Not long after his 1996 visit to Moscow, Donald Trump was working the phones.
In a conversation captured by The New Yorker’s Mark Singer, Trump took a call from Michael Gordon, a reporter from The New York Times in Moscow. Gordon had just interviewed a Russian sculptor named Zurab Tsereteli. Was it true that Trump and Tsereteli had discussed erecting a 306-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus on the Hudson River?
“Yes, it’s already been made, from what I understand,” said Trump, who had met Tsereteli a couple of months earlier, in Moscow. “It’s got forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development”—a seventy-five-acre tract called Riverside South—“and we are working toward that end.”
According to Trump, the head had arrived in America, the rest of the body was still in Moscow, and the whole thing was being donated by the Russian government. “The mayor of Moscow has written a letter to Rudy Giuliani stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab. It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”
Trump hung up and said to me, “See what I do? All this bullshit. Know what? After shaking five thousand hands, I think I’ll go wash mine.”
Tsereteli had been trying to find a home in America for his unwanted, unloved statue. The Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen called the 311-foot-tall statue “graceless as a herd of brontosaurs … [and] configured in the shape of an exploded hydra.” Miami, along with Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland Ft. Lauderdale, and Boston had all said nyet.
While President Trump is not known for his taste (gold-plated sinks, anyone?), it seems curious that Trump would go out of his way to help Tsereteli. Why do this in front of a reporter? Why help Tsereteli?
The answer, I believe, has little to do with the sculptor or his work and more to do with his patron: Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful and notoriously corrupt mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010.
It was Luzhkov who gave Tesereteli important commissions such as reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Under Luzhkov, Tesereteli’s statues popped up all over Moscow, including his much-reviled statue of Peter the Great that many see as a tasteless monument to Russia’s corruption. And thanks to his friend Luzhkov, Tsereteli lived in a Moscow mansion that once housed the German Embassy.
In 1996 and 1997, Trump was exploring the possibilities of developing a property in Moscow for his first overseas venture. And nothing happened in Moscow without approval from the all-powerful Mayor Luzhkov. President Yeltsin had given Luzhkov exclusive control over privatization of property and businesses within the city limits. So, by doing a favor for Tesereteli, Trump may have been trying to do a favor for Moscow’s infamous mayor.
Luzhkov, his family, friends, and his staff had made themselves into a wealthy man by skimming from development projects like Trump’s in one of Europe’s most lucrative real estate markets. It’s no coincidence that Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, became Russia’s richest woman running a Russian construction company. (She has since fled the country.) His deputy wore a million-dollar watch.
A 2010 State Department cable released by Wikileaks quoted an investigative journalist who told an American diplomat that “Luzhkov used criminal money to support his rise to power and has been involved with bribes and deals regarding lucrative construction contracts throughout Moscow.” Corruption pervaded Moscow, the State Department concluded, “with Mayor Luzhkov at the top of the pyramid.”
Tsereteli may have been running his own schemes. In 1993, customs officers in St. Petersburg opened shipping crates carrying another (smaller) Tsereteli statue of Columbus as a gift to the city of Seville, Spain. Inside were thousands of copper ingots, too soft for use in sculpture but normally used for electronic circuitry. Investigators later revealed that Tsereteli’s holding company, Kolumb, had contracted privately to ship 85,000 tons of copper (ten percent of Russia’s then annual copper exports) out of the country. Tesereteli was never charged. (See New Moscow Monuments, or, States of Innocence, Bruce Grant, American Ethnologist, May, 2001.)
According to sources quoted in the State Department cable, Luzhkov and his wife had links to organized crime in Moscow. One of Luzhkov’s friends was crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov.
This is interesting because Ivankov became one of the most powerful Russian Mafia bosses in America, and, when the FBI went it went looking for Ivankov, agents tracked him down in a luxury apartment in Trump Tower, according to journalist Robert I. Friedman’s expose Red Mafiya. Invakov disappeared and then turned up again in Trump’s New Jersey casino, the Taj Mahal.
Organized crime also pervaded Moscow’s hotels, and Moscow city officials had offered Trump the chance to invest in a pair of hotels, which Luzhkov and his cronies controlled through the Moscow City Property Committee. In The New Yorker profile, Trump seemed excited about the prospect:
“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”
The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box, was Europe’s biggest hotel, and it was infested with rats and criminals. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist magazine, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. The Economist had called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.” Fortunately for Trump, nothing came of the Rossiya deal and the hotel was razed in 2006.
And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period bracketing Trump’s visit to the city. An American hotelier, Paul Tatum, had been gunned down on Nov. 3, 1996 the center of Moscow. (Trump arrived in Moscow a little more than a week after Tatum’s murder.)
Tatum had been in a bitter fight with the city for control of his hotel, the Radisson. Just a few days before his death, Tatum had placed newspaper ads accusing Mr. Luzhkov of corruption. After Tatum’s death, Luzhkov’s office took over control of the Radisson.
Back to our sculptor. Before Trump made his calls about the statue, Tsereteli had been trying for years to bring his sculpture to America. One of his first attempts was Miami, where one of Trump’s friends, Bennett S. LeBow, had been trying trying to help Tsereteli bring his 500-ton Columbus sculpture to America — and perhaps to curry favor with Luzhkov at the same time.
LeBow took Tsereteli and his friend Luzhkov to Miami’s City Hall to offer the statue to the city, and in August of 1992, he set up the New World Foundation Inc. to raise the estimated $20 million it would cost to erect the sculpture in the sea off Miami Beach. The short-lived company was staffed his executives from his various companies.
LeBow had many business interests in Russia. His Brooke Group made and sold cigarettes in Russia through Liggett-Ducat, a Russian joint stock company. More importantly to this story, LeBow’s conglomerate, Brooke Group Ltd., owned real estate in downtown Moscow.
A Brooke Group subsidiary owned Ducat Place, which was prime office space in the middle of downtown Moscow. In late 1996, one office building had been completed in Ducat Place, construction on a second building was underway, and a third building was in the planning stages. Doing a favor for Luzkhov certainly was good for business.
LeBow had helped bring Trump to Moscow in 1996 and partnered with him on a deal to build or at least put his name another Trump Tower in Ducat Place. That deal went nowhere.
It seems possible that LeBow might have advised Trump to be nice to Tsereteli if he wanted to do a real estate deal in Moscow. We know what Trump wanted: a real estate deal in Russia. What we don’t know is what else, if anything, Trump was asked to give up in return.
A final note: In 2016, Tsereteli’s unwanted, unloved Columbus statue was unveiled in its new home in Puerto Rico.