The Baltschug Hotel is one of Moscow’s most venerable hotels. Overlooking the Moskva River, across from the Kremlin, the Baltschug dates back to the reign of Czar Nicholas II. After the Russian Revolution, it became a dormitory, but the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the Baltschug restored to its former glory as a five-star hotel
And it was here on a Tuesday evening in September 2002, that Donald Trump arrived to sell apartments in New York to newly-wealthy Russians.
Trump wanted to make it easy for Russians to buy one of his New York apartments without even leaving the country. His real estate agent, Sotheby’s International Realty, had partnered with Kirsanova Realty to open an office in Moscow to sell his condos and apartments to Russians who were interested in buying abroad.
Trump is such a spectacle that we often forget to ask the interesting questions. What was interesting about the Baltschug event was not Trump himself. The interesting question to ask was who was buying. And the answer to that question is, well, we don’t know.
Guests at this event did not want to give their names, a reporter from the respected Russian business newspaper Vedemosti found:
However, potential customers present at yesterday’s presentation of New York real estate not only refused to reveal themselves, but also did not admit that they were interested in this real estate, insisting that they simply went in for “pies to eat”.
The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, also sent a reporter and noted the same thing:
When asked about the prospect of acquiring property through Sotheby’s and Kirsanova Realty, guests at Tuesday’s reception shied away from saying directly whether they were interested in the super expensive apartments. One guest said most were there to see “how the other side lives.”
Why would a Russian be embarrassed to admit they were interested in buying Trump property? That’s the interesting question.
The reason why the buyers at the event were embarrassed to give their names is because they didn’t want anybody doing exactly what these reporters from Vedemosti and The Moscow Times were doing: Asking questions.
Phllip Bogdanov of Kirsanova Realty said he didn’t consider his potential clients oligarchs, but rather owners of sustainable businesses. But that’s nonsense.
One of the few who wasn’t afraid to introduce himself to Vedemosti’s reporter was Pavel Syutkin, then the head of the investment department of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. Today, Pavel Skyutkin is a food historian and author of an English-language cookbook about Russian cuisine.
The Russians who could afford a million-dollar apartment in New York were a special class of people who owed their wealth to their political connections, not their business skills. People get outrageously rich in Russia because the Kremlin allows it. The Kremlin lets them get rich; the Kremlin could take everything away. If you’re wealthy in Russia, your money is never secure. Your money was only safe if and when it moved out of the country, beyond the reach of the Kremlin.
Trump had spent a lot of time trying to put his name on something in Moscow in the 1990s. We’ve looked at his efforts to build a tower in Moscow and develop a pair of run-down Moscow hotels. At some point, Trump realized that building a tower in Moscow was the wrong way to go about it.
The Russians didn’t want to keep their money in Russia. The wealthiest of Russians weren’t interested in a Trump Tower in Moscow, but a tower in New York, now, that was something that interested them. Why not build luxury towers that served as deposit boxes for wealthy Russians and other foreigners who wanted to stash their money away? What if Trump could build right here in New York for Russian money?
This was Trump’s sales pitch. Come to New York. You can enjoy your money, no questions asked.
“Now, Russian connoisseurs of high-class housing will have the opportunity to become neighbors of well-known politicians, businessmen and Hollywood stars,” said SIR vice-president Mika Sakamoto.
Trump’s towers in New York were really safe deposit boxes for foreign money. Trump World Tower (pictured above), the 72-story skyscraper that opened in 2001, was a giant deposit box of Russian money.
Bloomberg found that Sam Kislin, a Ukrainian immigrant, issued mortgages to buyers of multimillion-dollar apartments in World Tower. An individual issuing mortgages for luxury homes is highly unusual.
One of the people Kislin provided mortgages to was Vasily Salygin, a future official of the Ukrainian Party of Regions. The Party of Regions is the Putin-linked party whose best known member is Viktor Yanykovych, the man who former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort helped win the presidency of the Ukraine before he fled to Russia.
Kislin was business partners with Tamir Sapir, who would later partner with Trump to build the scandal-plagued Trump SoHo condo hotel.
Bloomberg also turned up another person who bought in Trump World Tower. It was Eduard Nektalov, an Uzbekistan-born diamond dealer, who purchased a $1.6 million apartment in July 2003. He was being investigated by federal agents for a money-laundering scheme. Nektalov sold his unit a month after he bought it for a $500,000 profit. He was gunned down on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue in 2004.
Kellyanne Conway and Michael Cohen, Trump’s consigliere, bought units in Trump World Tower. Cohen also persuaded his Ukrainian in-laws and a business partner to buy in the tower as well. Cohen also helped Trump take back control of the tower’s board from a group of apartment owners upset over the way the building was being run.
What began in 2002 was the steady influx of Russian money into the Trump Organization. The same Russian money that kept him afloat during the financial crisis and the same money that is now the subject of an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.