In a clssic case of the starter wife being traded in for the latest model, Natalia Potanina, in 2013, found herself dumped, unceremoniously out of her decades old matrimonial home for a junior employee whom her Russian oligarch husband had picked out of his staff. The twist was while moving on to wed his lady love a year later, billionaire Vladimir Potanin, by some accounts, the 78th richest man in the world at $13.5bn, was not ready to spare a dime for either his wife of 30 years or any of his three children. Infact he cut off his two sons and has since had two more children with his new wife
The matriach with son Ivan and daughter Anastasia
Three years removed from the life she was used to, Natalia Potanina who was formerly married to one of Russia’s richest men, today told how she is being ‘tortured’ by her oligarch former husband into living apart from her 17-year-old son.
Embroiled in what has been described as the ‘world’s biggest divorce case’ Natalia Potanina claimed she cannot return freely to Russia because since February has been stuck in London, after a divorce court in Moscow sided with Potanin, in 2014, and ruled that he had few assets.
Up until late in 2013, Natalia Potanina was married to one of Russia’s richest men. She lived in a classical mansion near Moscow, not unlike Versailles. Holidays were spent in the Mediterranean and Cap d’Antibes on one of two luxury yachts.
Now, however, Potanina has fallen on the oligarchic equivalent of hard times after a bitter public battle with her former husband, Vladimir Potanin, in what has been described as the biggest divorce case in history.
The Potanins before the divorce
Early days: Wedding photo of the two young ‘penniless’ students back in 1983
Valdimir, she says, ‘coolly’ announced over tea that he wanted to end their marriage of three decades, with 3 children between them. Apparently, he was involved with a junior employee. He also told her that as far as a settlement: “You don’t need money.”
His original offer of a settlement, she says, was medical insurance, a driver and maintenance for the youngest child, Vasily. “It isn’t easy for Vasily,” “The children want to talk to him,” she said. “It’s tough for them.”
Cut off: First son Ivan and his wife Yana
Declining the terms of the breakup, Potanina refused to sign the divorce papers. She is now seeking half of her ex-husband’s fortune, roughly $7bn, which he amassed, she points out, after they met and fell in love as penniless Soviet students back in the ’70s.
Vladimir, put all that behind him. In 2014, he married his new partner, Katya, with whom he now has two children. He has cut off all contact with his two sons from his first marriage, though he does speak to daughter, Anastasia.
Family time: Dining out in 1995
Vladimir Potanin, according to the latest edition of Forbes magazine, is worth over $13.5bn. He is the chairman and president of the mega-consortium Interros. Once Russia’s richest man, he is currently in fourth place, and is the 78th richest person in the world. But in a feat of legal jujitsu, in a Moscow court he successfully argued the real owner was an obscure firm in Cyprus. “The judge didn’t look at Vladimir’s assets, only mine,” she said. All of his shares, she alleges, are hidden behind complex corporate structures.
The young couple bagging produce in the egalitarian ’70s. ‘There wasn’t a lot of money, but there was plenty of love and integrity’
At the centre of the dispute is the family’s home in the village of Nemchinovo, just outside Moscow which the couple shared with their three children, Anastasia, 32; Ivan, 28; and Vasily, 17.
In 2014 the company that formally owns the mansion tried to sell it to another company. The sale stalled because Potanina was still living there. The company then filed a $1.1m writ against her for damages and she claims her ex-husband, to whom the companies are linked, is behind the her legal woes.
“It’s traditional. Deprive me of money and drive me out of the house,” Potanina said “There are many people who end up in this situation. I guess this is true worldwide but especially in Russia. Our society is male dominated. The law is male. The ideology is male.”
The Potanins with theirtwo youngest children, Anastasia and vassilly
For Potanina, this is a far cry from communist times when Potanina met her future husband at school. They dated, fell in love and got married. Photos show Potanin, the son of high-ranking party officials, with hippyish long hair. “We had absolutely no money,” she said. “I did not marry an oligarch who already owned factories and steamships. We lived in my parents’ apartment.”
She, however, finds herself in the oligarchic equivalent of hard times after the very public, very bitter public divorce from Vladimir Potanin.
Far removed from her life of super luxury in Moscow, living for the moment, lives in a three-bedroom apartment next to Westminster Abbey. Potanina says she is unable to pay the “artificial debt” outstanding in Russia. If she flies home her passport will be seized and she will not be allowed to travel to New York, where her son Vasily is a student.
Meanwhile, her nonagenarian mother is in Moscow and still living in their former home. In effect, Potanina is in exile. She is now appealing to Russia’s supreme court: “I am hoping for justice from the highest legal body.”
Ready to fight for justice and equity: Wants half the family fortune
She says she is prepared to use any means available, but would prefer to reach a negotiated agreement. “I would accept any reasonable settlement,” she might even consider suing in the UK, now a destination of choice for Russian financial and matrimonial bust-ups, as a last resort, if the Russian courts fail her.
Potanin is known across Russia as the co-owner of Norilsk Nickel, a vast Siberian nickel smelter located above the Arctic circle.
Yet in court he successfully argued the real owner was an obscure firm in Cyprus. “The judge didn’t look at Vladimir’s assets, only mine,” she said.
Potanin on his part, has declined to comment. His official PR spokesperson maintains: “The official position of our company is that we do not comment on any private life matters.”