Ukraine-born Igor Volobuyev speaks of desire to ‘repent’ and says many Russian business figures are privately furious with the Kremlin.
ByNataliya Vasilyeva, RUSSIA CORRESPONDENT, IN ISTANBUL 1 May 2022 •
Just hours into the war, business executive Igor Volobuyev started receiving videos from childhood friends showing shells dropping onto his Ukrainian hometown of Okhtyrka, near the border with Russia.
Mr Volobuyev had spent over two decades at Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, rising through the ranks to become a vice-president at Gazprombank, which is owned by the conglomerate and is the country’s third-largest bank.
“I was glued to my phone. I felt like I was sitting in a cosy cinema watching a horror film,” Mr Volobuyev said.
“It’s such a miserable feeling when people call you and say: Russians are killing us. You work in Gazprombank. You’re an important guy. Can you do something to stop this?”
Mr Volobuyev fled Russia days after the start of the war only to resurface in Kyiv last week, in arguably the most dramatic defection of the conflict.
‘I chose my motherland’
Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has sent shockwaves through Russian businesses, which overwhelmingly rely on foreign partners or clients. Few businesspeople, however, have spoken out against the invasion except for executives at private companies with little or no link to the state.
“The life I had before the war no longer exists, and it doesn’t really bother me,” Mr Volobuyev, dressed in a black fleece jacket, told The Telegraph in an interview via Zoom from his hotel in Kyiv.
The former bank vice-president was born in Okhtyrka, which saw devastating shelling in the first weeks of the war. When he graduated from university in Moscow, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and he received Russian citizenship.
Mr Volobuyev took little interest in Russian politics and gladly voted for Mr Putin in 2012, but Ukraine’s pro-EU uprising in 2013-2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea opened his eyes to the Kremlin’s hostile policy towards his home country.
“For eight years I was in this internal turmoil: I didn’t just work in Russia, but I worked for Gazprom. I worked for the Russian state,” he said.
The executive said he had been thinking about moving to Ukraine all this time but he was held back by family obligations.
When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24, all of this plans shattered: “I couldn’t live like this much longer: I had to choose between my family and my motherland, and I chose my motherland.”
The grey-haired executive decided to drive to the Russian-Ukrainian border, dump his BMW there and cross on foot to his hometown just 30 miles away.
When his childhood friends from Okhtyrkha told him he was likely to get shot by Ukrainian border guards or a Russian drone, he bought a ticket to Riga, Latvia, via Istanbul, and went to the airport with one carry-on bag. He took the equivalent of £8,000 – the largest amount of cash that travellers are allowed to bring across the Russian border.
Mr Volobuyev, who does not have Ukrainian citizenship, would not disclose how he managed to get into Ukraine, citing security concerns, only saying that “leaving Russia was easy but getting to Ukraine was as tough as flying to the moon.”
All of his savings were in accounts at Gazprombank that he lost access to after Visa and MasterCard suspended operations in Russia.
Now he said all of his deposits disappeared from his banking app without a trace in what he believes is a payback for his defection.
On the second day of the invasion, Vladimir Putin invited several dozen tycoons and CEOs of Russia’s biggest companies to the Kremlin to assure them that what he calls a “special military operation” is not going to affect their businesses.
The director general of Russia’s internet giant Yandex has since fled Russia and resigned after her boss attended the meeting.
Another high-profile figure, Oleg Tinkov, the founder of the popular Russian internet bank that bears his name, came out with scathing criticism of the Russian leader. Hours later, the bank announced that Mr Tinkov was selling his stake and his name would likely be dropped from its brand.
Although it is never expressed in public, there is a lot of unhappiness with Kremlin policies even at state-owned giants like Gazprom, Mr Volobuyev said.
The Ukrainian-born Russian businessman quoted recent conversations with senior executives at Gazprom and elsewhere who privately grumble about Vladimir Putin’s disastrous war against Ukraine.
‘I have nothing right now’
“I know people whose views are very different from what they say publicly on their job,” he said.
“There was this very well-known figure in Gazprom who told me: ‘I don’t understand what Putin needs Ukraine for’.”
There is, however, very little appetite for protest or any public stands among senior figures at Gazprom, he said.
Mr Volobuyev has not been able to get to his native Okhtyrka, which is still an active war zone. But he managed to spend a few days with his father before the 75-year-old, who had never been abroad, fled to Europe as a refugee.
The first thing the executive did on arrival in Ukraine was to report to the military commissioner’s office and volunteer to join Kyiv’s territorial defence, but he was told – even without his Russian passport – there was no immediate need for 50-something men with no military background.
“I was told it’s impossible, but I’m taking steps to see what I can do,” he said.
“I have nothing right now. But I’d rather sleep on the street than leave Ukraine.”
Mr Volobuyev now wants to help the mayor of Okhtyrka to lure foreign investors to help rebuild his hometown. More than a third of residential buildings and the sole power station have been destroyed by Russian artillery.
The former Gazprom executive said he feels the need to “repent” for his work for the Russian state – in front of his Ukrainian family and friends.
From Russia he wants only one thing: justice for the war crimes committed in Ukraine.
“Putin has to be put on trial and hanged. But only in accordance with the law.”