By Vladimir Ashurkov
My life changed abruptly in 2012, when I had to resign from a comfortable and fascinating top-level job at Alfa Group, one of the largest and most successful Russian investment holding companies. While I was commended on my work, I was told that my presence in the company constituted significant risk. Later, I heard rumors that this decision was precipitated by a conversation between one of the owners of Alfa Group and Dmitry Medvedev, who was then the Russian president.
Now, I am an executive director of the small nonprofit I helped establish, the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, an organizing member of the political party People’s Alliance and a member of the Coordination Council, an elected body that aims to coordinate opposition activities. Three months ago, the police raided our office as part of an obscure investigation, and a few weeks later, our staff discovered a wiretapping device.
While the prosecution of the band Pussy Riot received wide coverage in the Western press, people may not know that many opposition activists in Russia are detained on fabricated or minor charges. This is what people opposed to the current corrupt, autocratic regime face in my country.
For me, it all started in 2009. I read a blog by Alexey Navalny, who was making his name as a shareholders’ rights and anticorruption campaigner. His efforts resonated with me, as Alexey spoke up against corruption and mismanagement at large statecontrolled companies, such as the Russian bank VTB and the alleged $4 billion in graft related to a Siberian oil pipeline. Using his legal background, Alexey was also not afraid to take on the powerful corporations in court and through petitions to anti-monopoly and law enforcement agencies.
I was always interested in politics and government, and I was very much opposed to the trend toward repression of democracy taking place in Russia. The normal feedback mechanisms between the authorities and society—free election, independent judiciary and press—were being eliminated or manipulated. Corruption became the foundation of the economic and political system.
I wrote to Alexey, offering some advice and ideas, and over time we became friends and allies. I was helping Alexey in anti-corruption investigations, organizing a network of volunteers and fund-raising. Over the years, Alexey emerged as the leading opposition politician and organizer of popular anticorruption civil initiatives, and our foundation became a watchdog against corruption within stateowned companies and government procurement. One of the examples of our success was his campaign “United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves” during the December 2011 parliamentary elections, which by some estimates rubbed off up to 10 percent of the votes from the ruling party.
My employer knew of my collaboration with Alexey, but it wasn’t until the wave of public protests after widescale vote-rigging in favor of the ruling party during those elections that Alfa Group yielded under the political pressure and dismissed me.
Throughout my career, I enjoyed working on complicated business issues, from analyzing M&A transactions within an investment bank to preparing for labor negotiations while working as CFO of a major Russian seaport. In particular, the past five years have been the most fascinating, as I was helping the owners of Alfa Group manage their empire, from X5, the largest Russian retail company, to Altimo, a global telecom holding.
From my years in business, I have learned to value and strive for results and effectiveness. For a long time, I did not see a way to apply myself in a meaningful and effective way that could have the potential to reverse the dangerous route the Russian authorities seem to have chosen. Once I got a taste of tangible results, however small they seem, there was no turning back.
I am often asked if this decision was hard to arrive at. I always reply that there really wasn’t any decision. While this was not a pre-planned career change, I don’t regret my decisions. As exciting as my corporate job was, applying myself to the betterment of my own country beats it in a minute. And the way Russia is governed, my country needs betterment so much.
Working in business was fascinating. Working for my country is burdensome, but imperative. I would not be doing it if I could help it.
Vladimir Ashurkov, WG’96, is executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption. From 2006 to 2012, he was the director of portfolio management at Alfa Group Consortium. Prior to that, he worked in various positions within investment banking and transportation. He was born and lives in Moscow.