Inter RAO (0.00233% of the company’s charter capital). He is a member of the Supervisory Board of JSC All-Russian Regional Development Bank, the Board of Directors of RIG RESEARCH PTE. LTD and the Board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.
Yuri Kovalchuk’s nephew (Mikhail’s son) Kirill Kovalchuk is currently the president of the National Media Group holding (since September 2014), which includes Channel One, Channel Five, Ren TV, Russian News Service, newspapers Izvestia, Metro- Petersburg”, “Sport-Express” and the film studio “Art Pictures Vision”. NMG also operates the Discovery, Eurosport, Turner and Viasat portfolio TV channels which are broadcast in Russia.
In his free time, Yuri Valentinovich collects rare cars and plays table tennis. Kovalchuk initiated the filming of the “Stalingrad” movie and the “Molodezhka” series.