Janna Bullock: The Manhattan socialite at the heart of a Russian mafia scandal

From rags to riches and peppered with intrigue, Janna Bullock's story has all the elements of a thriller.

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Is Janna Bullock the victim of a political conspiracy?

Opponents of Vladimir Putin come in all shapes and guises, perhaps none more beguiling than Janna Bullock, says The New York Times. Everything about the glamorous blonde from Belarus who rose from babysitting to a seat on the board of the Guggenheim Museum "seems cloaked in the intrigue and intricacy of a 19th-century Russian novel".

But the Manhattan socialite has hit a snag. A Cyprus court has frozen her global assets once worth $2bn at the behest of a Russian state-controlled bank. Is Bullock, as she claims, a victim of jealous business rivals and political enemies, or is she a member of a mafia ring that embezzled $21m, as her accusers at Gazprombank allege (see below)?

Bullock (or Bhulak), 45, has come a long way fast. Born in Soviet Belarus, she "washed up on the shores of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach after the collapse of the Soviet Union" in 1990, says The New York Observer. Working as a babysitter, and then as a teacher and translator, she married and divorced twice before getting "her big break" when she was sent to meet Moscow banker, Alexei Kuznetsov, at JFK airport. He became her third husband and, in 2000, finance minister for the Moscow Region: home to "some of the country's most expensive property", says The Times.

Bullock set up her own real estate firm, RIGroup, acquiring a portfolio of Russian condos, shops, offices and hotels and got stuck into high-end New York property, "flipping Manhattan town houses for huge sums", says The New York Post. Her "impressive tale of bootstrapping" saw her "vault up the social ladder" into a world of celebrity friends.

Bullock hired a columnist to cover her exploits in the New York Social Diary, sat on all the right charity committees, bought a hotel in French ski resort Courchevel, and amassed an art collection featuring Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon. "Her taste is eclectic. She reportedly furnished a sitting room with table lamps made from human hair and dubbed them Rita and Elisa."

None of Bullock's new crowd knew much about her past. She rarely mentioned Kuznetsov, and he rarely visited his wife and daughter. But "he played a key role" in her success providing "political cover" for her empire. That changed in 2008 when a corruption probe forced him to resign and flee Russia.A business associate was then shot dead in a Moscow street. Soon after, the couple divorced.

In July, French police arrested Kuznetsov. He faces extradition to Russia, where investors in the companies he and Bullock are accused of looting are trying to recoup their losses through the courts, says The Times. Bullock who recently married American art expert, Randall Brockett is determined to remain in New York. A big international courtroom showdown beckons.

The cult of Putin and the search for enemies

That's not how many Russians see things, says Natalya Krainova in The Moscow Times. In their eyes, Alexei Kuznetsov and his associates ran a land-grabbing racket that robbed citizens of millions. The authorities have been under "growing pressure to crack down on official corruption". Hence the high-profile attached to this case, which is seen as "an opportunity" to show they mean business.

From her position of comparative safety across the Atlantic, Bullock has dealt with an extraordinary range of threats and allegations, says Tony Allen-Mills in The Sunday Times including a bizarre claim that she "organised safaris for Russian hunters who shot at wild mustang horses with poison-tipped darts".

Last year she hit back, staging a multi-media show that took aim at "some of Russia's best-known politicians". The critics were largely unmoved by Bullock's "propaganda masquerading as art". But her target was clear. "The whole history of Putin's power is a movie we've seen before," she said. "It's the cult of one man. It's the power of one party. It's the search for enemies."

In 2010, a business acquaintance observed that the danger for Bullock is that Kuznetsov is indicted, implicates her, and that the Russians seek a deal with American law enforcers. That threat now looms ever larger. No wonder she's using every means of soft power at her disposal.

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