Controversial monument millionaire reveals future plans

  • 2001-09-27
  • Tim Ochser
RIGA - Jevgeny Gomberg has had a very high media profile lately. Most of the attention has focused on his highly controversial decision to restore the now-notorious Peter the Great monument and the bizarre circumstances in which it made its way into the heart of the Riga 800 celebrations. It mysteriously appeared in one of Riga's central parks overnight.

The ensuing scandal led to accusations from some that he is a Russian nationalist with a political agenda. And with his current work in renovating the statue of Russian commander Field Marshal Barclay de Tolly, the controversy shows no sign of abating.

Gomberg cuts an unlikely figure in proportion to his reputation. In person the 48-year-old entrepreneur, who owns a string of companies, is both personable and unassuming. When I met him at the offices of his real estate company, Teikas Nami, there was a stack of newspapers on his desk containing recent articles about him.

He showed me one, in the Latvian daily Diena, which carried a caricature of him astride the horse of the Peter the Great statue, under the heading, roughly translated, "The Horse Groom of Peter the Great."

He is wary of the media and feels that he has been consistently misrepresented by certain sections of it throughout the recent events.

"To begin with I didn't talk to the press at all following my agreement with Riga City Council over the Peter the Great monument. I just referred every journalist to my secretary.

"But now perhaps I can clear things up a little. There has been so much rubbish said and written about me. The whole thing has been blown out of all proportion. The media has tried to polarize me into some sort of Russian figurehead, which I'm simply not. The whole story about the statue is actually very funny, but no one wants to see it that way. People are determined to give it a meaning it simply doesn't have."

Culture clash

Gomberg is surprisingly philosophical, both in business and in life. There is nothing especially nouveau rich about him, despite his relatively recently acquired wealth. His offices are state-of-the art, but his personal office is the most modest one I saw in my tour of the building.

So who is he? Should he be measured by his wealth, his actions or his beliefs?

His father was an engineer, and his mother a professor at Latvia University. He has made his money over the last 10 years, mostly from the oil transit business.

For most of his working life he was involved with the Institute of Electronics and Computer Science, until in 1988 he joined Laiks, a joint venture company that traded chiefly in computers and information systems, which were then in short supply in Latvia.

The company struck its first oil deal in 1992, while at the same time using its technological expertise to, among other things, begin trading at the oil loading port of Ventspils. In 1994 Gomberg bought out his partners and traded under the name of Allegheny IDI.

It was in November 1999 that Gomberg traced the Peter the Great monument, or at least its pieces, to a military warehouse. He once worked as a part-time tour guide in Riga and so has a good knowledge of the city's cultural history.

It was this, he maintains, and a heartfelt love of the arts that motivated him to restore the statue of an icon of Russian imperialism.

"There was never even a hint of a political motive behind what I did. I did it solely because I think the statue is beautiful and it belongs in Riga. My intention all along was to present it at as a gift to the city of Riga during the anniversary celebrations.

"People can say what they like, but I don't see myself as any sort of representative for the Russian community in Riga. Because I could afford to do it, I did it; it's as simple as that. It's the same with the statue of De Tolly. Yes, he's a prominent figure in Russian history, but the statue is nonetheless a wonderful public monument that belongs in Riga. And I would also like to improve the whole square around De Tolly's statue as it's in a really run-down state."

Posing Peter

But surely he must have been aware of the controversy he would provoke by unveiling Peter the Great during the Riga 800 celebrations, which were, after all, a tacit celebration of independence from foreign rule as much as a birthday party.

"In 1934, Riga City Council was willing to pay a vast sum to buy the statue back from the Estonians after they'd retrieved it from the sea bed when it was sunk by the Germans while being shipped to St. Petersburg. I'm not in the business of politics. But that statue belongs in Riga. It can be loved or hated. I'd be the first to admit its flaws as a work of art. But that doesn't alter the fact that it once stood where the Freedom Monument now stands."

When the renovated statue was unveiled to the public in Kronvald Park, in the morning of Aug. 17, it was widely believed that Gomberg had acted in defiance of the council and transported the statue under cover of night to the park. The truth, however, is rather different.

On Aug. 14 Gomberg sent three letters to the relevant authorities to get official permission to both transport and exhibit the statue in public: to the mayor, the traffic police and the head of the Port Authority, whose offices in Kronvald Park lie beside where he wanted to put the statue.

The latter two agreed and the mayor rubber-stamped his application for processing, which Gomberg took as a tacit approval. Gomberg arranged a police escort to see that it safely journeyed from its place of storage to the park.

"A huge fuss was made of the fact that we moved the statue at night, as though what we did was illegal. But it had to be moved at night. The trailer was five meters wide and took up the whole road. We had to tilt the statue on a special support so it didn't get entangled in the tram wires overhead."

Peter the Great remained on display until Aug. 20. Gomberg freely mingled with the crowds and greatly enjoyed gauging their reaction to it.

"There was a positive response from most people. Some even cried when they saw it. Flowers were laid beside it. It made me feel that the whole unbelievable struggle had been worth it. When people ask me why I got involved with the statue, I always tell them about the example of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Its crosses were removed during the Soviet era and it was made into a planetarium. After independence, a German decided to donate some gilded crosses, which don't come cheap, to properly restore the cathedral to its former glory.

"But no one knows the first thing about this German guy. I like to think he did it solely for the satisfaction of being able to look up at them and know his hand put them there."

Expensive hobby

The authorities promptly turned up with cranes to remove the statue in the early hours of Sunday, Aug. 19. But after yet more political disagreement about how best to move it, it was finally taken into storage at Gomberg's private premises.

Police called at Gomberg's offices on Aug. 20 to question him about every aspect of how he had submitted his application to transport and display the statue. The council fined him 25 lats ($40), but there were no further charges as he had acted within the law on the points of transporting the statue.

I asked Gomberg if he intends to make a habit of the expensive task of repairing public monuments. The cost of restoring both the Peter the Great and the De Tolly statues is in the region of $200,000.

"No, De Tolly will be the last. I'm in discussion with the City Council about helping to finance the restoration of some statues of historical Latvian figures, which I'll do just to disprove the idea that I'm some sort of Russian extremist. If nothing else, at least I've started a fashion for repairing the city's run-down monuments."

It's sometimes hard to know where charity begins and tax relief ends. In Gomberg's case, it would seem that he sees himself as a patron of the arts. Back in 1998, with the assistance of the British Council, he invited the celebrated English playwright Tom Stoppard to Riga and paid his expenses, including the staging of two of his plays. He donates an estimated $100,000 a year to various causes.

Wherever Gomberg's true political sympathies lie, it is clear he has a taste for controversy. Or it could just be that political discourse in Latvia is not yet willing to assimilate certain historical symbols into its mainstream. As for Peter the Great, it's looking increasingly likely, however, that he will remain in Riga, and Gomberg is hopeful that a site will be found for him in Kronvald Park.