Garik Korogodsky: When your father becomes ill and feeble, carry out his whims
In the first part of the interview, Korogodsky talked about his childhood in Kiev and his youth as a student in Moscow. But what came after that? He started working as a watchman at a bakery, then worked as an electrician at a zoo, then made his first million, and his second… Today Garik Korogodsky is the wealthiest rentier of Ukraine according to Forbes Ukraine, world preference champion, co-owner of the Akvarium fitness center and Dream Town shopping mall, general director of Vita Veritas company, author of the book “How to spend a million you don’t have and other stories of a Jewish boy” etc.
We will add some facts to the data and ratings of this person that everyone knows: he dyes his hair and is flamboyant, but he’s not gay; he says what’s on his mind, but only when it’s appropriate; he can get away with anything, but is so well brought up that he doesn’t get carried away; he can joke and isn’t afraid of the public; he knows how to make money, but didn’t sell his soul for it…
The Almighty gives us the Potential and the Right to chose how to use the “bonus” we are given. Perhaps this is something that Garik has more than enough of – potential and the imagination of where to direct it.
At least, that is how he came across in the interview with JewishNews.com.ua.
When did you start working in one of the traditional Jewish activities – commerce?
From the fifth year at school, probably, I started selling chewing gum, and plastic bags…
You clearly didn’t live on your stipendium in your student years…
Never! The stipendium came to 40 rubles back then, and I spent 500. I calculated that in my student years I visited the restaurant “Razdan” over 1000 times, about twice a week. I got this money in different ways: playing cards, selling theater tickets, and groceries…
“Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions”. How did you manage to maintain relationships with friends over so many years?
Relationships are a lot of work. When you talk to a person who is close to you, you carefully weigh up your words, you can’t hurt them, or offend them… My closest friends are Shpilman and Melamud. We think a lot about what to say to each other, so as not to offend our friends’ feelings. [Garik says these names with particular warmth. They are not just his long-standing friends, Alexander Melamud and Mikhail Shpilman have been his business partners for quarter of a century. The first million that featured in the title of Garik’s book they spent together, earned it together and multiplied it together. Today these two friends are in the top 100 richest people in Ukraine – L.L.’s note]
In Judaism, the Laws of money are very precisely set out: how to do business, pay back debts, who you can lend money to and on what conditions… When you manage your capital, have you taken into account these religious norms of a financier?
The thing is that we grew up as Jews, but at the same time we didn’t know a single Jewish law. My parents were atheists, like many people at the time. I feel a very reserved attitude towards religion today. But I try not to break the laws that I know. For example, there are precise rules about who you should help first of all… As for laws, previously I had to borrow money and even lend it at interest. This isn’t something I would have done over the last 10 years. Now I understand that this is not good according to Jewish law.
Kiev was different in your youth. You were one of the people who changed it. For example, Maidan Nazalezhnosti: you built an underground shopping center underneath it.
Time doesn’t spare anyone. If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have – the city changes. I am now trying to return part of the old Kiev with a few efforts. Some of my efforts are successful, but according to my modest capabilities. I restored the dance floor at the Hydropark [a district in Kiev on the left bank of the Dnepr – L.L.’s note], where elderly people gather in summer and dance. Today it’s just the way it should be. My parents danced there, and I’ll probably dance then in 20 years or so. I also worked on the area where the statue of Lenin stood. I think that our project will win the competition for a number of reasons: firstly, it’s good, and secondly I’m paying for it. [laughs].
You once published the promise in your facebook account: “I’m prepared to buy the right to put up this statue. I’m prepared to pay extra if the person is Brodksy, Tereshchenko or Bibikov.”
Yes. And I keep my word and do everything to fulfill what I promise. If our project wins, then on Shevchenko Boulevard there’ll be a wonderful pedestrian zone with a suspension bridge, it will be a place for lovers.
Are you a romantic?
No! I'm a cynic.
How do you give compliments to your women friends?
Very often, differently, for no reason, and I like to give surprises. For example, on St. Valentine’s Day. I don’t celebrate it, but it’s a wonderful day for surprises. I gave presents to all the women around me – sweets and an enormous fluffy bear. And I said that in the bear’s leg, there was a marijuana joint. Now they wondered what to do with it. I said they had to take it to Moscow. They asked: “Take it?” I said that I don’t think they’ll find the joint [raises his brows cunningly]. I wonder if anyone will cut open the leg or not?
Don’t you feel sorry to give them a bear to be cut up?
But it’s fluffy!
Exactly! Fluffy toys used to be a rarity in the home, it was very hard to find them, do you remember?
We had a fluffy bear in our home. It was terribly hard, but everyone liked it. But I wasn’t allowed to play with it, because it was my sister’s toy. Boys already had things to play with, girls were the ones who needed bears.
How did you earn your first million?
The thing was that I had very large expenses, and they’re still large today. But at a certain moment my income exceeded my expenses. And so I accumulated a million. This was the period of speculation, 1994 or so.
Did you often get the chance to visit your parents in your student years?
Less often that I should have. I regret that I didn’t spoil them more often than I could have, and didn’t fulfill all their whims, especially in the last years. My mother passed away at an early age… and then any whim of my father’s was carried out to 100%. And I taught my parents the same thing. I said, look, when your father becomes ill and feeble, carry out his whims.
A popular trend in the Soviet era was packages. Did you send them on to your parents?
There was a whole story with packages. When my mother lived in Israel, she constantly sent me packages for “very necessary people” as she said. I also constantly sent them in the opposite direction. For example, I sent valerian to Israel, for the entire Soviet population of Raanan and Bat-Yam! Then I refused to take valerian for my mother. According to her arguments, it cost 4 shekels in Kiev, and 30 in Israel. When I found out about this I said I was prepared to write out a subsidy of 26 shekels for each vial for everyone who was taking valerian, but that I wasn’t going to carry it! It makes your luggage stink.
I even restricted my mother once, and then I said that the ban was lifted again and she could give me anything she wanted.
The “very necessary person” was the registrar at the hospital cash-desk. She asked my mother to send a package. I always brought the same things from Israel: coffee and chocolate. The most mysterious thing is that I took the same things from Kiev to Israel. I took packages with coffee and chocolate back and forth, but I still did it. [laughs].
And once my mother gave me coffee and chocolate to take with me once more. She rang me and said that I simply had to receive the package and then someone would collect it from me. I took it and brought it to my secretary at work. The secretary rang me and said that she had dialed the phone number I had given her, and was told: “You need it, you bring it!” Naturally, I asked her to connect me, and I was told: “I’m not going anywhere!” I replied that I had a large garbage bin opposite me, and that I would throw the package into it with a feeling of duty done. The person said to me: “I don’t know who you are, but my mother asked me to take the package to “very necessary people” in Zhitomir. I’ll send a car there. But my mother said that it had to be brought to the office. If you don’t take it to my office, I won’t send a car”. I told him that my mother had said that the package was supposed to be picked up at my office. But if he was sending a car to Zhitomir, then I’d send this “necessary” package to his office. So this “very necessary person” was given coffee and chocolate.
You have several children. What values and life principles do you nurture in your children?
Practically nothing has changed: the same things that my father nurtured in me, sometimes my mother. I try to show them by my own example how to look after the elderly, so that they are looked after in their old age. We examine life situations: when you need to behave in one way, and when in another.
Are you a teaching father? And how do you punish your children?
Yes, I’m a teaching father. Just don’t confuse this with a brooding father. As for punishment, what is “punishment”? I don’t punish. I can’t prohibit my children from going out of the house, for example. I may simply stop doing something for them. My daughter in her early teenage years imagined that she was in love. And the boy was quite unsuitable. And not as a “match” for my daughter, he was unbalanced, and caused destruction by his actions. Here I really had to get involved.
Did your daughter obey you?
It’s impossible not to obey me. I make such conditions that only one choice remains…
Your choice, which is the right one?
My choice is the right one, of course. [laughs].
What do your children do nowadays?
My eldest son is about to graduate from university in England, he’s writing his thesis. He works, he’s got a little candle factory. He makes hookah pipes for various restaurants. He’s forcing out businesses that are already established.
Do you give him suggestions in business?
I help him a lot in business: with money and advice. I’ve lent money to my son and daughter, with a precise schedule to return it. It’s like the joke when the father sells his son his watch at a very profitable price just before he dies. Just like me [stresses the laughable nature of the loan]. So far they’ve always returned it! How do I give money? For example, I give them 100 rubles and say that it needs to be returned at a certain time. If they don’t give it back, then the credit line is closed off for good.
How else do I help my son at the moment? I said that he should make the best service in Kiev, and that he’d have clients. He did so. Now I ring owners of restaurants, and just ask him to listen in and compare the conditions. So far it’s all successful. Additionally, my son works as an advisor to the first deputy Minister of infrastructure of Ukraine. He has lived in Israel, Moscow and Kiev. But he can’t see himself living away from Kiev. It’s the only city he wants to live in.
Is this your influence or your personal example?
I don’t tell him directly where I want him to live. But by my actions, I bring him to this decision. By my own example. And none of my children want to leave Ukraine.
What do your other three heirs do?
My daughter is about to graduate from the Kiev economics institute, and she also has her own business. She’s been working for a few years now and doesn’t take money from me. She has an express manicure company. In fact, she pays me more rent than all the other tenants [the shopping mall that Garik owns – L.L.’s note] It’s awkward to ask for a discount from your own relatives, isn’t it? Everyone asks for one, but she doesn’t.
My youngest children are still at school. My third daughter is interested in biology and has won competitions. She only sees herself as a biologist.
Do your children know about their Jewish roots?
By Halakha my children aren’t Jews, because my wife’s mother is Ukrainian. But they completely feel themselves to be Jews. When I went to the synagogue, we all went to the synagogue together. They identify themselves as Jews 100%. We didn’t want to go through Giyur, we decided this issue together. For our inner feeling it’s not important whether we’ve gone through Giyur or not – we don’t care who others consider us to be, if we consider ourselves part of the people. That’s more than enough for us!
Your elder daughter campaigned for an ethical approach in teaching the topic of fascism at school. What happened?
This happened because of the naïveté of one of my daughter’s teachers. The school really was great, it was expensive and a good one at that time. Additionally, I wanted to give my children English at native speaker level. No one provided this apart from international schools. And out of the two possible schools in Kiev I chose this one. At a history lesson, the teacher showed the power of fascist propaganda. He was Irish and when he gave children the task he didn’t take into account that fascism in this country is a painful topic: in many pupils’ families someone was killed by the fascists, and my relatives are buried at Babi Yar, and for us it is just not acceptable even to see a swastika. He didn’t take this into account.
But after I politely asked them to remove the topic from the subject, they said things to me after which there was no turning back: “We’re in charge here and we set the conditions. And you either study at this school, or leave.” This was like a challenge, and I don’t like this sort of talk. I had to intervene: the school was a step away from being closed down, there were protests held outside it, and people didn’t talk to Liza, almost all the pupils were against us…
In a Ukrainian school today everyone would be on the children’s side, but there everyone was on the school’s side. A lot of pupils were to graduate that year, and I was questioning the closure of the school. Accordingly, children who had studied there for 11 years would not get into university. In the end I was offered a compromise, that they wouldn’t close down the school, but that they’d remove everything from the curriculum that shouldn’t be there.
The topic of the Holocaust really is a painful one, but over the last 15 years it has become a subject of PR and manipulation in our country…
You see, it’s very convenient to exploit anti-Semitism and find it in any sort of actions. Especially a people are very afraid of this word in Europe.
When did you find out that Babi Yar was part of the history of your family?
I was told about this when I was about 16, I had started asking about it then. As I was later told, I was protected. Before that we used to go to the monument with flowers. All of the stories connected with Babi Yar are sad one. And my relatives were no exception. My entire family, including my father, was supposed to be evacuated to Tashkent. My father had a younger sister. She fell ill before they were due to leave, with a temperature of around 40. They decided that my father would go first (he was 11 years old), and that his mother and sister would go in a week. They didn’t make it…
Did you tell your children about this at an earlier age than when you were told about it?
I think it’s never too early. My daughter was around eight at the time, and I took her to “Yad Vashem”. My wife was opposed to it. Babi Yar taught us all a lot, and I think that Israel has done everything to make Babi Yar impossible today. Jews won’t go out voluntarily to be shot…
What does Garik like to eat, after growing up on Jewish cuisine? Do you cook yourself?
I’m omnivorous. I really like cooking, but recently I’ve been doing this very rarely. I make complex dishes that my grandmother made, I took everything from her. For example, mushroom stew. My grandma taught me that the longer it cooks, the more delicious it will be. I only stew it in a cast-iron pot, no light alloys and modern coverings. It should be old cast iron that is sold at the market. First you stew the onions, on a low heat for over an hour, then add the mushrooms.
“If you want to do it quickly, fry yourself an omelet,” my grandmother said.
It takes me almost five hours to make stew. I don’t keep ingredients for a long time and don’t cut them up – I do everything quickly, so I have creative disorder in my kitchen. The same thing with clothes: when I come home, you can trace my path by the clothes I take off as I walk.
What did your Jewish grandmother give you for desert?
She made a fantastic strudel. The dough was so thin that you could read through it. She always made it with thick cherry jam. The strudel was so firm that you couldn’t squash it. Or apple pie. The apples had to be sour. There are only two sorts that she cooked with: “Antonovka” and “Simirenko”. What people make these days and call strudel would upset my grandmother – it’s just apple pie.
I tried to start a Jewish kitchen at the Brodsky synagogue. What was the task? To give jobs to Jewish women, to give this business to my son and give Jews the opportunity to eat delicious food. I invited Jewish women, most of them were quite grown-up. The conditions were that they bought all the ingredients, and for making the first dish they would be paid $50, and then the winners in various categories would have dishes ordered from them for $50. We already had people lining up who wanted to eat deliciously. They’d get paid, my son would get paid, and people would have food. Unfortunately the idea was a failure: a lot of participants turned up, but we were ashamed to sell what they cooked.
You read a lot, you have a fine writing style… What’s your favorite book?
Probably “The Golden Calf”. The humor is very rich, every word is important. When the humor’s rich, the book becomes too heavy, and you can’t read it again. But with this book, you can! I constantly find something new in it. After the tenth or so reading I found how they played with names: with one letter Russian surnames turn into Jewish ones. Every surname in the book is meaningful – Zalkind, Chalkind, Palkind, Malkind and Kukushkind.
Today you can afford a grandiose life without wanting for anything. But as you once admitted, you prefer comfort to “golden toilets”. In a lot of your interviews you say you’re not picky in your daily life. But are there things that give you pleasure? As they say, trifles, but pleasant”…
There are things I like. I have my favorite cups for my morning coffee. They’re disproportionately even, they look weird, and the liquid cools in them slowly. I like hot, strong, delicious coffee.
I also like the scent of fresh linen. People change their bed linen once a week on average. I thought that if I work so much and like this scent so much, then why can’t I afford to change the bed linen every day. Now I have fresh bed linen every day. And regardless of how the day went, when I go to bed, this little whim brings me joy.
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