MOSCOW—A Russian businessman who has been romantically linked to Britain’s Princess Michael of Kent was gunned down early Sunday morning in an apparent contract hit. Mikhail Kravchenko, 46, had been photographed in Venice walking hand in hand with the princess, now 67, in 2006, and the British press reported that the couple had stayed at the exclusive Cipriani Hotel, with the princess allegedly checking in as “Mrs. Green.” Both denied that they were having an affair. Simon Astaire, a spokesman, said Sunday that the “Prince and Princess Michael of Kent are very distressed to hear of this tragedy,” describing Kravchenko as a “good friend” of the royal couple.
Kravchenko was killed as he returned to a house in the exclusive Moscow suburb of Peredelkino, once the haunt of Soviet writers such as Boris Pasternak but more recently a favored retreat of Russia’s new rich. According to Moscow police, Kravchenko pulled up at around 2 a.m. on Sunday morning in his Mercedes to a large three-story redbrick mansion that he had built for his parents. Two or more gunmen using two different types of pistols fired at least 10 shots into the car. Kravchenko was hit four times in the chest before the assailants pulled him out of the car and shot him twice in the head at close range—a professional killer’s practice known in Russia as the “control shot.” Police also suggested that Kravchenko may have had a passenger in the car who has not yet been located.
Kravchenko was a self-made millionaire whose “March 8th” furniture factory and stores had an annual turnover of $200 million. Born in Karaganda, now in Kazakhstan, Kravchenko attended Moscow University’s economics faculty before setting up a private business school in Moscow. In 2000 he became director of March 8th and soon after was elected a member of the Russian Academy of Economics. In 2001 Kravchenko’s wife and 5-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash in Moscow and he was seriously injured.
At the time of his death the good-looking, long-haired Kravchenko was considered one of Moscow’s most eligible bachelors. He enjoyed traveling and authored long articles in the fashionable Moscow glossy magazine Desillusionist on his travels in New Guinea, Ecuador, and the Galápagos islands, illustrated with his own photographs. One features a smiling Kravchenko holding a vampire bat by its wings, while another shows him in a jungle surrounded by naked black boys wearing white angel wings. “He was a man who had made plenty of money and was using it to enjoy life,” a source at the magazine who had worked often with Kravchenko told The Daily Beast. “He was a talented photographer. He kept fit, looked after himself, was very unpretentious and funny.” Kravchenko also published at least one volume of poetry, with most of the poems in the form of lullabies to his dead daughter.
Princess Michael of Kent, wife of Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent, met Kravchenko at a design exhibition in 2005. According to Astaire, the Princess was moved when Kravchenko confided the story of his wife and child’s death to her. The pair became close friends. But they strongly denied rumors of an affair after the publication of paparazzi pictures of them holding hands as they rode a gondola and strolled through Venice. “We have just normal human relations—we are friends,” Kravchenko said at the time, while the Princess told Hello magazine that “I hold hands with all my friends. I don’t think that’s being intimate at all. I’m a very tactile person—I do it all the time.”
Investigator Irina Gumilova told reporters in Moscow Monday that a business dispute was a likely motive for the murder—though Kravchenko’s business partners insisted Monday that there were no serious problems with finance. “Our factory had debts, like any other business, but they were by no means critical,” says March 8th vice president Svetlana Saveleva. “We are in shock, and are totally mystified.”
The killing of Kravchenko is not the only Russian-based bad news for the Kents in recent days. British tabloids revealed earlier this month that Prince Michael of Kent had accepted £320,000 ($515,000) in charitable donations from Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch known as the “Godfather of the Kremlin.” Berezovsky, a close friend of Boris Yeltsin’s family, was Vladimir Putin’s chief political sponsor—but when Putin came to power in 2000, he threatened his old mentor with charges of theft. Berezovsky has been in exile in the U.K. ever since, and U.K. courts have refused Russian attempts to extradite him. Berezovsky recently sued fellow oligarch and former business partner Roman Abramovich for $5.1 billion in London’s High Court, the most high-stakes legal battle in history. Berezovsky is now also suing the family of a deceased Georgian business partner for $3 billion—and it was in the course of that trial that legal documents were revealed disclosing 56 payments from a Berezovsky-controlled offshore company to Prince Michael of Kent between 2002 and 2008.
Prince Michael has always had a strong interest in Russia and bears a strong physical resemblance to his distant kinsman, Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II. The prince runs a series of Russia-based charities and last week received an award from a university in St. Petersburg for his work on British-Russian relations. “There is nothing underhand or improper about the financial assistance I have given Prince Michael,” Berezovsky told reporters earlier this month. “It is a matter between friends.”