Tycoon Faces Trials After Failure of U.S. Operation

Billionaire Len Blavatnik's international empire faces its biggest test with last week's bankruptcy filing by a key component, the U.S. operations of LyondellBasell, the world's No. 3 petrochemicals maker.

In two decades of impressive but highly leveraged growth fueled by Soviet-era links, Blavatnik, a U.S. citizen, became a rare middleman between Western capital and a new generation of Russian entrepreneurs in the early 1990s.

His business interests stretch from the United States to Kazakhstan, and his $11 billion fortune ranks him 28th on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. Google co-founder Sergey Brin is the only Russian emigrant to rank higher.

Blavatnik was a pioneer in converting his Russian wealth into large assets in Europe and the United States, a path later followed by many Russian metals and oil barons.

He once earned $675 million on a Russian asset that previous owner George Soros rated his worst ever investment.

Blavatnik, who a spokesman said was not available for interview, is now in the vanguard of a less welcome trend as the global financial crisis strips the wealth of Russian tycoons.

The U.S. operations of LyondellBasell filed for bankruptcy protection in a New York court on Tuesday. The company took on billions of dollars in debt a year ago, when Blavatnik led a $12.7 billion leveraged buyout of Lyondell by Basell of the Netherlands.

Blavatnik, 51, emigrated to the United States in 1978, turning his back on a career as a Soviet engineer after four years of studies in Moscow's Transport Engineering Institute.

Three years later he became a U.S. citizen. He retained his appetite for studies, receiving a master's degree in computer science from Columbia University and a MBA from Harvard Business School.

Viktor Vekselberg, a fellow student at the institute, aligned his Renova company with Access Industries to begin a decade-long crusade to capture Soviet oil and aluminum assets after the collapse of communism.

Both men played big roles in Russia's privatization auctions. They ended up with significant stakes in TNK-BP, and United Company RusAl as well as coal, telecoms, media and real estate assets.

Blavatnik once bought 25 percent of national telecoms firm Svyazinvest for $625 million from Soros in 2006, eight years after Soros paid $1.875 billion for the stake.

Blavatnik later doubled his money selling the stake for $1.3 billion to billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

Blavatnik remains a board member of RusAl -- in which he also has a minority stake -- and owner of a 12.5 percent of TNK-BP.

Like many Russian-born peers, he drew heavily on loans to grow his business. LyondellBasell struggles under $26 billion of debt after Basell merged with Houston-based Lyondell in a $12.7 billion deal in 2007.