THE BLOG
10/22/2014 07:24 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

An Encounter with an Oligarch

My "Marshall Plan for Ukraine," continued.

But, this time, a few words about the figure at the origin of the Forum in Vienna where I proposed the idea: Firtash, Dmytro Firtash, the man I referred to in my article as "the gas king" but who, as I learned a few days ago in New York, is considered one of the most mysterious and disturbing oligarchs in Kiev: arrested, last March, in Vienna, bail set at a world record level ($173 million) because the American authorities smell corruption around a titanium concession in India and suspects links with the don of organized crime in the region, the legendary and fearsome Semion Mogilevich.

No need to say that in retrospect I find this tycoon on the brink all the more interesting.

The coterie that surrounds him that night at the closing event of the Forum, held in the Hofburg Palace, the erstwhile residence of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth.

The deference that former president Viktor Yushchenko and boxing-champion-turned-mayor-of-Kiev Vitaly Klitschko both seem to show him.

The wall of silence with which he greets the swarm of journalists kept at bay by his army of assistants.

And then the confidences he imparts to me after dinner, perhaps because I am not a journalist, or because I am neither Ukrainian nor Austrian -- I don't know.

His childhood spent picking tomatoes in an obscure village in western Ukraine.

His flight, at age 17, to the eastern part of the country, where he drove locomotives before becoming a fireman (or the other way around).

The young officer demobilized from the very last Red Army who, like Jay Gatsby after the battle of Argonne, was "so broke" that he could not buy civilian clothes and was still wearing his uniform when, as in Fitzgerald, he met the Meyer Wolfsheim (Semion Mogilevich?) who showed him that he could earn a thousand dollars, then ten thousand, then a million, through informal trade with Turkmenistan.

His admiration for America, the homeland of self-made men like himself.

He speaks not a word of English (nor of any other language but Ukrainian and Russian), but my God, how he loves America, having so long dreamed of the country in which a little newspaper vendor like David Sarnoff could become the inventor of modern broadcasting or a farmer's son like Henry Ford the architect of the American Way of Life! He learned their biographies by heart. He still can't say enough on the subject of the lives of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and even Ross Perot.

And then the other war, after he had made his fortune, this one fought in the jungle of the newly rich who emerged from the fall of communism.

The unrelenting campaigns conducted against him by, for example, Yulia Tymoshenko. The politician with the pretty braid? The muse of the credulous West? Come on! he mutters with ill-concealed rage. She's a plotter, a killer, the instigator, to hear him tell it, of a conspiracy against him, the goal of which is to purloin his empire...

And then on to Poroshenko.

He doesn't say Poroshenko, though, but Petro, or, more precisely, "Petra," with an A. I have him repeat it a few times, but he really does say "Petra" with a curious open A that is like the A in an astonished "Ah!" and that bespeaks the familiarity of two big cats, one of whom became president, the other the mind behind financial schemes as opaque as they are successful -- but their places could have been reversed.

"Congratulations, Petra!" is the substance of what he's saying.

Bravo for the "firmness" he has shown in the face of the powerful Putin, whom we Europeans haven't really dared to confront.

"Except..."

He seems reluctant to continue, glancing for affirmation at the associate who, from the outset, has been translating the conversation.

"Except?" I prod.

"I don't know... The words... I'm not sure that he's found the right words to communicate with Putin..."

The thought crosses my mind that he might be using me to send a message to his comrade in oligarchy, Petro Poroshenko, offering his services. He wants me, I reason, to tell "Petra" that, as one of the rare Ukrainians who speaks native Putinese, he should be sent to Moscow to defend the interests of the imperiled Ukrainian motherland.

But I don't have time to ponder the point.

Or to explore his assertion that Inter, his television station, was one of the first to carry the voice of the Maidan, right from the start of the December demonstrations.

Because we have moved on to considerations of religion. This time he's the one asking the questions. Am I a believer? Do I practice? And when I answer no; when I tell him that, to my mind, every Jew is a rabbi in his own house and that, through study, I have fashioned my own form of Judaism, he gazes at me with a curious melancholy and mumbles something that his associate does not translate but that a common acquaintance assures me later was this: "We, too, in our business, set our own rules." Then, after a long silence, he says, but in a tired voice and as if talking to himself: "Well, you understand, I go to church every Sunday, I pray..."

The truth is that I have no idea whether the allegations against this man are true.

Having never met anyone of his ilk, I have no way of judging the sincerity or insincerity of his claims of innocence.

But, in his eyes, he has a bit of that sad placidity that Fitzgerald attributed to his last tycoon, which makes him likeable.

He has, in his manner of remaining detached from the marvels that surround us and that he has rented for the evening -- Habsburg jewels and insignia of the Holy Roman Empire included -- something reminiscent of that other great billionaire of contemporary literature, Valéry Larbaud's A. O. Barnabooth, who said that when he went to Florence it was less the sumptuousness of the Uffizi that attracted him than the "outskirts of the city," its "sleazy quarters" and "cabaret shows" -- and that, too, that distance, that implication of nonmembership, weighs in his favor and, at any rate, gives him a very novelistic cast.

And when, as we are departing, I remind him that we no longer live in the time of Barnabooth and Gatsby and that, in the America that he so admires, a rich man's honor turns on giving back to his country a part of what it has given him -- when I ask him whether, if the idea of the Marshall Plan for Ukraine that I have just presented at his forum were to take shape, he would not set an example for his peers by investing a portion of his vast fortune, his face brightens for the first time since the evening began, and he answers me without missing a beat: "I've done a lot of thinking over these trying days, a lot, and, believe it or not, this time, I'll be there."

I hope so.

I don't pray, but I do hope!

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy