The World's Most Expensive Divorce, Russian-Style

Dmitri and Elena Rybolovlev are fighting a brutal battle over the Russian oligarch’s fortune. Tracking down and dividing the epic assets of one of the richest men on the planet is an endless task.

Ekaterina Rybolovleva and her $88 Million Crash Pad in NYC (
Ekaterina Rybolovleva and her $88 Million Crash Pad in NYC (
Agathe Duparc

GENEVA- On that day of December 2008 when Elena Rybolovleva decided to divorce her very rich and very unfaithful husband and ask him for $6.3 billion, she remembered a reflex that every wealthy Russian businessman has: profilaktika (or "prevention"). She wrote a letter to the General Prosecutor of Geneva (the city where she had been living since 1995) to warn him that if "anything" ever happened to her, her husband Dmitri Rybolovlev, the former fertilizer tycoon and Russia's 13th richest man, should be considered the No. 1 suspect.

The Ural-born oligarch was actually applying profilaktika when he was forced to quickly relocate his wife and daughter to Geneva in the 1990s, to protect them from the mafia.

"He's the one who taught me the rules. Now I'm playing the game", says the woman who just filed one of the most expensive divorces in history. On both sides, high-priced lawyers are waging battle, something that contrasts with Elena's discreet, almost shy politeness. She refuses to let our photographer take a picture of her.

In this story, everything is excessive. First, you have the "hole" that the Rybolovlev couple left behind in Cologny, in the upscale suburb of Geneva. You can see the huge construction site from the other side of Lake Léman. Each week a surveyor comes to the hillside to assess mudslide risk. Part of the Palace of Versailles was supposed to be replicated here, with underground swimming pools, gyms, limousines and an art collection. But the divorce procedure brought the whole thing to a halt.

According to Swiss Law, each will get half of the fortune amassed in their 21-year marriage. But appraising the fortune and listing the couple's assets is a difficult and endless task. There are two gorgeous chalets in Gstaad, Switzerland, worth 211 million dollars, a townhouse on rue de l'Elysée in Paris, worth 24 million dollars, a yacht, a couple of airplanes, and so on.

The war between the 45-years-old spouses started when Dmitri transferred most of his fortune, including his shares in his company, into two Cyprus bank accounts without telling his wife. He is the sole beneficiary of these accounts, along with his two daughters, 11 and 22.

Mrs. Rybolovleva's lawyers consider this transfer as a way to hide his assets from his wife. They believe there is more than $12 billion in these accounts, whereas Mr Rybolovlev's attorneys claim the amount is closer to two billion.

Protecting the children

Elena Rybolovleva says she is not fighting "for the billions' but rather to stand up to "an oligarch who thinks money can buy everything and put him above the law." She also says she wants to protect her daughters from this "make-believe world." She recently had to explain to her daughter what was wrong with her father's invitation to be flown to Los Angeles "to have tea with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears.""My daughter has to learn that the singers were not coming for her, but for a fee of tens of thousands of dollars," Elena says. "Right now she understands, but how long will that last?"

At the end of 2008, worried that her unfaithful husband was about to hide part of his fabulous treasure, Elena had the couple's assets frozen in the UK, the U.S, Singapore, the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus. This is when she discovered the new Cyprus accounts and learnt that the couple's art collection (which includes about fifteen Picassos, Monets, Degas and Van Goghs) have also been sent to Mediterranean tax haven.

The irony is that she "naively" helped to transfer the masterpieces from Russia to Geneva, Singapore and London "to prevent them from being seized by the Russian government."

In 2011, Dmitri moved from Switzerland to Monaco, where his oldest daughter Ekaterina was living. They are both enjoying the high life. After renting the villa of late dictator Mobutu at Cap-Martin, on the Riviera, the father, daughter and paternal grandparents are now living in a 2,000-m2 mansion, bought for $317 million.

The former fertilizer tycoon also achieved a life-long dream when he bought the AS Monaco soccer club in December 2011. At the time, the U.S press was having a field day with "the real estate deal of the century:" a 600-square-meter penthouse with a view of Central Park, bought by Ekaterina for $88 million. Elena Rybolovleva, who says her husband "manipulated" his daughter, has filed a lawsuit in New York.

Read more from Le Temps in French

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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