The billionaire invited us to the Chess Museum on Gogolevsky Boulevard, which had been restored at his expense. We looked around:
Q: Is there an exhibit here with some special energy for you?
AF: It’s a shame the closet behind you with Alekhine’s chess set is locked. When the museum was opened, Valentin Viktorovich Lyskovtsev, a Doctor of Medicine, came to me, gave me this set and said: “This is his last one. Alekhine was leaving the country and gave this set to my grandfather…”
Q: A travel set in a metal box?
AF: No, not one of those. I wondered how the set ended up with Lyskovtsev’s grandfather. He told me: “We used to be neighbours. The address was so and so. Alekhine even left us some furniture.”
Q: How much might this item fetch?
AF: It is obviously priceless for a chess player — and it was given to the museum for free. This set has an incredible energy.
Q: Have you ever made an offer on any chess-related item but not got it?
AF: No, I haven’t yet. But you can always have a dream — for example, Anatoly Karpov has a unique chess collection.
Q: His collection of chess sets?
AF: And his chess stamps.
Q: Have you ever discussed any possibilities with him?
AF: I haven’t. But everything’s possible. Karpov’s collection would be a gem in any museum.
Q: What have been your most exciting meetings with grandmasters?
AF: I was at a tournament in Podolsk once to support my university friend Ilya Smirin. He was playing with Mikhail Tal, and Tal had no cigarettes!
AF: I was providing him with cigarettes throughout the game, and we were discussing whether Ilya was a good player. We agreed he played well. Anyway, Tal won then. It happened shortly before his death. You could see that he was very ill.
Q: Do you still smoke?
AF: I quit more than 20 years ago.
Q: Did you celebrate?
AF: You could say so. I had a wager with a friend that I’d quit, and I won.
Q: Have you ever wished to start smoking again?
AF: When you have a drink or a coffee, you always want a smoke. But I manage to control it.
Q: If you had a chance to meet any chess player of the past — whom would you choose?
AF: Alekhine, no doubt about it. I’ve been thinking about him a lot. The more you think, the more questions you have. Was he ever been involved with the Soviet secret services? If yes, then which ones?
Q: What do you think?
AF: I think they were very seriously involved. Alekhine was a very brave man. He had a heart condition and was not accepted for army service. Nevertheless, he became a volunteer orderly and went to WWI; he was awarded the Order of Saint Stanislaus and two medals. He pretended to be mad in order to escape from the German captivity.
He was a grandchild of one of the wealthiest men in the country — Prokhorov, the owner of the Tryokhgorny Manufactory. His father was a well-off man in the Voronezh Guberniya. But he did support the revolution — I read his telegrams. His family cooperated with the Bolsheviks. Alekhine married Lenin’s associate, a Swiss citizen. Because of this, he managed to leave the country. He worked as an interpreter for Comintern. You know what Comintern was at that time?
AF: A very powerful revolutionary and terrorist organisation. Alekhine’s elder brother and his sister were left hostages in Russia. They were not repressed, though. Here’s another story: chess enthusiasts were always connected with the intelligence services. Alekhine was in the same chess club as Rudolph Abel, who was later exchanged. You know who wrote the book about the champion after his death?
AF: Grandmaster Hugh Alexander. He referred to Alekhine as his teacher. Alexander is the most classified man in British intelligence, a code breaker, head of the Enigma project, which deciphered all the German codes.
Q: Do you think Alekhine’s death was suspicious?
AF: I suppose it was natural. This is what happened back then. There was a lot of stress, many emotions… Life was hard and people were starving. I don’t think anyone was too interested in chess players.
Q: You financed the restoration of the monument on his tomb in France — was it a new one or did you restore the old monument?
AF: A tree had fallen on it, the slab cracked, and the old one could not be saved. We installed a new monument that looked absolutely the same.
Q: What is your most recent discovery about Alekhine?
AF: I read about his conversation with Paul Keres at a tournament in Salzburg in 1942. Keres asked Alekhine then: “What is going to happen to us? How will this war end”?
Q: What did Alekhine say?
AF: “The outcome of the war is obvious — Germany is losing. That’s when we’ll have to pay for our feats.” He advised Keres to leave the country at the first opportunity. But Keres missed the boat. He got to the NKVD, where he was told he’d have to help Botvinnik win the world championship. This saved his life.
Q: What interesting people have you met in the past 12 months as President of the Federation?
AF: At the Tromsø 2014 Chess Olympiad, I met a FIDE member — I don’t remember the name. An American of Uzbek origin, he was born deaf. He has learned four languages and lip-reads. He is a stockbroker on Wall Street. He told me: “I missed work only once in my life — on 11 September, when my entire office died. I thought for a very long time: why did God keep me alive? Probably to help my fellow disabled people…” He is doing his best for chess to become a Paralympic sport.
Q: Has God ever saved you?
AF: I fell through the ice on the Dnieper back when I was in the ninth class. My friend and I were walking on the bank late at night, talking about the future. It was unusually cold, about minus 20. We thought about taking a walk on the ice — you rarely have a chance. So we did.
Q: And the river was not frozen in spite of the frost?
AF: It was, but they had discharged hot waste water from the factory. It was very close to the bank, about 50 metres. I took a step and fell through the ice.
Q: What about your friend?
AF: He tried to get closer and almost fell through. He had to crawl away. I had to get back to the surface on my own. When we were walking there, we were wondering why the ice was cracking. Was it the crust? When I resurfaced, I got it. There were two options: to move forward and crush the ice or crawl back across the Dnieper in the dark.
Q: Did it take you long to crawl?
AF: A couple of hours. But I was not cold; I was hot, even sweaty. My old friend is now my business partner.
Q: We talked to Ilumzhinov for four hours and our conversation was a revelation. Have you ever had any moment of enlightenment with Kirsan Nikolaevich?
AF: I have, when he shared a story about delivering a speech to Buddhists in India. He spoke about his chess and religious experience. There were a million listeners there. I can’t see how a stadium can fit so many people.
Ilumzhinov always says what he thinks. He is very sincere, but reporters sometimes don’t believe him. It is really hard to believe some of his stories.
Q: Do you believe he was once abducted by aliens?
AF: Anything could have happened to such an extraordinary character.
Q: Who do you think is the most informal character in chess?
AF: I suppose that would be Vassily Ivanchuk. They say he learnt Turkish in three days and lectured on local television without an interpreter. He taught chess. Vassily could not show his best game in Tromsø and freaked out, although you would think one should be calmer about losses with his experience.
Q: What chess player do you think has the most striking memory?
AF: I’d say Smirin. He remembers hundreds of songs by Vizbor and Vysotsky, but only the lyrics, because he never sings. Karpov has a phenomenal memory. I admire his personality: he is incredibly responsible about any business. And he is an outstanding collector!
Q: Have you been thrilled by any of his stories?
AF: Many of them, for instance the one about White Guard Crimea, which printed stamps and postcards that were accepted anywhere in the world. Karpov has some in his collection. He organised a display of his chess stamps in Tromsø and quite a spacious room was filled with his exhibits.
Q: Were any of them particularly exciting?
AF: I used to collect chess stamps when I was at school, so I knew well what I was looking at. I love the stamps printed for the 1948 Moscow match, when Mikhail Botvinnik became world champion. I also admired the first ever chess stamp made in Bulgaria. I’d had no idea that Karpov had it in his collection. But it appears that he has all of the chess stamps ever printed.
Q: Boris Spassky is currently in Russia. Have you met him?
AF: Yes, we support him. His speech is fine after the stroke, and he is of sound mind. He told me: “I dreamed that Fischer and I about which move was better: е2-е4 or d2-d4. In my dream we agreed that the latter was better, because the pawn is protected by the queen…” We spoke at a meeting of the Russian President with champions. Putin seems to like chess. He has visited two tournaments: the White Rook in Dagomys and the match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand in Sochi. Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Chess Federation Dmitry Peskov and Arkady Dvorkovich are also partial to chess.
Q: Have you ever met Kasparov?
AF: Only once personally. Two years before I became head of the Chess Federation, a friend called me and said “Kasparov wants to talk to you.” There were four of us at that meeting at Cafe La Torre: the publisher of 64 magazine Igor Burshtein, former head of the Russian Chess Federation Alexander Bakh, Kasparov and I. I was shocked to hear why we met.
Q: What did Kasparov want?
AF: He said: “I have won all the chess titles, except for the Olympiad as a coach. It is my dream. I’m ready to lead the national team.”
Q: What did you have to do with it?
AF: That’s what I thought. But Kasparov told me matter-of-factly: “I’m talking to you because you are the future head of the Chess Federation.” “You’re the only one to know. I haven’t even dreamed of it,” I told him.
Q: And what did he say?
AF: He chuckled: “Well, I know how it is going to be. So what about the Olympiad?” I told him: “We shouldn’t be having this conversation, I haven’t even thought about heading the Russian Chess Federation.”
Q: How do you think he managed to see so far into the future?
AF: How can you see something like that two years before it happens? Or maybe he saw the level of the organisation at the Anand-Gelfand match at the Tretyakov Gallery and drew some conclusions and came up with a combination?
Q: What else did you talk about?
AF: I wondered how Kasparov would be able to combine his work with the national team and his political activities. He said: “I love chess, it is more important…”
Q: Can you understand today’s Kasparov?
AF: I feel sorry for him.
AF: He is a chess player, definitely not a politician. When you try to do something you’re not cut out for, it always stands out a mile. And the result is always poor.
Q: Do you think Kasparov still wants to play the game of politics?
AF: I suppose he has serious economic incentives in politics — for playing this role. I suppose he came to politics because of these incentives in the first place. Then he got addicted.
Q: Do you think he could go back to chess after his break?
AF: He has never left. He played some games with Short and coached Carlsen … It would be great if he popularised chess in Russia, rather than in America, if he shared his experience with children and played exhibition games.
I once asked Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan why they made chess a compulsory school discipline. His answer was striking: “Research has shown that children who finish chess schools never do drugs. Children learn to count their moves, especially those that can have bad consequences.”
AF: They have chess lessons twice a week and there is a special chess show on television for kids. Drug addiction among children has fallen. China is another example: following the Opium Wars, the entire male population got hooked on opium, and they managed to revive through chess. They saved themselves as a nation.
Q: Would it be a realistic plan to make chess a compulsory subject in Russian schools?
AF: Why not? In any case, it would be better than spending enormous amounts of money on campaigns to combat drug addiction among children.
Q: Does Kasparov ever come to Russia?
AF: The President had invited him to Sochi to the meeting with champions, but he refused to come. Kasparov’s fears of threats to his life are grossly exaggerated. I don’t think there is anything for him to fear.
Q: You are the one to try to make Kasparov’s dream come true…
AF: I am. I have resolved that I will become senior coach of the men’s national team.
Q: Why do you need all this?
AF: There are no victories! I’m a professional coach. After the world championships in Armenia, where we did not win a single medal, I thought that, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. I cannot make it worse, because it is already as bad as it gets.
Q: What is the main weakness of our team?
AF: We have no team. There are some talented players.
Q: Will you analyse purely chess problems?
AF: When in Tromsø, I noted that we had problems with the transition from middlegame to endgame. Our players have two main strengths: the excellent chess school and technique. They are perfectly prepared in the openings. They are so well prepared that they sometimes think before they make the first move — which opening to choose? They have good positions, and then start making lots and lots of mistakes.
Q: You went to Minsk Institute of Physical Culture together with Boris Gelfand. What kind of man is he?
AF: Striking in every sense. I admire his hard work, extensive knowledge and sense of humour. Boris is the one who introduced me to Miguel Najdorf.
Q: It seems you have a whole epoch between you.
AF: Najdorf was over 80, very old. A student of Alekhine’s. There was some tournament; its participants were accommodated in the Oktyabrskaya Hotel in Moscow. I came to Moscow to support Boris. We went to dinner together and then an old man came up to us. Najdorf was involved in some currency speculation and made lots of money that day. He was in an excellent mood and was going to Warsaw the following day.
Q: Did you recognise Najdorf?
AF: Of course I didn’t. Boris told me.
Q: Who was the first billionaire you met in the 1990s?
AF: It is a remarkable story. A friend of mine was supposed to leave for Thailand for talks. His daughter was born on that day, so we were celebrating. In the middle of it, we decided that he was not going anywhere, because he was needed at the maternity hospital. I went instead of him.
AF: I was a very creative thinker at that time, if you know what I mean. I didn’t mind travelling. It seemed I got into that “The Irony of Fate” film — I don’t remember checking in and boarding the plane. During the celebration, we had switched to some harsh Ukrainian home-brew and I was dying for a cold drink in the morning.
Q: Did you get it?
AF: I opened my eyes and could not understand where I was. I followed some people into the hallway and saw a back that I knew very well. Gelfand! He was holding a can of Coke. I told him: “Boris, I need this drink or I’ll die…” He turned to me: “What are you doing in Delhi?” “Wake up, man, Delhi?!” I looked around. Delhi it was.
Q: What was Gelfand doing there?
AF: Playing against Karpov. And our plane was there for refuelling.
Q: And then you went to Bangkok?
AF: Yes, that was where Mr Wit was expecting us. At that time, he was the second man in the country after the King, President of Sahaviriya Group, a gigantic empire with metal smelters, seaports and telecommunication projects all over Asia, and mines in Australia… They were buying steel in Russia.
I had never had a conversation with a man of his perspective. He had a totally different view of the world. But he was incredibly modest. He took us to very expensive restaurants and made stops near small diners to have a $1 rice meal. I would never have dared eat at such a place.
Q: You had a very interesting path to your millions.
AF: When I was a student, I sold our domestically-made appliances — flatirons, hairdryers, and coffee-grinders — in Poland. I came to Katowice to participate in a tournament, but it was cancelled. I had no flatirons and coffee-grinders on me then, and I watched people doing business.
Q: How much did you make per trip?
AF: I ultimately managed to make up to $2,500 a month.
Q: Was Gelfand bringing flatirons with him as well?
AF: No, Boris played chess. He was remote from any business. But some people, including myself, set chess aside back then to start their business.
Q: Why did Poles need our coffee-grinders?
AF: They were cheap. The situation looked like the one we had in late 2014, when the rouble lost value, but price tags remained unchanged for some time.
Q: Did you stand at the counter?
AF: I did. I’m not ashamed of having been a shuttle trader. Our work was hard and dangerous. In the 1990s, the crime rate peaked, both in Russia and in Poland. But I was lucky, and things never got too messy. Sometimes my intuition as a chess player helped me out.
Q: Tell us more.
AF: One day, my “shuttle” friends and I that we wanted more than to make just modest student money and decided not to go all the way to Minsk for stuff, but buy in Warsaw and sell in Katowice, i.e., do business in Poland.
Q: What were you going to sell?
AF: French-made perfumes and cosmetics. We had planned to take a train from Warsaw to Katowice. I suggested hiring a van — it was more expensive, but safer. No-one would have stopped a van with Polish plates and a local driver. Some of my fellows did not support me. They decided to save and took their bags to the station. They lost everything on the way. But we were driven to the warehouse, loaded the van and had a safe trip back.
Q: Did they have cheaper perfumes in Warsaw than in Katowice?
AF: About a third of the price. But the main thing was psychology. Poles got used to our low prices and bought everything we had to offer because of the “momentum.” We made a thousand dollars that week, crazy money for all of us back then.
Q: Did you try to play the same trick again?
AF: No, it was clear we wouldn’t be as lucky a second time.
Q: Ilyumzhinov told us he had to go to criminal “meetings” in the 1990s. Did you ever go to such a “date”?
AF: I didn’t, Thank God. We gave up our “shuttle” business and decided to take up forwarding and organise rail shipments. We began working with the Severstal holding company almost from the start. Our company’s name was Severstaltrans, and no-one thought we were an independent business. They considered us to be the holding company’s transport subsidiary, so no-one had any questions or claims.
Q: Do you remember the day you became a millionaire?
AF: No. But I remember the time when I might have done but deliberately didn’t. I was offered several millions not to start up my own business. I refused.
Q: Did you start your own business?
AF: Yes, and I never regretted it. And I earned my first million in two or three years.
Q: It looks like that wasn’t much of an event for you?
AF: You are right. I just went on working. After you’ve reached a certain level, there are no changes in your way of life.
Q: Is it harder to make a fortune today than in the 90s?
AF: It’s easier. The competition is going down.
Q: Is it?
AF: Russia is a huge country. The birth rate is high and there are many retirees. But the labour force is insufficient. The number of entrepreneurs is also falling. Just analyse the Forbes list for Russia. It has 90 per cent of new names in it compared to those years. You won’t even remember the names that were then known all over the country.
Q: For instance?
AF: Vladimir Vinogradov.
Q: Who is that?
AF: You see? The fact is he was the richest man in the country! The founder of Inkombank. I didn’t know him personally, but I’m really sorry for him. When the Russian government defaulted in 1998, the bank incurred huge losses on government short-term bonds. After rehabilitation, when all the bank’s assets were sold, Vinogradov repaid all the debts to his customers. He went broke and died of a stroke aged 52.
Q: Do you treat the Forbes rating as a competition?
AF: By no means! I don’t have any ambitions like that.
Q: But you happen to know the state of affairs better than the banking researchers that draw up that list. Are there many lies in it?
Q: About you?
AF: They always overestimate me.
Q: You ranked 112th in the latest Forbes list for Russia, with a fortune estimated at USD 0.85 bn. But do you know for sure how much money you own?
AF: How do they count it? They estimate the publicly available value of assets. For instance, we owned a company called Globaltrans. Depending on the market conditions, its capitalisation fluctuated from USD 200 m to more than USD 3 bn. But why should I care how much it costs on a stock exchange if I’m not going to sell it?
Speaking about the estimates made by banking researchers, there is that wise statement by Warren Buffett. He was once asked about mistakes made in business, like, world class Wall Street analysts believe you are getting old and doing everything wrong… Buffett just smiled and said: “Have you often met analysts who have made a fortune?”
Q: Well, you’re quoting Buffett, and we’ll give you a quote by Galitsky: “A businessman is a separate biological breed. Two or, at most, four per cent of people possess an entrepreneurial potential.” Do you agree?
AF: Well, the answer is – no business school and no economics institutes will teach you much. You can learn the trade, but you can’t learn pure entrepreneurship. Either you have that spirit or you don’t… A vast majority of rich people in Russia just own a “legacy”.
Q: Which one?
AF: The Soviet Union’s. When the privatisation started, they just inherited the plants, factories and mines that were public property. They made a fortune instantly, without any effort. But there is another type of entrepreneur. They did not participate in the privatisation, but created huge business empires from scratch. These are what I call real entrepreneurs. There are two persons who stand out among them – Gennady Timchenko and Sergey Galitsky.
Q: And what about you?
AF: I am an entrepreneur, too. But my level is lower than theirs.
Q: Are you acquainted with Galitsky?
AF: No. But I know that he is a Candidate Master in chess. It was his initiative to teach chess at the Krasnodar football club’s Academy and to play chess with footballers. It’s great that such people as Galitsky and Timchenko are fond of chess.
As for Timchenko, we have been partners for quite a long time. Besides a joint transport business, we organised the Chess in Museums project with a match between Anand and Gelfand at the Tretyakov Gallery as the starting point.
Q: Is Timchenko less interested in chess than ice-hockey?
AF: He loves ice-hockey. But he doesn’t forget about chess either. By the way, Gennady Timchenko provides a lot of support for the chess community. His fund is among Russian Chess Federation’s permanent sponsors. All children’s programmes implemented by the RCF receive the assistance from the Fund. The Chess in Museums programme is a project of the Fund, too. Speaking about him, while travelling by plane, he always plays chess using a computer.
Q: Have you ever played him?
AF: Twice. Both games ended in a draw.
Q: You once played chess with a businessman, with the oil fuel price at stake. Can you say what the amount in question was?
AF: The winner would have a couple million dollars in his pocket.
Q: With such a stake in mind, did your thinking start to fail? Or, on the contrary – did you figure things out quicker?
AF: I was nervous. My opponent wasn’t bad at chess. He was quite good. But I won after forty minutes of torment over that chessboard.
Q: Was your opponent devastated?
AF: He was upset. Fortunately, he didn’t have a clue about my chess education. He was set to win and could not imagine something like that would happen.
Q: They say Boris Berezovsky wouldn’t mind drinking wine worth a dollar. What is the cheapest wine you have had recently?
AF: For me, price is not a quality criterion. I used to eat at McDonald’s. It’s not healthy, but it’s tasty. And yes, good wine can cost a dollar.
Q: Which one?
AF: Young Beaujolais in France, for instance. When choosing wine, it’s important to know the province and the vintage. Then you won’t make a mistake. I am not a snob when it comes to alcohol. I like beer, vodka and home-brew. I discovered a bar on Gogolevsky Avenue, not far from the Chess Federation, the other day. A cosy, democratic one. I drank some Jagermeister with ice and orange sprinkled with cinnamon and it was delicious. The bartender assured me it was the right combination.
Q: When did you start collecting paintings?
AF: A long time ago. For my collection, I acquire works by contemporary artists, as well as ones created before 1917. At the same time, my fund entitled Art Russe specialises in a specific historical period – from 1917 to 1991. We buy paintings and sculptures that were taken abroad, hold exhibitions all over the world and publish books about the artists in foreign languages.
Q: What is the gem of your collection?
AF: Do you mean a painting or a sculpture?
Q: A painting first.
AF: Fyodor Reshetnikov’s Low Marks Again.
Q: Yes, remember that. Wrote an essay at school about it. But the panting has been displayed at the Tretyakov Gallery for half a century.
AF: That’s right. This is an author’s copy. We have the earlier one. The artist’s widow sold it to an American.
Q: To a private collector?
AF: Yes. He had been holding it for a long time when my agent saw it quite by chance. We bought it in 2012 and sent it to London for an expert opinion. And it turned out that it was painted about two months earlier than the one they have at the Tretyakov Gallery!
Q: How did you learn that?
AF: Thanks to a sketch of another Reshetnikov work depicted in the background – Arrived For Vacation. The painting at the Tretyakov Gallery also has it, but it’s already completed.
Q: The American who sold the Low Marks Again did not have a clue about what a treasure he had?
AF: Of course, he didn’t! He nearly lost his mind after that. There’s another interesting story connected with Vladimir Serov’s Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power. The original work, featuring Stalin, Dzerzhinsky and Sverdlov standing behind Lenin’s back, was given to Mao Zedong as a gift.
When Khrushchev came to power, he asked the painter to create a new version, without Stalin. That painting was kept at a museum in Zhukovsky. And the third copy is still held by the Tretyakov Gallery. However, the museum in Zhukovsky closed in the 1990s. The world’s leading painters were invited there to make some purchases. This is the way Serov’s painting found itself abroad.
Q: In the USA?
AF: No, in the Netherlands. Years after that, the owner was revising his collection. He was a well-known person specialising in works by the old masters and he wasn’t really interested in a work featuring Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Moreover, he was completely unaware of how much it might cost. He called my agent and said: “Your customer buys works by Soviet painters. I’ve got one that I don’t need…” And he stated the price.
Q: A knock-down one?
AF: A hundred times lower than the market price! But I went as far as to bargain! I thought if he just didn’t have a clue, perhaps he would cut it down a bit?
Q: Was it a good guess?
AF: Yes, he cut it down a little. But such luck is very rare.
Q: Where are these paintings now?
AF: Low Marks Again was in London at an exhibition dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War. Another one is still abroad as well. Lenin is also waiting for an exhibition.
Q: Is there a painting that slipped through your fingers, and you regret it?
AF: A painting by Alexander Samokhvalov. But I don’t make a fuss about such situations. I let it go. On the positive side, though, the Fund is going to announce a major deal in the art sphere in September. The whole world is going to discuss it. Believe me, I am not exaggerating. But I am not in a position to disclose the details right now.
Q: That’s a shame. Then let’s talk about sculptures.
AF: The one that really stands out in the Fund’s collection is a plaster model of Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 1.5 metres high. The one that was shown to Stalin. Our agent found it in London. Vera Mukhina’s granddaughter was selling it.
Q: Do you buy everything at auctions?
AF: We mostly buy from private collectors. When an auction is held, I’m usually not present myself. Sometimes I make my bids by phone, through my agent.
Q: Did you ever lose control at such moments?
AF: Sometimes, the emotions are overwhelming and you get absorbed in this game. But I never buy anything spontaneously. If I like a work and I’m ready to buy it, I try not to let it go.
Q: Where was your first auction held?
AF: In the USA. My representative was there and I was in Moscow. It was already very late here. In order not to call each other every minute, I stated the price range to him. I was interested in Nikolai Fechin’s Portrait of the Engraver J. Watts. The maximum amount I could afford was USD 1 m 150 thou.
Q: Did you understand that you were going to get that Fechin with such a range?
AF: No. Frankly speaking, I knew little about the paintings market in those days. I just felt it was a good investment. There was a fight for Engraver at that auction. My representative closed the deal at 1 million 50 thousand.
Q: Were you ever taken aback by a painting’s price?
AF: It wouldn’t be right to name the author, but there’s a painting that I wouldn’t hang in my kitchen for free! And it sold for USD 60 m. It’s insane.
Q: Is Viktor Popkov your favourite artist?
AF: My favourite artist is the one whose works are being exhibited at the moment. When Fechin’s exhibition was held, he was the favourite. At Popkov’s exhibition, I never thought about any other painters.
Q: He is called “the Dostoyevsky of Russian painting”.
AF: Popkov is a genius. His works have tremendous energy and depth. Let’s take Father’s Overcoat in the Tretyakov Gallery. Popkov’s father did not come back from the war and his overcoat was left at home. He was a little boy then and he put it on, trying to catch the scent of his nearest one. Those were the emotions behind this painting. When you stand near it and take a close look, you get shivers up your spine.
Q: Popkov’s death was absurd.
AF: It was 1974. He was trying to catch a taxi together with his half-drunk artist friends. At that time, there was a series of attacks on cash transit vans in the city. Popkov mistook such a van for a taxi and came near it. A drunken cash-in-transit guard sitting in it decided that these guys were bandits and opened fire on them. So we lost a genius of a painter who was just 42.
Q: Have you ever come across frauds?
AF: No. It’s because I send each and every work to London for an expert opinion first, and they study everything – from dust to stroke structure. Once I decided to buy a painting by Igor Grabar. We checked it, and it wasn’t a Grabar. The experts suggested that the author was one of his best pupils. He didn’t sign it. Grabar’s signature was put on it by someone else. The work is brilliant; you can’t tell it from the original. It’s most likely that the famous artist’s relatives asked for a copy to be painted. Afterwards someone inherited it.
Q: You were named after your grandfather who was a veteran. Did he ever tell you about war?
AF: I never met him. I lived in Dnepropetrovsk, and he – in Kazakhstan. He died there when I was a little boy. My grandfather had many decorations – one Order of The Patriotic War of the 2nd Class, two Orders of Glory, and a Medal for Bravery. There should have been two of them, but he lost one due to a bureaucratic error.
Q: What do you mean?
AF: He was a mortar company gunner. In September 1943, he was put forward for a decoration for destroying a fascist ammunition depot. The order was signed by the regiment’s commanding officer. But the document only reached the army headquarters in December. By that time, my grandfather had distinguished himself in a battle once again, and a second order for a Medal for Bravery appeared. It came earlier than the first one, replacing it in fact. The people at the headquarters did not try to look into the matter and decided that it was the same act of bravery. So there was just one medal. My sister has recently learned this. She collected the necessary documents and filed them with the Ministry of Defence in an effort to restore justice.
Q: Surely it’s hard to surprise you with a gift. Nevertheless, what was the most unusual one you ever received?
AF: There were tremendous gifts but I said sorry and explained that I could not accept them.
AF: They were too expensive. Let’s not go into detail.
Q: Did you ever give gifts that were not accepted?
AF: Once – a birthday gift for my friend.
Q: What was it?
AF: It doesn’t matter.
Q: Just tell me what you did with it.
AF: I gave it to another person who did not refuse it.
Q: You travel a lot. A small town that left a special impression?
AF: Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. A lovely place in the south of France where you’d like to return again and again.
Q: Did you buy anything there?
AF: A flat. A modest one by Moscow standards. Unfortunately, I don’t have an opportunity to visit these places too often.
Q: Mikhail Prokhorov swears he never sent a text or an email in his life. Do you understand him?
AF: Sure I do! Computers are not my thing. I’ve got quick access to information. If there’s something important in my mailbox, I read it. As for social network profiles, I’m not capable of creating them, and I don’t want to do it. There are other things to do.
Q: Related to transport?
AF: Related to chess. My business is a success, I’m a shareholder now, and the company is run by the management team. At the same time, the RCF has very ambitious plans. We need to revive the country’s chess glory, win medals and teach children. Our country is large, and there are a lot of tasks we have to fulfill.
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– GM Susan Polgar