Kaunas' most colorful son buried

  • 2009-11-11
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

FAMOUS SON OF KAUNAS: Shabtai Kalmanovich in his home in Moscow.

VILNIUS - On Nov. 5, Shabtai Kalmanovich was buried near the graves of his mother and father in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. He was probably the most controversial Lithuanian. On Nov. 2, during rush-hour at 5 p.m., this 61-year-old Kaunas-born multi-millionaire businessman and former Israel-convicted KGB spy was shot dead in central Moscow, close to headquarters of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In Lithuania he was known as co-owner of the basketball club Kaunas Zalgiris in 1996 - 1999. In 1999, when Zalgiris became champion of the Euroleague, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus awarded Kalmanovich, citizen of Israel and Russia, with Lithuanian citizenship and the Order of Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas.

On Nov. 2, shots were fired at Kalmanovich's armored Mercedes from a Lada Priora passing on the right side, the Moscow investigative committee said in a statement. The sum of 1.5 million US dollars was found in his Mercedes after his death. Kalmanovich was shot some 20 times and died at the scene, while his driver, Pyotr Tumanov, sustained grave injuries and was rushed to the hospital. Kalmanovich was owner of the biggest drug store chain in Russia. He also was known for organizing concerts in Russia for celebrities like Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli and Tom Jones.

Kalmanovich was also involved in the ownership of Moscow's bazaars which, as well as Russian showbiz, are under a big influence of the Russian mafia. The murder could be a related to the Russian mafia, according to Russian media. Kalmanovich was known for his friendship with Russian mafia godfathers as well as with Russian government top officials. For several years, since 2001, he was not allowed to visit Latvia because of his ties with the criminal world, though later this ban was lifted.

During his last years, Kalmanovich switched from men's basketball to women's basketball (he said he is bisexual in basketball), and he became an owner of Moscow region Spartak, Europe's strongest women's basketball club. He paid stars such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson salaries far greater than what they made in the WNBA. The final farewell in Moscow was held in the basketball arena of his club. The farewell was attended by such Russian showbiz superstars as Alla Pugacheva, Josif Kobzon and Gennady Khazanov. Arvydas Sabonis, world known Lithuanian basketball legend and co-owner of Kaunas Zalgiris, was also present there.
"You were a courageous Jew and passionate Zionist," said his elder daughter Liat, 32, at the funeral in Petah-Tikva.

Kalmanovich was a short man with long hair, a heavy smoker, non-drinker of any alcoholic beverages and a passionate admirer of young women. He was a frequent visitor in Lithuania and a quite usual guest on Lithuanian sporting and life-style TV programs. He was born into a poor Jewish family in Kaunas after WWII. His grandfather was a Lithuanian army officer, killed by Lithuanian nationalists in 1941. His mother was a Holocaust survivor - she managed to escape the Kaunas IXth fort and was hidden from the Nazis by the Lithuanian Balcikonis family, who risked their own lives saving her. An offspring of the Balcikonis family works in Kalmanovich's hotel Daniela in Kaunas.

Kalmanovich immigrated to Israel in 1971. He served as advisor to Prime Minister Golda Meir on the immigration from the USSR. According to the media, later he started an extremely profitable gun and diamond trade business in South Africa and Sierra Leone. In 1988, Kalmanovich was jailed on charges of spying for the KGB in Israel. The sentence was nine years in prison. He had luxury conditions in prison and later his warden was sentenced for it. Kalmanovich was released from prison in 1993 under agreement between Israel and Russia. There was speculation in Russian media that Kalmanovich was also related to the Israeli secret service, being a double or even triple agent, but such speculations were never confirmed with facts.

From 1996 - 1999, Kalmanovich was co-owner the basketball club Kaunas Zalgiris. During the first season of the Euroleague, Zalgiris won the championship by winning the final game against Bologna Kinder 82:74. On the eve of his death, Kalmanovich gave orders to make medals with this game score as the inscription. He had a plan for a rematch, Kaunas Zalgiris vs. Bologna Kinder, by the veterans of those clubs, in Kaunas on the 10th anniversary of the first Euroleague final. While being a co-owner of Zalgiris, he never missed a chance to demonstrate his patriotic feelings towards Lithuania. Kalmanovich always was the loudest singer of the Lithuanian anthem on the court before each Zalgiris match in the Euroleague. He organized a concert by Jose Carreras, the world-famous Spanish tenor, for Zalgiris' players in the Kaunas theater after the historic victory in the Euroleague's final game.

Kalmanovich received a Lithuanian passport because of victory in the Euroleague. It is an unprecedented event that a convicted KGB spy gets such an honor in Lithuania, from a Lithuanian president. Kalmanovich insisted that the German aristocratic "von" be put in front of his surname in the Lithuanian passport. It is unknown how he got an aristocratic title but his demand was satisfied.
Kalmanovich was soft spoken and had a great sense of humor. He was a great communicator. During one of the concerts by the world's three greatest tenors - Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras - which was shown on TV worldwide, Kalmanovich was seen sitting together with Henry Kissinger in front row seats. Both men seemed to have little time for listening to the songs - they constantly enjoyed a friendly chat.

Kalmanovich was married three times. He left two daughters and two sons. Only his elder daughter Liat is an adult. Kalmanovich's second wife, Anastasia von Kalmanovich, who mostly lives in Latvia, was younger, by 25 years, than he was while his third wife, a Russian basketball star, Anna Arkhipova, was younger than him by 26 years. According to the tabloids, his second wife left him because she fell in love with another woman, Russian rock star Zemfira, but Anastasia's relations with Kalmanovich remained very warm. Kalmanovich decided to bring up their daughter Daniela himself. Anastasia and Zemfira, along with Kalmanovich's widow Arkhipova, participated in the final farewell to Kalmanovich in Moscow. Despite his Casanova life-style, he was a family man. He was dreaming about a time when he would find the shoes of his twin sons' girlfriends near their rooms' doors, Kalmanovich told daily Lietuvos Rytas, smoking cigarette after cigarette in the posh Vilnius hotel Stikliai 25 days before his death.

"He was a man who saved Zalgiris when it was on the edge of the abyss," Rimas Kurtinaitis, coach of the Vilnius basketball club Lietuvos Rytas, said. He described Kalmanovich as a good friend who was always ready to help.

"Our synagogue was mostly supported by Kalmanovich […] I don't know how we will survive in the future," Mausa Bairakas, administrator of the Kaunas synagogue, told daily Lietuvos Rytas.
Kalmanovich looked into the eyes of death many times. According to him, his private plane once landed in Bucharest while it was already out of fuel. Death finally found this risky man who was still telling the Lithuanian media that he wanted to spend his last days living in his native Kaunas.