Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich filed a defamation law suit against the HarperCollins publishing company and the author of “Putin’s People”, Catherine Belton, in London on March 22.
"Today my legal representatives have issued legal proceedings in England in relation to a book that was published in the UK. The book contains a number of false and defamatory statements about me, including about my purchase, and the activities, of Chelsea Football Club," Abramovich said in a statement posted on the website of Chelsea Football Club.
Putin’s People has been widely praised for its thorough dive into the world surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belton, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, had conducted hundreds of interviews during the research for the book.
Among the claims made in the book is that Putin asked Abramovich, with whom he is well acquainted, to specifically buy Chelsea FC as a means of extending Russia’s soft power. Abramovich has denied the allegation.
“It doesn’t make any sense. How does buying a football club benefit Russia in any way?” a person close to Abramovich told bne IntelliNews.
The legal case could prove to be significant, as unverified allegations are regularly made against public figures deemed to be “close to Putin” and allegations of corruption and worse are regularly made against them without concrete evidence.
The oligarchs and other powerful figures have become more litigious recently, although most of the defamation lawsuits have been brought in Russia against Russian media. In the past oligarchs have not often sued international media. The exception was fellow 90s-era oligarch, the late Boris Berezovsky, who repeatedly sued international news outlets for making damaging but unsubstantiated claims.
“This action was not taken lightly,” Abramovich said in the statement, saying it has never been his ambition to gain a public profile and he has always been reluctant to provide commentary on any matters, including any false or misleading statements about him or Chelsea Football Club.
Abramovich has always tried to keep a low profile. When his name rose to prominence in the 90s while Boris Yeltsin was president, the press found they had no photos of him at all and a hunt began to track him down. Eventually he invited a photographer to visit him in Chukotka in Russia’s Far East where he served as governor for several years.
Abramovich was a key figure in the so-called Family clique that surrounded Yeltsin together with the president’s daughter Tatiana Yumasheva at the end of the 90s. After Putin took over in 2000 Abramovich became governor of Chukotka, but scaled down his business activities in Russia and maintains a much lower profile these days.
In this week’s lawsuit Abramovich claims the accusation in Belton’s book are having a “damaging effect,” not only on his personal reputation, but also in respect of the football club’s activities. Abramovich’s legal team has been in talks with the publisher for several weeks trying to find a resolution to the dispute without success, a source in the Abramovich team told bne IntelliNews.
"My objective has been to avoid a legal case and my legal team has engaged with the publishers to try to find an amicable resolution. We have provided them with detailed information addressing the various false allegations about me in the book, including the repetition of allegations that have already been held to be false in the English High Court during previous legal proceedings,” Abramovich said in his statement.