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Shabtai von Kalmanovic watches Abramovich with admiration. "He was smart enough and lucky enough, and God helped him and he became very rich," Kalmanovic says. "I know a lot of people for whom that would be the end of the story. But, being honest, he knows he should pay his debt to Russia. He loves soccer and decides to help. One oligarch may want to pay his debt for what he's made here. Another may want to get closer to politicians. You will not find one reason that fits all the oligarchs. But all believe [investing in sport is] a good way to spend their money."
For his part, Kalmanovic protests that he's not an oligarch. He reserves the term for those with new money and much greater influence. The beginnings of his own wealth date to the Soviet era, when the elite could parlay foreign travel and overseas political contacts into private riches. Gifted in languages, Kalmanovic was plucked to serve as an intelligence officer in the Red Army. When he moved to Tel Aviv in the 1970s, he appeared outwardly to be another Russian Jewish �migr�—albeit a strikingly well-connected one, for he made an early fortune as a developer of South Africa's Sun City resort. In December 1987 he was arrested in Israel and soon convicted of passing information to the Soviets; news reports suggest that he was exposed as a result of the prosecution in the U.S. of Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard.
Kalmanovic says he can't speak about this chapter of his life because of the terms of his release in '93, after serving six years of a nine-year sentence, in a deal between Jerusalem and Moscow that led to greater Russian Jewish emigration. The gag order, he claims, expires in five years. Then, Kalmanovic says, "I will tell everything in my book."
ON A Saturday afternoon in late October, the Spartak women are entertaining a team from Orenburg in their new arena, which accommodates 4,000 or so and sits hard by a beltway in the Moscow exurb of Vidnoe. With the slate-gray sky and a conga line of traffic, the scene outside could be of Auburn Hills, Mich. Inside, Kalmanovic stations himself at a corner of the scorer's table for pregame introductions. Before loping onto the court, the Spartak players detour to the owner, who plants Eurokisses on each.
Moscow Region governor Boris Gromov, a former general who commanded Soviet forces in Afghanistan, presides over this fastest-growing part of Russia, a sprawl of shopping malls and housing blocks. Many people choose to relocate to Vidnoe from central Moscow, where traffic is so bad that in the last several years sports teams have at least twice been forced to abandon buses and hop the Metro to make games on time. The quality of life may be better outside the capital, but that's a relative standard in a country in which life expectancy for men has plunged to 59 since Soviet times, and up to 30,000 people die each year of alcohol poisoning, a per capita rate 200 times that of the U.S. The Gromov government nonetheless tries to do its part to promote health and fitness, having built 18 gyms in the last year alone, as well as the showplace that is the site of this day's game.
To a politician like Gromov and a developer like Kalmanovic, it makes sense to curry each other's favor. When he stands for reelection, Gromov can point to prestigious titles and thriving grassroots sports programs; when he wants a piece of the development action, Kalmanovic can count on fair hearings for his zoning appeals. These exercises in mutual goodwill are delicately known as "governmental relations," or GR.
One of the Moscow Region's new gyms houses Kalmanovic's two-year-old Olympic Reserve School, which is developing more than 200 basketball prospects of both genders. When not occupied with her three-year-old twin boys, Arkhipova runs the school. "Not all 200 will become big stars," says Kalmanovic, who knows that Putin himself was once an aimless youth for whom sports provided discipline and purpose, "but at least that child won't become a drug user or a hooligan. The more schools built, the fewer children in the street with bottles of beer in their hands."
And the more schools built, the closer Russia is to creating a privately funded equivalent of the state-run sports schools of the Soviet era, which usually placed the motherland atop the Olympic medals standings. From Abramovich, with Chelsea and his archipelago of soccer schools, to Kalmanovic, with Spartak and his efforts on behalf of youth basketball, wealthy Russian businessmen are working both ends of the sporting street: at the top, high-priced "collectibles" for inspiration; at the bottom, masses of kids for investment in future glory.
It has been a long time since there has been this much method to Russian sport amid the madness of life in the former Soviet Union. During the height of the decadent '90s, every evening at midnight, one Moscow restaurant favored by the nouveau riche would auction off a single red rose. After watching the rose fetch $110 one night, journalist Chrystia Freeland described the scene in her book about the rise of the oligarchs, Sale of the Century: "It could have been a nauseating moment. But there was something glorious about it too. The man in the suit that was a little too shiny and the tie that was a bit too wide bought that rose just because he could. Because there was no central planner, no head of the factory Communist party cell, no stern censor of morality in the workers' state, to tell him not to."
As Putin's brand of state capitalism fills the vacuum left by state socialism, and Mother Russia tells men what to do with at least some of their money, sport is the great beneficiary. Leonid Fedun, president of Moscow city's Spartak soccer club and vice president of Lukoil, is one of those men. In the fall of 2007, after Russia's national soccer team slipped through qualifying for Euro 2008 by the grace of England's 3--2 loss to Croatia, Fedun said he would make good on a pregame promise to deliver a Mercedes to each of Croatia's top four players if they led their team to victory. The practice of paying incentives to the opponent of a rival remains commonplace in Russia, where it's known as stimulyatsiya, or stimulation.