It’s mother vs. son in Britain’s priciest divorce war
Tatiana Akhmedova is trying to recoup part of a $858 million judgment owed by her ex-husband by suing her elder child, who she says has been shielding his father’s assets.
As we leave behind a year of plague and solitude and hope for an age of renewal and togetherness, readers may yearn for uplifting stories about family, love and community.
If you are one of those people, here is some advice: Read something else.
Because there is nothing but malice and exorbitant legal fees in the story of 27-year-old Temur Akhmedov and the divorce of his parents, Russian billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov and Tatiana Akhmedova. It is a feel-awful yarn for a feel-awful era, offering the unhappy spectacle — livestreamed in December from the Family Division of the High Court of London — of a mother testifying against her son, and vice versa, as she sues him for nearly US$100 million ($139.5 million) in cash and assets.
It is just part of Tatiana Akhmedova’s ongoing efforts to claim a portion of a US$615 million ($858 million) divorce settlement, believed to be the largest in Britain’s history, awarded to her after a trial in 2016. Her ex-husband has refused to hand over a single ruble and has kept his money, and himself, far away from the United Kingdom and the reach of its courts.
So Tatiana Akhmedova and her lawyers tried a new approach. Temur Akhmedov, the older of the couple’s two sons, is a UK resident, which makes his holdings eminently seizable. And for a guy who isn’t yet 30, he has plenty to seize. His father “showered Temur with unimaginable amounts of money,” as Temur Akhmedov’s own lawyers put it in a court filing.
This includes a three-bedroom apartment next to Hyde Park worth about US$40 million ($55 million), bought for him when he was still in college. He also is the “registered keeper” of a US$460,000 ($642,000) Rolls-Royce SUV, Mercedes-Benzes and more.
Tatiana Akhmedova sued not simply because of the source of this bounty. The theory behind the lawsuit is that her son was instrumental in helping his father shuttle millions into trusts and tax havens around the world, specifically to frustrate his mother’s efforts to obtain her settlement.
To Temur Akhmedov, this idea is laughable.
“Yeah, I told my father what to do; I was the mastermind,” he said sarcastically in an interview, conducted over Zoom on December 4, before his testimony in the case began. “No, it’s not true.”
Temur Akhmedov was speaking from his brother’s apartment in One Hyde Park, a modern and opulent building in the Knightsbridge section of the city. He looked battle ready and sounded aggrieved. Getting sued by your mother, it turns out, can darken your mood. He was navigating an assortment of hassles, not least of them a worldwide freezing order that prevents him from moving or selling any assets, along with a spending limit of about US$4,000 ($5,500) a week. That’s less than it sounds, he said, under the circumstances.
“It’s all relative. It’s not like it all goes to me, and I can go spend it on candy. I have to look after my daughter. I have to look after her mother. I have to look after my apartment, the house in France I own with my brother.”
The yacht dispute
London has been known as “Moscow on Thames” for decades, the place where rich and safety-minded Russians can park their families, and at least some of their money, after earning vast sums since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The sons and daughters of these billionaires are now all grown up, and Temur Akhmedov is part of a generation known for driving flashy cars and running up big tabs at posh restaurants in Knightsbridge and Mayfair.
For the United Kingdom, the influx of Russian capital — and capital from the super rich in other parts of the world — had upsides. Real estate prices and tax coffers were plumped, and a mini-industry of accountants, lawyers and advisers sprang up, all of whom helped these émigrés navigate the tax codes and buy big-ticket items, like soccer teams.
This mutually beneficial relationship has had its share of hiccups, and the Akhmedov divorce is one of them.
A native of Azerbaijan, Farkhad Akhmedov had earned an estimated US$1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) through a Siberian energy company, Northgas, and he long seemed intent on enjoying his riches.
In addition to mansions, a private jet, helicopters and masterpieces by artists like Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, he bought a US$500 million yacht, the Luna, from fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich. It is 380 feet (115 metres) of floating luxury, with nine decks, space for 18 guests, a crew of 50 and — just in case — a missile detection system and bombproof doors.
Allegations of infidelity made by both husband and wife led to divorce, but Farkhad Akhmedov refused to even send a lawyer to the 2016 proceedings, arguing that the couple was already divorced. A court in Moscow dissolved the marriage in 2000, he said.
Judge Charles Haddon-Cave, who oversaw that trial, was unimpressed. He described as “forged” the documents supporting the Moscow divorce. When Tatiana Akhmedova was unable to collect more than a sliver of her record-setting award, the judge ordered her ex-husband to hand her his yacht. He refused.
By then, Tatiana Akhmedova had signed up with Burford Capital, a publicly traded litigation funding company, which has underwritten millions in legal fees for her lawyers and provided her with millions for living expenses. The company will reportedly take a 30 per cent cut of any recovery, plus a multiple of legal expenses.
But Burford’s infusion of money did not wrench the Luna from Farkhad Akhmedov’s grip. It sat for two years in a port in Dubai, effectively under arrest as the combatants fought in Dubai’s legal system. Then a court there cited Shariah law when it decided that Tatiana Akhmedova’s claim was unenforceable in Dubai.
Farkhad Akhmedov, his second wife, his children and other relatives spent time aboard the yacht this winter.
‘It’s nice to look at the paintings’
The decision gave the case against Temur Akhmedov new significance. He was described in court as his father’s “lieutenant,” but he says he was more of a secretary than a second in command. When he lived and travelled with his father, he typed dictated messages, which he sent to Farkhad Akhmedov’s team of advisers, bankers and lawyers. These were often instructions, adamant and profane, on how to evade Tatiana Akhmedova and her financial backers.
One of Temur Akhmedov’s texts, read aloud during cross-examination, stood out as especially vituperative, not to mention anatomically impossible.
“If the Tatiana problem did not exist,” he wrote, “my Father would not move his assets anywhere…!! He wants to MOVE OUT OF SWITZERLAND… CUT HER BALLS OF[F]… GET DIVORCED… POST NUPTIAL AGREEMENT… And be a FREE MAN.”
“Shouldn’t that be with a double ‘f’ rather than a single ‘f’?” asked Alan Gourgey, one of Tatiana Akhmedova’s lawyers.
“Yes,” said Temur Akhmedov.
Temur Akhmedov maintained that many of these texts had nothing to do with shielding money and assets from his mother, outward appearances to the contrary. This included a message about a plan to transfer about US$100 million worth of art in Farkhad Akhmedov’s collection from a storage facility in Liechtenstein to the Luna. The point of moving the works, Temur Akhmedov testified, was to make them readily viewable by his father.
“So he wanted over $100 million worth of paintings to be transferred to the Luna just so that he could have a look at them?” Gourgey asked. “Is that really your answer, Mr. Akhmedov?”
“I don’t want to sound boasting or anything,” Temur Akhmedov replied, “but on a $500 million boat, $100 million paintings isn’t really something crazy. It’s nice to look at the paintings.”
Many of the numbers that emerged during the trial seemed to have a zero or two added to them by mistake. When Temur Akhmedov said that his public relations firm was costing him as much as US$55,000 a month, the unflappable Justice Gwynneth Knowles — who adjudicated this melee in a voice that barely exceeded a whisper, as if it were taking place in a library — seemed startled.
“A month?” Knowles gasped.
“Yes, m’lady,” he replied. “That’s an exorbitant fee, but nothing compared to the other team’s fees.”
Tatiana Akhmedova testified first, and her tone reflected more sorrow than enmity. She’d helped her son decorate that deluxe apartment given to him by his father. But at some point she started to believe that Temur Akhmedov was part of an effort to thwart her pursuit of her divorce settlement.
“It was obvious to me,” she said on the stand, “that Temur played an active role in siding with my ex about the divorce and trying to hide assets and doing many more other things.”
Temur Akhmedov’s own time on the stand was far more tumultuous, once he actually showed up. On opening day, December 2, he was in Moscow and said in open court, via video call, that he’d been advised that his mother’s lawyers might try to win a restraining order that could strip him of his passport.
“I got stressed, I got scared,” he told the judge. He added that surveillance teams were harassing him and that he’d been drinking a lot.
Assured by the judge that he faced no legal jeopardy by flying to London, Temur Akhmedov spent two days on the stand, focusing on enmity and skimping on sorrow. He denounced his mother as opportunistic and greedy. She filed for divorce, he said, right after her now ex-husband sold Northgas. He said that she’d declined an out-of-court settlement of $100 million offered by his father, a sum the younger Akhmedov considered exceptionally generous given his mother’s history of infidelity.
“If she were living on the street, fair enough, I would do anything for my mother,” he said during our interview. “I would sell whatever I have and give it to her. But to start this fight when she’s been offered good money, knowing that she cheated on my dad, multiple times, in our house, on the bed where my dad slept with her. Come on.”
Less was said by Temur Akhmedov about his father, who presumably could have spared his son this litigation and its ordeals by abiding by UK law and paying his wife, as ordered by the court, four years ago.
The elder Akhmedov declined to comment for this article. A spokesman said in an email that Farkhad Akhmedov stood resolutely against paying his ex-wife anything, especially now that one-third of it would go to Burford Capital.
A decision in the case is expected in late January. No matter what Knowles finds, this will keep lawyers battling around the world. There are already legal proceedings in Liechtenstein, home to Farkhad Akhmedov’s art, and the Marshall Islands, where the Luna is registered.
Tatiana Akhmedova sounds optimistic about her chances, which might simply reflect her natural disposition. Only a natural-born optimist could have said this about her son in a sworn statement:
“I can only hope,” she wrote, “that these proceedings will cause him to reflect on the propriety of his conduct.”
Written by: David Segal
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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