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A budding pianist himself, Zeltser says he was pushed by his father into graduating from Russian law school. In 1972, he married a childhood friend named Anna, and they resolved to escape the Soviets at their first chance. In 1974, with $120 each, they joined a wave of mostly Jewish refugees streaming through Europe and into the United States.
After one miserable year in Dallas, where Zeltser toiled at fast-food joints and played piano at a cabaret, they made it to New York. In 1980, the couple had a son, whom they named Edward. Eight years later, they divorced.
Zeltser finally gave up on the piano, took a few American law classes, and passed the bar exam in 1990. His early career as an attorney was rocky, to say the least. Zeltser represented Inkombank, which was then one of Russia's most notoriously corrupt financial institutions. But the company fired him in 1994 and would later claim in federal court that he had doctored orders to transfer $2 million into accounts controlled by his ex-wife.
Inkombank's attorneys also accused him of fabricating his Russian law degree. (Zeltser calls the claims "bullshit.") The bank went bellyup before the civil case was resolved.
Despite the troubles, Zeltser's timing was charmed. The Soviet Union had just fallen, and cash-rich oligarchs — Kremlin-connected businessmen making obscene profits by gobbling up newly privatized Russian industries — were eager to invest around the globe.
To do so, they would need American representation. Zeltser was the rare attorney licensed in both countries and fluent in both languages. And an unflappable streak suited him to work with ruthless titans who tended to plot like Dostoevskian villains.
His firm, Sternik & Zeltser — the name paying tribute to a dead law professor — became an oligarch boutique. "I kind of had a monopoly," Zeltser recalls.
In 1995, he found the client who would define his practice and nearly cost him his life. Arkady Patarkatsishvili was from the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains, near Armenia. Because his name twisted Western tongues, he went by "Badri." Since 1987, he had partnered with the kingmaker Berezovsky, who was already well into an ascent in Russian commerce and politics. Badri and Berezovsky would control near-monopolies in Soviet automobiles, television, and metals.
A mutual acquaintance hired Zeltser to do some minor legal work for Badri in New York. Afterward, he met the billionaire in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, where the 39-year-old businessman kept a suite, to negotiate his fee.
Badri was slim and gregarious, Zeltser recalls, with a white Monopoly Man mustache that would grow more outlandish with his wealth. He was accompanied by his regal, redheaded wife, Inna Gudavadze.
Zeltser admits that on that day, he asked for a $50,000 fee when he would have been pleased with a fifth of that. After naming his price, the young attorney left for the bathroom. When he returned, Badri was gone — and Zeltser was sure his greed had killed the deal.
But an associate informed Zeltser that Badri had simply sent his wife shopping and headed out for a date with his mistress. He had left the attorney a check for $150,000.
Badri was already a globetrotting playboy. Besides his public marriage to Inna, he was also secretly wed to a woman in Moscow, with whom he had a son. In total, he had six kids. "He had a permanent mistress in just about every major city in the world," Zeltser says. "He put each of them in a nice apartment."
Zeltser quickly became the rich Georgian's consigliere. He also grew close to Inna. When he visited the couple's $20 million estate in Surrey, a haughty London suburb, Inna berated her husband for stocking the fridge with regular instead of Diet Coke for Zeltser. A masterful cook, she stuffed the lawyer with his favorite dish, Russian-style cutlets.
"Inna loved me," Zeltser declares. "Either that or she pretended, which is the same thing."
Badri had little formal education. But he had a knack for navigating the Soviet dogpile through connections. As a kid, he was active in the Communist youth organization Komsomol and initially worked as a car repairman. He quickly jumped to a job overseeing a state clothing factory and then became an engineer for Soviet carmaker AvtoVAZ.
It was there, in 1987, where Badri met Boris Berezovsky, who was then only a middle-class mathematician. They were, it turns out, professional soul mates. Where Badri ingratiated himself to others to get ahead, Berezovsky proved to be a master of the well-planned coup.
Berezovksy cobbled together his savings with those of a few other partners and bought another Soviet car company for the bargain-basement price of $120,000. With Badri's help, Berezovsky soon wrested control of AvtoVAZ as well.
Profits from that takeover fueled an incredibly lucrative buying spree that was still continuing seven years later, when Badri hired Zeltser. Through a blatantly rigged government auction, the partners purchased oil-and-gas giant Sibneft — valued in the billions a few years later — for $100 million. They snagged similar criminally good deals for Russia's national airlines and its largest television station.
Berezovsky quickly became an important figure in the Kremlin. He began to control President Boris Yeltsin's cabinet moves. And there were signs that, even in those early days, he sparked fear in his Georgian partner.