When Natalia Potanina's 30-year marriage to one of the richest men in Russia broke down in 2014, her ex-husband, Vladimir, allegedly offered her a $140 million (£105 million) divorce settlement, according to Forbes (Natalia disputes this).
Instead, Natalia launched a legal bid for half of the metal magnate's $15 billion (£11.4 billion) fortune. Half of that sum would be the largest divorce settlement in history, more than six times greater than the record $1.2 billion deal reached when Formula 1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone's marriage ended after 23 years in 2009.
But it is not just about the money.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with Business Insider in London, Natalia described what her life has been like for the last two years, how her family was torn apart, and what it's like trying to sue a member of Russian president Vladimir Putin's inner circle (her ex is one of Putin's ice hockey buddies).
Despite a court in Russia officially declaring the couple divorced in 2014, Natalia is appealing the decision in the Russian Supreme Court and is looking to gain half of her ex-husband's income and assets. She told us she just wants a peaceful settlement for the sake of her youngest son, whom Vladimir allegedly hasn't spoken to since he left the family home in 2013 after serving divorce papers.
The law firm Yust, which represents Vladimir, declined to respond to repeated requests for comment, saying only, "we have received your request, however we refrain from any comments concerning Vladimir Potanin."
Vladimir allegedly remarried a woman called Ekaterina in 2014 and has a child with her, according to Forbes, the Moscow Times, and other websites.
This is how it all happened.
Lianna Brinded: So tell us about how you and Vladimir met. What was married life like before he served divorce papers?
Natalia Potanina: It was very simple, we were classmates at school - there's no huge romantic backstory.
All the memories I had until the moment we divorced were very warm and full of trust that we were living as a happy family with the children that were born out of love. It was a very, very strong relationship and we married because we loved each other.
Brinded: You were married for 30 years. Did you have any inkling that he was going to file for a divorce? How did it happen?
Natalia: We got married in 1983 and have three children together. He suddenly applied for divorce in November 2013 [the divorce judgment was in 2014] when we had been together for 29 years. What is more, that he was asking the courts to back-date the divorce to January 16, 2007, because according to him that was the exact date when the marriage was not going well and there wasn't a relationship.
It was shocking for me, my children, relatives, friends and people from our circle that he claimed our family to have dissolved on a particular day in 2007, despite the fact that we had a normal loving family [until that] very moment when he gave me divorce papers.
Brinded: So what happened? What happened on the day you received the divorce papers?
Natalia: It was a big surprise and I didn't expect it until that moment. At that time we were planning to go to America with our youngest son [Vasily] who was going to go to an American school. We were in the process of choosing a house and schools for our youngest son. We were talking about exams and tutor schedules and had a simple standard conversation one typically has at dinner. We were even talking about what movies to watch and what musicals to go and see while we were there. The dinner was normal and the next day was a usual working day. That's how this dinner began.
Then my youngest son went to bed and my husband left for a moment. When he returned and he just gave me the divorce papers and said that he was fed up and he wanted to leave the marriage — he wanted a divorce. I said 'are you joking' as it was so surprising and unexpected and I was shocked. The shock lasted for so long.
Brinded: So what was the reason he gave?
Natalia: He just said he was "fed up."
Brinded: So what happened in the immediate aftermath of him serving divorce papers? What was his relationship with you or your children?
Natalia: He disappeared from my life, he did the same with my sons. He just disappeared. He probably decided that he had never had a family before. I did not really know what to do and decided that it would be right just to follow our plans and go with my youngest son Vasily to New York where he could prepare for exams with tutors to enter the American school next September, as we initially agreed with Vladimir. In our absence Vladimir ordered to destroy the house in Luzki, where the family members were living most of the time.
The only member of the family which my ex-husband communicates to is our daughter.
The family did not last anymore. My sons lost their father and it was especially bad for Vasily who was 15. Just like any kid he needs his father's attention, love and care. The situation has not changed. Vasily is now 17 and he is entering a difficult stage in his life.
A lot in his future life really depends on the choice that he makes now: future studies, future job and so on. At this stage Vasily of course still needs (probably even more that before) advice, encouragement and support of his father. But there is no father beside [him].
Brinded: So although you were still living in the same house as Vladimir and your youngest son Vasily in 2013 when the divorce papers were served after dinner that November evening, he was claiming a backdated divorce for January 16, 2007? Why that date? Is that normal in Russian divorce cases?
Natalia: I think that he intentionally chose this particular date, as this date is somehow related to the division of business assets with his business partner Mikhail Prokhorov, which division started accurately in 2007. At that moment the holding structure of Norilsk Nickel shares changed dramatically. It was necessary for him to have a court judgment confirming that the family dissolved in 2007, and he achieved this goal.
The court supported his request to backdate his divorce saying the marriage relationship terminated in 2007, that we ceased to be a family. We presented dozens of pages of evidence, including photos showing that we were living together, going on vacation together, living a normal life up until that evening when Vladimir filed for divorce. It was just easier for the court to accept all what Vladimir said and they agreed and let him backdate his divorce.
Brinded: What were divorce settlement negotiations like between 2013 and the final verdict in 2014?
Natalia: It is quite difficult to answer that question because there were simply no negotiations. He didn't offer anything, not even a small amount, not a single penny. The only thing he said he would give was medical insurance in case we have problems with our [mine and Vasily's] health, which we would have to apply to the doctor, and the offer of having a driver.
We were married for 30 years. Everything that businessman Vladimir Potanin achieved, earned and acquired, everything that Vladimir Potanin is known for, happened during our marriage. But he never offered anything.
He never discussed what would happen to Vasily — like where he is going to live — he hasn't even visited him. Normally a father would be fighting to see his kids, for the weekends or for vacations, but he just disappeared. He hasn't even offered to see him for holidays. He never offered me to pay maintenance for him, he was forced by the court to do so.
Brinded: Has your ex-husband been in touch with Vasily at all since 2013?
Natalia: On Vasily's 16th birthday in 2014, my son was expecting his father to call, so he was holding his phone all day hoping to at least get a SMS [text message] but he never got anything. For over two and a half years Vladimir could not afford to just call and talk to his son. He has never explained his behavior but maybe there are no words to describe what he has done, to match the situation.
Brinded: Now, there are a lot of figures floating around in the press regarding your alleged settlement with Vladimir in 2014. This apparently includes a monthly allowance of $250,000 ($3 million a year) — as well as properties in Moscow, London, and New York. Is this true?
Natalia: A lot of different, incorrect information has been published since 2013 about our divorce. I heard [in the press] that my ex-husband supposedly offered me lots of money and gave even me a number of real estate items — that never happened. It is not true.
We think there are two things, this is a good job of his PR assistants to paint him out as a decent citizen and a family man and this is what the media make him out to be. But how is this possible when he is worth $15 billion in assets, yet he kicks out his wife after 30 years and his youngest son out of the house, does not speak to his sons for 2 years and does not offer anything to us at all.
And now he is trying to make me accountable for sham debts. How could a man, who is so respected in the society and creates model behavior, behave in such manner? Why does he deem himself entitled to act so?
Brinded: So what did you and your son receive?
Natalia: It is not a fixed figure that he sends to his son. The court said he would pay a quarter of his whole income. However he pays maintenance only from the income in his position as managing director at Norilsk Nickel and ignores all other sources of income he has.
Moreover, even this decreased alimony that Vladimir himself determines is further reduced by him. He pays directly only one half of the amount. Another half of that figure it apparently goes into a bank account for Vasily, which he will allegedly have access to when he is 18 years old. However, nobody knows if this bank account actually exists, what is the exact amount on that supposed account, nor do we know what goes into it because we do not have access.
Vladimir decides his own pay, as he is the managing director of the company he owns. If he decided to go on a yacht for a month, he could say he wasn't working that month so therefore he didn't receive a salary.
Moreover, for a few months the bank account was frozen, to which Vasily's alimony shall be paid, although it is strictly prohibited by law. The bank account was frozen as a result of sham debt created by Vladimir's companies, which debt he wanted to load me with. And now he is trying to make me accountable for sham debts.
Brinded: Let's address why you are seeking half of his $15 billion alleged fortune. Why such a huge amount? What would be a favourable outcome, even if you are not granted this amount?
Natalia: Under Russian law spouses are entitled to equal shares in family assets. So in my claim I'm asking for half of his assets. At the beginning of the divorce case, he offered me zero. He is still offering me zero.
Somehow we have to find a compromise between 0% to 50%. It is not a matter of billions of dollars. It's about negotiations. But Vladimir constantly refuses to start any negotiation.
Brinded: What would you ideally like the outcome to be after this latest appeal? For example, would you be happier with a smaller settlement?
Natalia: It may sound strange, but after two years of fighting and being in court and all the lawsuits, the best solution would be just to come to an agreement and find peace. I want the solution to end this trouble, I want my sons to have their father again.
Every child needs to have a father. I want a peaceful, normal life. I don't want sham debts, I don't want to pay him for unrealistic demands. I don't want to tremble for my life and life of my children, grandchild, nearest and dearest.
Brinded: OK, lets talk about these alleged "sham debts" you have mentioned a few times in this interview. What are they?
Natalia: We were a wealthy family, so we had a few different houses, including one house which was constructed together by my ex-husband and I near Skolkovo. When I come to Russia I stay in that house [in Moscow, Russia] with my mother who is now 96 years old. The house is registered to a company owned by my husband.
Vladimir and his lawyers then created a sham debt by a sham sale of this house between two of his companies. The conditions of the contract were knowingly impracticable, the parties didn't plan to perform them. It was a sham. The contract also contains unlawful provisions. But they immediately said the sale of the house collapsed because of me and my mother not leaving the house and sued me for damages and cancellation of the sale charges.
I was not even duly notified about this sham contract of sale which is prescribed by law. They applied to the courts saying that I owe over a million US dollars, even though the conditions of that supposed sale were unrealistic and impossible. It was an artificial contract that they knew would be impossible to fulfill so now they are saying I am responsible. They are just, as people call it in Russia and may other countries, moving money from one pocket to another, and after that they are trying to push me through judicial proceedings.
Brinded: How do you cope with this? Furthermore, what effect is it having on your life and your children?
Natalia: It's very stressful. I don't know what to expect every day and what dirty tricks will happen. Some days, he gets the water or electricity switched off. Once when my younger son Vasily came to Russia for a few days in order to extend his American visa, he was detained by border guards. As a result, he missed a few months of studies as he was not allowed to leave the country due to my former husband's ban.
Also, fictitious criminal cases were brought against my close relatives. Life is difficult and complicated, not just for me but for everyone — especially my youngest son and his grandma.
Lianna: So where do you primarily live now and how do you finance yourself?
Natalia Potanina: I purchased an apartment in London where I live now with a mortgage (credit financed by the bank). In London I feel more comfortable and safer than in Moscow.
Brinded: This case seems crazy. Vladimir is a prominent businessman and has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Do you think unusual rulings regarding your case — for example how your ex-husband was allowed to backdate the divorce — is due to who he is and who he is connected to?
Natalia: Of course yes. The magic of his name, the magic of his influence.
Brinded: So what are the next steps?
Natalia: [The first week of June] we appealed to the Russian Supreme Court against the judgment holding that our marriage dissolved in 2007 and dismissing my claim for division on Norilsk Nickel shares. The lower cassation court (Moscow City Court) failed to give a detailed reasoning as to why it dismissed the Moscow Municipal Court complaints, although the Moscow Municipal Court complaint on dissolution of marriage in 2007 consisted over 50 pages, and the cassation complaint on division of Norilsk Nickel shares consisted of more than 25 pages.
The Judge though she had to answer to each of our arguments just said in 12 phrases that everything was decided correctly in the judgments of lower courts. It seems she didn't even review our complaints. This is extraordinary.
Over the last year there were several clear precedents of the Russian Supreme Court where it divided the assets beneficially owned by one of the spouses by 50%. We are also complaining about how the lower courts disregarded the treaty between Cyprus and Russia on mutual judicial assistance. The Cyprus judgment states that Vladimir is the beneficial owner of shares Norilsk Nickel. while the offshore companies hold those shares on his behalf. This judgment must be binding upon Vladimir, but the lower courts simple ignored it. What is more, in the proceedings in Cyprus Vladimir and his offshore companies directly admitted that he indeed owns Norilsk Nickel. But in the Russian court he goes back on his words and the Judges turn a blind eye to it. We are expecting to hear back from the Supreme Court within two to five months.
Brinded: What would you like to see happen? Of course you are looking for a sizeable settlement but if this could all end tomorrow, what would be your ideal outcome?
Natalia: My biggest wish is to stop the fight and the court war. I would like to come to a peaceful agreement.
My children are the most important people in my life and my youngest son is 17 right now, and he is at a point in his life where he needs his father to help him and advise him what he is going to do with his life. This isn't normal. Whether you are rich or poor, fathers need to help their kids especially their sons, to grow up. I wish Vladimir was caring about his children rather than his judicial proceedings.