Lev Leviev, the so-called “King of Diamonds” and a legendary philanthropist whose fortunes have recently suffered a major fall, was born in Samarkand, Soviet Uzbekistan. His family were prominent members of the Bukharan-Jewish community, and he remembers his childhood as being dominated by “fear” of both local and Soviet anti-Semitism. From a young age, Leviev was determined to become rich. “I knew from the time I was 6 that I was destined to be a millionaire,” he later commented.
In 1971, his family moved to Israel when the USSR temporarily loosened restrictions on Jewish emigration. They lived in the impoverished town of Kiryat Malakhi. Leviev left his Chabad religious school at age 15 to work in a diamond-polishing store. Determined to master all parts of the diamond business, he attributes his ability in diamond-cutting to steady hands and the skills he picked up while learning how to perform ritual circumcisions. Fiercely ambitious, Leviev rose to a senior position in the De Beers diamond cartel. He then struck out on his own, determined to break De Beers’ monopoly of the world diamond market and to get access to uncut diamonds.
After receiving the blessing of the leader or Rebbe of the Chabad Hasidic movement, Menachem Mendel Schneerson – to whom he remains devoted to – Leviev began doing business in the Soviet Union during the last, chaotic days of communist rule. But it was in the capitalist “wild west” of Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union that Leviev made his mark. He established a close friendship with President Vladimir Putin and following that with Angolan leader Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. He owned diamond mines in Russia, Angola, and Namibia, was the world’s largest cutter and polisher of diamonds, and sold the diamonds in his upmarket stores around the world. In 1996, he purchased the Africa Israel Investments Ltd. (AFI Group) and built up vast interests in real estate, chemicals, steel, energy, and fashion. He owned the former New York Times building, million-square-feet Russian malls, and what was said to be Britain’s most expensive private home.
By 2007, he was reputed to be Israel’s richest man and the most generous Jewish philanthropist since Moses Montefiore. He donated an estimated $50 million a year to Jewish causes, especially in the former Soviet Union where he supported over 500 Jewish communities, including in Uzbekistan. His financial support helped Chabad assume a dominant role in Jewish communities around the former Soviet Union.
Leviev’s business empire has suffered some blows in recent years. After the global crash of 2008, AFI Group fell into massive debt and was eventually sold and deregistered from the Tel Aviv stock exchange. The company owed billions but Leviev remains a wealthy man and a big player in the diamond world. However, his preference for staying out of the headlines was challenged by allegations of exploitation and corruption in relation to his diamond mines in Angola in particular, while his building programs in the West Bank have also sparked some unease. Leviev’s ties with Putin, the Trump Organization, and Jared Kushner attracted the interest of Robert Mueller during the investigations into alleged Russian interference into the 2016 US presidential elections.
In 2018, two of Leviev’s sons, his brother, and other members of the Leviev organization were arrested in Israel on charges of diamond smuggling. Shortly afterwards, an employee fell to her death in mysterious circumstances from Leviev’s Tel Aviv office building. The Israeli police sought to question Leviev about smuggling, money laundering, and tax evasion. Leviev denied any wrongdoing but has so far declined requests to return to Israel from Russia, where he now lives.