Vitaly Malkin is enjoying an expensive red at the grand marble dining table of his art deco apartment in Paris. The maid is preparing soup for lunch, while his driver waits downstairs in the executive Mercedes should the boss need to go anywhere. It’s an oddly luxurious setting in which to be talking about female genital mutilation.
“Young women die in the worst cases,” says Malkin emphatically. “Infibulation—in which the entire labia and clitoris are removed and the vulva is sewn up, leaving the smallest of holes—just means secretions build up and have no way out. Then you get cysts, infections, death. But the deaths are covered up. They’re caused by just ‘an infection of the blood’.”
It’s enough to put you off your soup. But Malkin is passionate about the subject; he’s worked with UNICEF to create a programme to train local doctors to educate their patients and treat mutilated girls in Ethiopia; he’s put a lot of his own money—millions of dollars—into tackling the issue through his Foundation Espoir. And he’s angry.
“Why is it so hard to raise money to tackle this issue? Why does nobody want to talk about this subject?” he asks. “I put two full-page ads in Le Figaro. Do you know what response I got? Nothing. Not one call. Nobody wants to know about female genital mutilation. And I’m Mr Nobody. I don’t have critical mass. It’s so frustrating.”
Malkin, 66, is under-selling himself. He’s the Russian who trained as a physicist before starting a business importing personal computers, before creating his own bank, before becoming one of the country’s richest men, bringing with that his own share of controversial business shenanigans. He’s one of those oligarchs more often seen bathing on their super-yacht or watching their football team—the one they own, that is. Along the way he was a senator in the Russian parliament for nine years. It’s a lifestyle Malkin could be living now, were it not for something of a Road to Damascus conversion. Almost literally, were it not for the fact that he was on a road through Egypt.
“I was there in 2008 and someone mentioned this statistic that 98 percent of women there [across certain regions of north Africa] are circumcised,” Malkin recalls. “I looked out of my hotel window at all these young women—without headscarves, with tight jeans on, their midriffs exposed—and couldn’t believe that most of them had been cut. I was shocked. Everything there looked so civilised, so how could this be?”
So, Malkin did what any self-respecting billionaire oligarch does in the circumstances: to vent his high emotions, he sat down and wrote an essay against circumcision. That went up on his study shelf. But the feelings did not. Indeed, they only grew when he looked into the causes behind the practice. Tribal traditions are a factor; but the bigger issue was religious custom—born of the same source that, he concluded, oppressed billions of people around the world with beliefs that are, in his oft-used word, “absurd”.
“I’ve never lost my interest in science and that does shape your thinking—you’re inclined towards the rational,” says Malkin. “Before that moment in Egypt I just thought ‘well, we’re all different, we all think different things’. But after I grew to really hate religion— what it does. That moment really changed me.” And not in a small way. Malkin spent the best part of the next decade reading all he could on the origins and evolution of religious thought, compiling endless notes and finally, this year, publishing a book, Dangerous Illusions, a 400-page tome cut back from the original 1,000-page tirade. It was launched in true oligarch style, with a heady celebration of the sensual: at Paris’s Crazy Horse nude revue, fuelled by 250 bottles of champagne and 80 bottles of £100 Saint-Emilion wine.
Simply by presenting the often dense historic foundations of the core beliefs of Christianity, Judaism and Islam through the ages—how they came into being, how they shifted with the times, how that shaped everyday thought—Malkin hopes to have created what he calls a manifesto, one that certainly makes for uncomfortable—though arguably necessary—reading for anyone of faith. Religion, he contends, has battled against reason, its thinking showing itself to be imbalanced, contradictory, self-serving, manipulative; it’s failed to account for evil in the world but made sure we feel the guilt for it; it’s afforded endless misery in this life on the empty promise of one after it; it’s promoted masochistic suffering as a good in its own right; and it’s waged a campaign against pleasure, be that fun or food, wealth or free thinking, and most certainly sex.
“I’m not interested so much in what intellectuals say about the book,” he adds, “because that won’t change my ideas. These may be wrong, but I do feel that intellectualism all too often fails to speak to the general people, which is what I want. I hope this book might get them to reconsider religion. I like the idea of it converting people. I mean, why should our lives be constrained by public morality, by a morality that religion has made up? We have a self-regulating penal code that says we’re free up to a certain point. If you say there’s some other code, but you can’t say where it came from, what the thinking behind it is, then where’s your freedom? Do you really think there’s some god that cares what position we have sex in? It’s absurd.”
"Nobody wants to know about female genital mutilation. And I’m Mr Nobody. I don’t have critical mass. It’s so frustrating."
Things are changing—public engagement by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have pushed the debate—but it’s still hard to publicly point out the ludicrousness of so many of the ideas fundamental to religious belief, he says.
“We live in such politically correct times, another thing I’ve grown to hate,” Malkin adds. “I was largely indifferent to that too, before that time in Egypt. We don’t address so much of what’s wrong in society because of political correctness, because we don’t want to come across as racist perhaps, or as imposing one set of values over another.”
Malkin rattles off a choice selection of, to his mind, politically correct views: that monogamy, as much as it may be beneficial to society and may be the best arrangement for the raising of children, is a natural state to be in, “when everyone knows humans are not naturally monogamous”; that true equality between people is achievable or even desirable, “that’s what they tried in the Soviet Union, and it just results in entropy,” he argues; that power and sexual attraction are not intimately connected, “when in ancient times there was a recognition of the fact that the more powerful you were, the more beautiful people you had around you.
“I mean, everyone knows that right? I remember reading some newspaper story outraged at the fact that some old politician had fucked his secretary. It seemed obvious to me why it happened: because she was a young woman and he had power. Complaining about that is a hypocritical failure to accept a dynamic that’s been the case for millennia: that women are attracted to power, and much more so than money.”
Whether Malkin is talking from personal experience on that score he doesn’t say— though he does have six children, from grown man down to baby, and a girlfriend in her 20s; and, refreshingly, he’s not one to hold back on personal details either. He does see himself as going through something of a transformation—of outlook, of purpose; it’s one in part shaped by his upbringing, and afforded by his money perhaps, but one to be applauded all the same.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and if I had it over again I wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice. I wouldn’t buy this apartment for one—I’d live in hotels and be a guest wherever I went, because things like this hamper you, they weigh you down,” he suggests. “I know three or four people [fellow oligarchs] who don’t use their time very well, who spend their energies building ever bigger boats. And yes, for some it’s an investment, for some a clever business tool. But it’s more often not. It’s more often a disaster for them—a waste of time and energy.”
"Before that moment in Egypt I just thought ‘well, we’re all different, we all think different things’. But after I grew to really hate religion— what it does. That moment really changed me."
He sees parallels between religion and his experience of growing up in the USSR, the child of militant communists, his father a factory manager, his mother a doctor. Communism was expounded by the state with all the fervour and fanaticism of a religion at its most fundamentalist. In some ways, it embodied the enlightenment ideals of rationality and secularism that saw off religious influence three centuries ago.
“Yet now we’re seeing religious oppression again,” he sighs. “The world now seems less rational, less secular. Religious influence is becoming much more visible, especially in certain parts of the world. And that worries me, especially as someone trained in science. In fact, I think we need a more scientific approach. Intellectuals debate—they go left, they go right, they go backwards. In science if your train departs point A, it’s going to B, to C and all the way to Z.”
He tells an anecdote about his father that perhaps suggests rationality was a genetic and a cultural inheritance. When his father’s sister died, he refused thereafter to visit her grave, much to the consternation of the rest of his family. ‘What was the point?’ he would ask. She isn’t there. She isn’t anywhere. She is in his thoughts daily, but that’s regardless of his location. “Going to the cemetery would be an indication that you still, somehow, believe the dead are watching you, that they’re up there in the sky somewhere. It’s religious custom,” says Malkin. “You start with the grave and next day you’re in church, and then…”
Not that Malkin blames religion for everything. One of the most arresting and certainly entertaining chapters of his book examines religion’s disapproval of masturbation. Various religions at various times have claimed that, in order to prevent sexual self-pleasure, men should never touch their penis while urinating, that to avoid the sinful spilling of semen, children should be married as soon as possible, that women don’t feel sexual pleasure anyway and that masturbation is less self-abuse as an abuse of God’s property. Inspiring guilt for a commonplace behaviour instinctive to most sexually active people was, of course, a convenient way of driving people to church.
“But while religion shaped those ideas of masturbation, so have much more recent cultures—doctors, scientists have pushed those prohibitions too,” says Malkin. “Again, it’s about constraining humanity by imposing an idea, and a wrong idea at that. It’s a process of starting with the wrong perception and finishing with a kind of self-inflicted madness.” It’s easy to see how medieval ideas shape our behaviour even today: while men and women may share masturbation jokes, while smart toys to aid masturbation may be readily available, still the subject remains at least embarrassing, if not outright taboo. Small wonder this “very disordered effect of self-love”, as Rousseau put it, would be conflated with a loss of ‘vital forces’, ‘treated’ with cold showers and strait-jackets, and helped make sport and exercise part of the school curriculum—being exhausted was a diversion. Circumcision for boys and girls was used to counter masturbation by the late 19th century.
That, indeed, may prove Malkin’s next one-man crusade. “I’m doing what I can to tackle female genital mutilation, but I would like to campaign against circumcision too, because it’s taken less seriously, although it’s another absurd idea with its basis in religion,” he says. “Why we don’t call it MGM—male genital mutilation—I don’t know, because like FGM it’s also a way of reducing genital sensitivity. Less pleasure, less sexual desire, fewer sexual ‘excesses’, the family is more solid! It’s simply genius! The fact is that it’s against the human rights of the individual [to circumcise them before they can give permission]. Some people argue it’s custom, or that it’s for hygiene. But let’s put it more directly, more convincingly: it’s about reducing the ability to have sexual pleasure.”
But perhaps they should because Malkin is already lining up a couple more books. Yes, he could be on a yacht somewhere. But he’s found meaning in rocking the boat instead.
All illustrations by Rebecca Chew.