The Department of Justice today released a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections. There’s a whole slew of issues of national significance to parse through, from President Trump telling Jeff Sessions, “this is the end of my presidency, I’m fucked,” to the investigators being “unable” to reach a judgement that the president “did not commit obstruction of justice.”
But there’s also a delicious tale involving a jar of caviar so big and extravagant it was purportedly worth as much as an entry-level Mercedes-Benz (jump to page 138 in the report for the caviar story). On July 26, 2016, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, a political operative with alleged ties to Russian intelligence, emailed Paul Manafort, the disgraced former head of Trump’s election campaign. “I met today with the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar several years ago,” wrote Kilimnik, according to the Mueller report. The person Kilimnik was referring to — the man who gifted Manafort that caviar — was Viktor Yanukovych, the newly elected president of Ukraine in 2010. And that roe was worth a hefty $30,000 to $40,000, per the investigation.
The Washington Post had been reporting on this so-called caviar affair since at least 2017, and had suggested that caviar was simply coded language for money. But a plain reading of today’s Mueller report suggests, maybe it really was caviar? And if it was, well, how much caviar is that?
The answer is a lot. A heck of a lot. In a New York restaurant, a single serving of caviar, roughly 30 to 50 grams, generally starts at $100 — often for a domestic variety like transmontanus — and tops out at $400 for fancier osetra caviar from Israel or China.
To spend in the thousand-dollar plus range on caviar, retail is your best bet. Petrossian, conveniently located a few blocks from my apartment (one must live, non?), charges $504 per 50 grams of its finest roe. That price gets you a pile of fat, coral hued beads that look more like the raw material for an oligarch’s necklace than something edible.
A one kilogram portion, the largest portion size available, runs $16,000. So we’re still at least $14,000 short, because remember, Manafort got just one jar — or hopefully tin, as metal tins are the preferred choice for larger portions of fish roe.
This brings up the question: Where does one find a $30,000 to $40,000 tin of fish roe when Petrossian, probably the most well-known purveyor in the states, doesn’t even go that high? The answer is: It’s complicated. And probably shady.
One source might’ve been Iran’s heralded caviar farming complex; it was illegal to import that country’s roe in 2010, and, following a brief period during which sanctions were dropped, it is illegal again. But an Al Jazeera story published a few years ago suggests that pricing for 10 kilograms of good product, much more than Manafort received, would only run $13,000 or so. So let’s strike that theory.
Another possibility would be illegal reserves of wild Beluga. The United States banned imports of the product in 2005 because the fish that produces it is deemed to be “critically endangered.” (Most Beluga in the U.S. right now is really a substitute hybrid variety.) It’s theoretically possible Manafort got a two-kilogram tin of Beluga, but wow, that’s a lot of caviar. Enough caviar to feed 30 to 45 people or thereabouts. Enough caviar that it would look like you were carrying tin the size of a small dog.
There is, of course, the possibility that someone was seeking to use this luxury for more nefarious purposes: Like cocaine, a whole lot of caviar doesn’t take up nearly as much space as the amount of cash one would need to purchase it. And good fish roe is tons less suspicious when you’re traveling across international borders (“I’m throwing a party for a bunch of louche bankers”) than a duffel bag filled with green (“Gee, how did that get there?).
Either way, Manafort is slated to spend the better part of a decade in prison. I guess the lesson is simple, kids: Don’t take caviar from strangers! Even if that stranger is the president of a sovereign country.
• Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election [.gov]
• How Manafort’s 2016 meeting with a Russian employee at New York cigar club goes to ‘the heart’ of Mueller’s probe [WaPo]