Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

BALLET'S TOP BANANA; for His Entrance into London Society, New Oligarch on the Block Vladimir Kekhman Deployed Holograms, Ice Sculptures, Elizabeth Hurley and a Fortune Built on Bananas. He Shows Sasha Slater How Ballet Can Conquer the World

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

BALLET'S TOP BANANA; for His Entrance into London Society, New Oligarch on the Block Vladimir Kekhman Deployed Holograms, Ice Sculptures, Elizabeth Hurley and a Fortune Built on Bananas. He Shows Sasha Slater How Ballet Can Conquer the World

Article excerpt

Byline: Sasha Slater

Every so often, a new Gatsby descends on London, intent on making a splashy entrance into the social scene. First, we enjoyed watching the young Prince Azim of Brunei and his comet's tail of mature beauties, including Faye Dunaway, Jerry Hall and Raquel Welch, blaze a trail from Knightsbridge to Boujis using The Dorchester as a base. Then came Goga Ashkenazi, a Kazakh engineering billionaire dripping in diamonds, whose mysterious glamour swiftly enthralled Prince Andrew. But the latest party host to muscle his way into the diaries of London's most invited is the most intriguing of all. And, to help him make his grand entrance, he brings with him some 60 sloe-eyed, swan-limbed ballerinas. Two weeks ago, Vladimir Abramovich Kekhman, a hitherto unknown Russian, conjured up a startling guest list for his London debut. Elizabeth Hurley and Hugh Grant represented the capital's glitterati, former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, Shadow Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw and Minister of State for Climate Change Greg Barker flew the flag for Parliament, while Hanson conglomerate heir Robert Hanson, Conservative party donor and Autotrader magnate John Madejski and publisher Michael Heseltine were the business world's ambassadors to the court of Kekhman. The party was as lavish as the guest list: held in The Northumberland, a newly opened venue in a Victorian pile in Trafalgar Square, guests entered a vast ballroom in which the hologram of a ballerina danced Swan Lake. Tables were piled with ostrich feathers and swan ice sculptures slowly melted as the jazz band played and guests devoured fillet of beef and orange souffle.

But most of the 200 guests didn't have much time to eat, as they were queueing up to introduce themselves to Kekhman, who bears a striking resemblance to Dr Evil: his head is shaved, his eyes steely, his manner commanding. But rather than seeking to hold the world to ransom with nuclear warheads, his fortune, which has multiple noughts, derives from an unexpected source: bananas.

In the USSR in the early 1990s, a banana was a precious luxury. Christmas was banned, but the New Year treat for lucky St Petersburg families was a bunch of very green bananas, which would be bought with great fanfare and placed under a radiator to ripen in time for the celebrations.

Kekhman, though, was not brought up in St Petersburg, but in Samara, a town far to the east on the banks of the Volga where, in winter, temperatures can drop to -40C.

During the Second World War, Samara was designated the alternative centre of government should the Nazis ever reach Moscow, partly for its inaccessibility and partly for its industrial power. The city churned out aircraft and ammunition for Stalin and then, in the 1960s, became the missile shield centre for the country. As a result, so sensitive was Samara strategically that it was designated a 'closed city' and no foreigner was allowed to set foot in its grim industrial confines. No wonder that the young Vladimir, son of a moderately comfortably offengineer father and teacher mother, pined for the glamour of exotic fruits and ballet. These days he has repudiated his home town and has no links at all with Samara. He considers that his character was formed by his adopted city, St Petersburg.

The 42-year-old's fortune came swiftly after Perestroika. 'The new age opened up new possibilities,' he explains curtly. 'And I made use of them. Tropical fruits don't grow in Russia, and the idea of organising importing bananas turned out well. These days, bananas are the cheapest fruit in Russia.' And Kekhman should know. He has a 36 per cent share of the market and, as a result, a personal fortune reported to be in the region of [pounds sterling]110 million. He has managed to stay on good terms with the Medvedev-Putin administration, which is essential for what he wants to achieve.

ekhman's ambition to be an international ballet Kimpresario is a new one. …

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