The murky world of hoops magnate Shabtai von Kalmanovic
MOSCOW -- Of all the strange, colorful and often dangerous characters that traversed Russia's turbulent transition to a market economy in the 1990s, few had a more extraordinary biography than
Construction magnate, concert promoter, collector of Judaica, convicted KGB spy -- Kalmanovic was tough to classify. In recent years he gained renown in the West for spending part of his fortune building a women's hoops dynasty in the Moscow suburbs with no intention of turning a profit, lavishing
While Kalmanovic made no secret of how he spent his money, far less was clear about how he made it. He was, after all, a true hold-over from what, in the supposedly staid era of
And it was almost certainly his murky business dealings that prompted a pair of hit men this week to pump 18 bullets into Kalmanovic, killing him instantly as he sat in the passenger seat of his Mercedes, several hundred yards from Putin's office in central Moscow.
"There is no doubt that this was a contract murder,"
No suspects have been detained in the slaying, though investigators are hoping Kalmanovic's driver, who was seriously wounded but survived the attack, can give them a lead. Unconfirmed media reports claim investigators found $1.5 million in Kalmanovic's car.
In the days since Kalmanovic's slaying, the Russian media has been scrambling to dig up any possible motive for the crime. Theories have ranged from his possible role in helping Russian slot hall owners adjust to a recent gambling ban to his purported cozy relationship to notorious Russian mob boss
Kalmanovic's friends and colleagues have been indignant over media speculation about his alleged ties to criminals.
"The media is trying to link him to business that he long had nothing to do with and shady connections that never existed," Russian singer
Kobzon -- the Soviet
Contract murders remain a disturbingly common business tactic in Russia, and particularly vulnerable to such attacks are those who continue to run their affairs 1990s-style, eschewing contracts in favor of informal agreements with business partners, said
Born in Soviet Lithuania in 1949, Kalmanovic emigrated with his parents to Israel in 1971 and claimed he subsequently made his first fortune in construction in South Africa. (He denied rumors of his alleged involvement in African diamond trafficking). In 1988, however, he was convicted of passing on Israeli state secrets to the KGB and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
He secured an early release in 1993 and made his way to Russia, where he became involved in concert promotion -- bringing acts like
Together with Sabonis, he financed the Lithuanian club
With Kalmanovic's free-spending ways at Spartak Moscow Region in the town of Vidnoye, just south of Moscow, players like Bird, Taurasi and
Club sports director
In addition to financing and running Europe's top women's club, Kalmanovic was general manager of Russia's formidable women's national team. He was busying himself with hoops in the final hours of his life and gave no impression of concern for his business affairs or personal safety, said Russian Basketball Federation president
"He was completely calm," Chernov said. "We talked about basketball, he was telling jokes. There was no indication whatsoever that he was worried about anything."
Chernov and other friends and colleagues say they have no idea who might have wanted Kalmanovic dead.
"He was continuing with life as he always did," Costalas said. " ... He never had a bodyguard in his life, never used a bulletproof car, not for his family, not for his office. He never carried a gun."
Indeed, Kalmanovic was unusually casual about his personal safety for someone who had for so long navigated post-Soviet capitalism.
"It was a pretty open environment," Watts said. "There weren't any heavy security checks when we met him. He didn't seem like a man particularly concerned with his safety."
Kalmanovic explained his laid back approach to security to a Russian newspaper earlier this year: "There's no one for me to be afraid of."
There was, however, a small exception.
"There are no window's in my office -- that's just a simple precaution," he said. "It's just safer that way."