There was a joke more than 30 years ago, when immigrants from the former Soviet Union began settling in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood, that they came here because it was as drab and grey as the Soviet cities they’d left behind.
That description still fits parts of this vast and occasionally bleak suburb. But not this tidy, manicured avenue, lined as it is with multimillion-dollar houses – one of which, for me, is the end of a journey that began shortly after the January, 2017, inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, when a diplomatic source capped off our lunch in an Eastern European capital with this intriguing comment: “If you want to understand this whole Trump-Russia thing, look into a guy named Boris Birshtein.”
The broad outlines of the man, I discovered, were easy enough to discern: Boris Birshtein was born in 1947 in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. He first gained a measure of fame in the early 1990s, as one of the most powerful businessmen to emerge from the collapse of the USSR. He dabbled – not unlike Mr. Trump – in real estate and entertainment, and he dreamed, as well, of building a hotel in the centre of Moscow. In an era when the former Soviet Union was moving from outright communism to a form of crony capitalism still utterly dependent on political connections, he wielded enormous clout over the fledgling governments of Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan; he did so by fashioning himself as a middleman for Western companies, including several in Canada, looking to expand into those newly independent states.
But the deeper I dug, the more labyrinthine the tale became. Law-enforcement and intelligence sources told me they themselves had struggled for decades to understand just who Mr. Birshtein was, and who, if anyone, he worked for. Some diplomats and intelligence agents described his powerful and multitentacled company, Seabeco, as a front for KGB-linked operations. Police told me they believed, but could never prove, that he operated under the protection of the Russian mafia.
And yet, others who dealt with Mr. Birshtein portray him more simply as a businessman with an uncanny knack for turning up in the middle of world-changing events.
There are photographs of Mr. Birshtein – who first emigrated from the USSR to Israel, before settling in Canada in 1982 under a fast-track program for wealthy investors – alongside former Canadian prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. He’s also been photographed in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert, and with half a dozen other world leaders. He even seems to have had some kind of relationship with an ex-KGB agent who went on to become President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]