(Sihanoukville, Cambodia) The protagonist of this story, a prominent Russian developer and billionaire, “a Russian Donald Trump”, Sergey Polonsky, is now in a Cambodian jail, in the small seaside resort of Sihanoukville, where I visited him. On December 30, 2012, just before the New Year celebrations, his speedboat was detained after hot pursuit and a few warning machine-gun salvos by the Cambodian Royal Navy, and towed to a naval base. Polonsky was arrested and taken into police custody.
This concluded some ten terrible days of his life that capped a miserable year. After Lebedev’s assault, Polonsky regressed. That public trashing broke not only his jeans, but something more important in his soul. He left for Cambodia, to his offshore home, but he could not find peace of mind even on this tiny islet – as small as the Little Prince’s planet – in the company of two gibbons and two wild cats. His business went astray, unattended: the contracts he made remained uncompleted, his partners did not pay him. He tried to jump-start his failing empire: he leased a string of islands from the state, and spoke vividly of his plans to create on them a super refuge for the end of days, when civilisation is to collapse. In the waters of the Gulf of Siam, teeming with marine life, the refugees from Moscow and New York will find food and energy enough , he said.
Meanwhile, he roamed the islands on his fast and spacious ex-Navy powerboat; he stayed at and slept on the beach of his uninhabited islands for days, playing the marooned sailor. Wearing only a sarong and sporting a knife on a leg strap, tall and barefoot, tanned and bleached by the tropical sun, this ex-commando cut an exotic figure, ready to act in a pirate movie without make-up. This lifestyle was not bad for him at all: he lost weight, regained his slim waist, and now looks younger than his forty years, much younger than he looked a year ago. But he behaved oddly.
A character put of Jack London, he was quickly turning into a character of Joseph Conrad, into a Kurtz in the Heart of Darkness. He could not rest, stayed awake for days and nights on end, ran from one island to the next; his manners – never very polished – became rude even for a Russian worthy. He was outright dictatorial with his staff, giving them orders and forcing their compliance. They had to jettison his shirts into the sea as he ordered them to sacrifice to the sea god, they relate. They also had to cover the seabed with bottles of the best champagne money could buy. Perhaps he took the Maya prophecy for the End of the World a bit too seriously.
He became extremely suspicious; every boat, every native on the island alarmed him. He slept with knife in hand, ready to sell his life dearly. Eventually, he decided to move everything he had to a lonely uninhabited island – and on his orders his employees loaded furniture and computers, china and silver, books and paintings onto his powerboat and sailed away. What did he plan to do with it all on some wild, sandy shore? He acted like Muhammad bin Tughluq, the 14th century Indian ruler who commanded all the dwellers of Delhi to march to his new capital Daulatabad, and then march back a thousand miles.
Anyway, his people had no time to unload the stuff: Polonsky could not decide which island to chose. His orders changed every minute: once, all were to sail with him, later, all were to go back. At night, he thought there was a vessel approaching; “Pirates!” he thought, and commanded his crew to lift anchor and sail away fast-forward.
The crew did not understand what he wanted, or why he shouted at them. Khmers are not used to being shouted at. They did not see the vessel he spoke of, or perhaps did not consider it a source of danger. The captain and the owner had no common language, they had no interpreter. Polonsky was in a state of frenzy, convinced that his boat is about to be seized by pirates. He commanded the crew to jump overboard and swim to the shore some twenty or fifty yards away. Afterwards, he and two of his Russian employees rode away with great speed.
The captain was vexed at this forceful ejaculation, and called the Navy. After hot pursuit, Polonsky was detained and arrested. He did not understand what the problem was: it was his boat, his crew refused to follow his orders, so he kicked them out without endangering their life, and sailed on. He had suspected that they were planning grand robbery on the high seas. This was inadequate behaviour, but the man was far from being in a normal state: the terrible tension of the past few weeks had made him uncontrollable.
At first glance, he was just acting like so many Russian wealthy men who have wreaked havoc in a Parisian restaurant or on board an Emirates jet. But he was larger than life, a grim saturnine figure transcending the norms of civilisation. I could not help but feel pity for a man passing through such a terrible life crisis. After all, billionaires are also human; they are being tempted by their power, but this power is likely to have limits they did not foresee. They do not conform to bourgeois norms, for good and for bad, and when they collapse it is a pitiful sight.
In jail, he calmed down. Not right away: at first, he refused to apologise to his crew, and almost broke the prison to pieces. But eventually, he agreed to make peace. He became a protector of the prisoners, freely spending his now quite limited resources helping the needy. He buys them medicine and bribes the guards to lighten their burden. His fellow prisoners worship him. Despite the promises to release him soon, he is still locked up – more than two months after the event. No doubt he behaved wrongly, but hasn’t he been punished enough? This is the feeling in Sihanoukville: people hope he will get out and help the locals now, after learning such a hard lesson.
Portrait of Polonsky:
Sergei Polonsky is forty, a young man as tycoons go, the first post-Soviet generation of Russian businessmen. He lives in a futuristic penthouse, perched like a ship’s bridge atop a skyscraper with a 360° view, high above Moscow. He designed and built the skyscraper and his own apartment himself, being an architect by education and profession. He spends his weekends floating in a converted barge, moored just beyond the city limits, in the company of a tame racoon, doing chi kung – Chinesemeditation practice – and voraciously reading arbitrarily-chosen books. In winter he drives a slim, high-tech sled pulled by snow-white blue-eyed huskies; in summer he glides through the deeps on a sea-bob, or hang-glides over blissful hills.
He has built himself a fortress of solitude, a stone and glass castle rising from the waves of a lonely island off the shores of Sihanoukville, not far from Alain Delon’s home in remote Cambodia. He meets with Sufi teachers, receives instructions from Zen monks and chi gung adepts. He is into esoteric knowledge and mystic experiences. Originally he hailed from St Petersburg, a man of humble origin. He grew up as the USSR collapsed around him; he studied architecture, went into construction and building, hired Ukrainian builders while they were still inexpensive, and built himself into a real estate developer.
He is proud of being a self-made man; he obtained nothing from the state, and never sought anything, he says. He did not privatise government factories, but instead established good connections with City Hall and catered to newly-prosperous Muscovites. He looks honest enough to buy a used car from, though such trustworthy guys do not become billionaires. People in the know say that he had to cut backroom deals with Mme Baturina, wife of the Moscow Mayor and one of the richest women in the world: no building was erected in Moscow without a nod from her.
Polonsky has tried to avoid politics; he professes a lack of knowledge and interest in things political. He is a builder, he says, no more. He puts his soul into huge projects spreading from Moscow to Switzerland and from London to Croatia. He is democratic in the Russian style: he mixes easily with all kinds of ordinary folks, but they’d better follow his orders or else. He is a petty tyrant, his (dismissed) employees say: he forbids texting during board meetings! Violators have their precious iPhones smashed against the wall (a feat I myself have only dreamed of). His ambitions lie in the spiritual sphere, and business often takes a back seat to his search for God.
Polonsky had gotten himself into trouble, as do all the oligarchs at one point or another. He was not thorough and he was not prudent. He rejected his trusted advisors and surrounded himself with yes-men. He believed his hunch instead of counting odds. He jumped into multimillion deals with a bow and a handshake, and his partners walked away with chunks of his empire. His dreams of samurai honour were shattered by modern Russian business pragmatism.
He relied upon his assistants, and they robbed him blind. The more he empowered them, the faster they would vamoose with his money. His vast capital (assessed at over three billion dollars at the peak) began to shrink precipitously; cash flow became a problem for him, he was over-extended and had difficulty completing his most ambitious projects. Ordinary people who invested in his projects had become justifiably angry.
At that point he had his quarrel with Lebedev, and departed for the Cambodian island. Now it seems he is finished, but such guys are great survivors. He is a lucky devil, and I would not be amazed if he were to rise again in the world.