Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PEOPLE IN BUSINESS: Solving World's Problems With Star Speakers




If they wanted Alla Pugachyova to sing at their party, or Neil Armstrong to give a pep talk to their staff, most Russians would rely on svyazy, or connections, the tried-and-true method for access to the famous and the powerful that has been an enduring feature of the social landscape since Soviet times.


Leonid Vakhtin, himself a product of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, wants to change all this. He's convinced that he can get people to pay him f and the stars f for the pleasure and erudition Russian and foreign celebrities can provide.


Just recently, Vakhtin helped set up a cooperative association between the International Academy of Creative Endeavors, where he works, with Celebrity Speakers International, a worldwide speakers network.


"I sell tickets to the world club of the rich and famous," says Vakhtin.


But the former diplomat also insists he is offering more than just a chance to bask in the reflected glory of a celebrity or two. The aim is to help solve his clients' problems by lining them up with the right experts.


"What we trade in is not exactly speakers," says Vakhtin, 41. "We believe that brains and knowledge are articles of commerce just like physical skills or oil."


Celebrity Speakers offers a database of a high-profile management experts, businesspeople, politicians and leading thinkers, as well as visionaries and achievers from every walk of life. The bureau's eminent speakers don't come cheap f Celebrity Speakers is not interested in speakers who charge less than $5,000 an engagement. Its celebrities have to be booked many months, if not years, in advance. All of the contracts he has signed so far involve booking speakers to appear at events in early 2000.


Vakhtin, who calls himself a "professional matchmaker and trouble-shooter," also offers Russian speakers to the world, and it is that part of his business that looks to be the most promising in the short term. Russian experts, especially in the fields of science, are in high demand throughout the world.


Vakhtin's group, which he founded in February, has a database of more than 20 Russian politicians, sports and science celebrities respected in the West.


The most extraordinary speaker is a man who spent 300 days fixing the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. He is the only speaker who cannot communicate in English and was chosen for his unique experience. Vakhtin's list also includes a cosmonaut, former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev f Vakhtin's ex-boss f and talk show host Vladimir Pozner, who co-hosted several "tele-bridges" with American talk show host Phil Donahue.


One of the most popular speakers in the West is Mikhail Lyubimov, a former Soviet spymaster in London. The man Britain once ejected for espionage is now in high demand. His lecture, "Features of British national character and how to use them in spying activities," has packed many a hall.


Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Lebed would be incredibly popular, Vakhtin said, but neither of them would be likely to outshine former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


"We would book Gorbachev every two weeks if he didn't mind," he said.


A native of the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and a graduate of the Moscow Institute for International Relations, Vakhtin served as a diplomat for 17 years. After quitting a prestigious post as economics consultant to the foreign minister in 1996 f when Kozyrev was fired f he switched to the less prestigious but better-paid role of businessman.


After two years in the import-export business, Vakhtin took an interest in "trading talents without borders and customs." Fascinated with the psychology of leadership, Vakhtin is hoping his efforts will help create bright and competent personalities a Russian society he characterizes as "leaderless."


The market for such services is almost nonexistent in Russia, where people still tend to solve their problems through personal connections. International corporations spend $20 billion a year to pay celebrity speakers, and Vakhtin is betting Russia will catch up.


"A rewarding task would be to create a Russian market for foreign stars bringing here their expertise and knowledge," he says. "Isn't it what this country needs right now?"