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A Russian Magnate’s Facebook Bet Pays Off Big

With his droopy eyeglasses and boxy suits, Alisher B. Usmanov is at no risk of being mistaken for a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. But the Russian steel tycoon is poised to make billions of dollars from the initial public stock offering of Facebook this week — in the same league as many of that social networking company’s early backers.

Mr. Usmanov, an industrial and media magnate who has demonstrated a keen ability to take advantage of the opportunities that appear in a financial disaster, is reaping the rewards of an ambitious bet on Facebook made amid the global economic recession in 2009.

As other investors were demanding tough terms, he said in an interview this week, he and his Russian business associates were willing to buy almost 10 percent of the company while giving up the voting rights on those shares to Facebook’s founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

Alisher Usmanov
Getty Images
Alisher Usmanov

Now the Russian-led investments of less than $900 million, made through two entities, Mail.ru and Digital Sky Technologies, will be worth more than $6 billion, based on the midpoint of the $34 to $38 price range that Facebook’s bankers have set for the stock.

Mr. Usmanov, 58, who got his start in the plastic bag business and was reared in a remote part of the Soviet Union, said he learned the benefits of acting boldly during the ruble crisis of 1998.

“I have a theory of crisis that you must employ crisis to create additional margin,” he said this week in a telephone interview. “You need to understand when the moment of growth is coming, and invest just before that.”

Mr. Zuckerberg turned to the Russian investors in 2009 at a meeting quietly brokered by Goldman Sachs . Other sources of financing had slowed because of the crisis. And, because of the popularity of online social games in Russia, investors here had a keen sense of the value of social networking sites and were willing to pay more than others for a stake in Facebook.

The Russians were also willing to accept another condition important to Mr. Zuckerberg. Despite owning 10 percent of Facebook, they would get no voting rights or seat on the board. They would also have no say in the site’s policies on privacy or political organizing — preserving independence that has become especially important as Facebook has played a major role in domestic politics in Russia.

Mr. Usmanov, who is close to the Kremlin, has not hesitated to use his media properties to support the government. Last December, he fired the publisher and editor at one of Russia’s most respected newsmagazines, Kommersant Vlast, after it published detailed accounts of bald falsification in national elections. Mr. Usmanov said he fired the executive not for the political coverage per se, but for printing a picture of a ballot defaced with an obscenity insulting Vladimir V. Putin, then prime minister of Russia and now president.

But Mr. Usmanov said the Russian venture into Facebook was purely commercial. “Americans started investing abroad after 100 years of capitalism at home,” he said. “We are doing it after 20 years.”

The precise details of the Russian ownership in Facebook are difficult to assess. The investments were made over two years though the Russian Internet company Mail.ru and the investment fund Digital Sky Technologies, also known as D.S.T., which is run by the venture capitalist Yuri Milner. Although Mr. Usmanov was the leading backer, other investors were involved.

Mr. Milner met with Zuckerberg in 2009 before the first investment, though Mr. Usmanov has never met him.

Mr. Milner said his focus on social networking reflected insights gained from watching the Russian Internet market develop in the last few years. In 2005, D.S.T. began investing in Internet companies in Russia and Eastern Europe, where, as in parts of Asia, people took to social games and the trading of virtual goods faster than in the United States.

The print media market was already weak, a legacy of the Soviet breakup and political controls on national newspapers, leaving a freer space for crowdsourced media like social networks.

Mr. Milner said that this led to an understanding that social networking business models involving tiny payments from large numbers of users had vast potential in emerging markets.

“At the time, I was probably the best-informed person in the world about social networking monetization,” he said.

Russia remains one of the few major markets today where Facebook does not dominate social networking, because of the strength of local companies like VKontakte and Moi Mir. (Other markets where Facebook is weak include South Korea, where it is gaining, and China, where government firewalls block the site because of its potential to be used in organizing dissent.)

What he learned in Uzbek prison

Mr. Usmanov said that, after the series of investments from 2009 until 2011, he and Mr. Milner owned about 9 percent of Facebook at one point, but now own about 6 percent and will hold about 4.5 percent after the initial public offering. The other shares they originally controlled have gone to other investors, clients of D.S.T. and corporate entities.

Mr. Usmanov earned his billions in the post-Soviet business world, managing steel mill subsidiaries for Gazprom before they were spun off as his own businesses, Gazmetal, later renamed Metalloinvest. Mr. Usmanov has said he took on debt in this transaction and others acquiring iron ore mines in Russia.

He said he would use money from investors who buy his shares in the Facebook I.P.O. to invest and pay down debt at his other Russian businesses.

This year, Russia’s second-largest cellphone company, MegaFon, which Mr. Usmanov partly owns, is expected to issue shares in London in its own I.P.O.

From his work with Gazprom, Mr. Usmanov is said to be close to Russia’s former president and current prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former chairman of the Gazprom board. His ties to the Kremlin and Facebook have stirred concerns that he might influence the company’s policies in subtle ways to appease governments in markets where Facebook is also an important tool of political dissent, such as Russia.

Because he does not vote Facebook shares, however, Mr. Usmanov has no direct influence on policies for the site in Russia.

A native of Uzbekistan, Mr. Usmanov spent six years in an Uzbek prison after being convicted of fraud and embezzlement in the 1980s, charges he contends were politically inspired and the result of a power struggle among the Uzbek elite. Mr. Usmanov’s father was a prosecutor. He was sent to a remote prison camp where many men his father had convicted were serving time, apparently an intentional decision so he would be abused or killed.

Soviet courts later exonerated Mr. Usmanov and expunged his record. The Supreme Court of Uzbekistan in 2000 ruled that the K.G.B. had fabricated evidence against him and other children of top Uzbek officials in that period.

“I survived only because I loved my wife, and wanted to return to her, and because I wanted to prove I was innocent,” he said. “I am an example to innocent people in jail. A man like that can achieve something. I dedicated 25 years of my life to this idea.”

Evelyn M. Rusli contributed reporting from New York.

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