Amid the dozens of A-list celebrities and social media Titans gathered in isolated splendour on the Sicilian coast last summer, the interaction between two of the more camera-shy guests went largely unnoticed.
But few outside the Silicon Valley contingent will have identified the short, shaven-headed physicist with whom HRH was in conversation.
Still less would they have known he was wealthier than the Prince’s regal grandmother.
His name was Yuri Milner, and he is arguably the most influential investor in the ‘dot-com’ universe.
The Google Camp invitees — Harry made a speech on eco-tourism while appropriately ‘barefoot’, according to reports — drew scorn from afar by arriving on Sicily in no fewer than 114 carbon-dumping private jets.
Yuri Milner (pictured with his wife, Julia), is arguably the most influential investor in the ‘dot-com’ universe
The Duchess of Sussex with the American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee — a Californian whose sister was a schoolmate of Meghan
A number of masters of the universe then compounded this paradox by shuttling to the £1,500-a-night Verdura Golf & Spa Resort by helicopter.
Mr Milner, though, had no need to slum it in the five-star accommodation provided by Google.
For the duration of the event, he was based on a superyacht called Andromeda, anchored a launch ride offshore. The 107-metre vessel has a helipad, cabins for 30 overnight guests and a crew of 43. It was recently bought for $250 million — by a mystery buyer — from the richest man in New Zealand.
Mr Milner is ‘quite shy’, a source close to him told the Mail, ‘but he likes to collect celebrities’.
And according to the source, it was at the Google Camp beano last summer that Mr Milner added Prince Harry to his collection.
The ramifications of their ‘substantive’ chat at the smart Italian resort may prove more profound than the passing pleasure of an obscure financier.
Following the emergency ‘Megxit’ summit at Sandringham on Monday, the Queen issued a statement in which she said there would be a ‘transition period’ in which Harry and Meghan — the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — would divide their time between Canada and the UK.
For several weeks over Christmas and New Year they and their baby son, Archie, holidayed at Mille Fleurs, a £10.7 million waterfront mansion on Vancouver Island
Prince Harry, pictured on a visit to Australia
For several weeks over Christmas and New Year they and their baby son, Archie, holidayed at Mille Fleurs, a £10.7 million waterfront mansion on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was some 6,000 miles from the rest of The Firm, gathered for the festivities as usual at Sandringham.
It now seems that this substantial property in the grounds of an exclusive country club will be the Sussexes’ home during the ‘transition period’ and possibly beyond. It has been suggested that the arrangement is rent-free.
As royals — albeit reluctant ones — Harry and Meghan have to be careful from whom they accept hospitality. In line with the Nolan Principles of public life, there must be transparency and integrity in all their dealings.
Intriguingly, five years ago Mr Milner himself rented Mille Fleurs, according to his spokesman.
His friend, veteran Canadian music producer David Foster — who has collaborated with Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Michael Buble — also has a home on Vancouver Island. He shares it with his fifth wife, the American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee — a Californian whose sister was a schoolmate of Meghan.
These connections have informed speculation about who is lending the property to the royals.
Two high-net-worth individuals have so far been identified as the property’s owner. The latest is Mr Milner, but he emphatically denies the claim. But if Milner is not the owner, then who is?
In his haste to leave the constraints of the royal bubble, is Harry plunging into unknown, possibly deep, waters? Perhaps he is already out of his depth.
No one could say that of Moscow-born Yuri Milner.
An Israeli-Russian citizen, he is married to Julia, a Siberian model-turned-photographer who won attention with an exhibition of snaps featuring female genitalia.
And yet, despite a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine to be around $3.7 billion, Mr Milner has had his tribulations.
In January 2018, his was one of more than 200 names on a U.S. Treasury Department watchlist of wealthy Russian politicians and oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin who could face sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
The previous year the leak of the Paradise Papers — 13 million electronic documents setting out the offshore investment secrets of the global elite — had thrown controversial light on those connections.
The papers revealed that Mr Milner’s perspicacious pre-public flotation investments in Facebook and Twitter were partly funded by businesses controlled by the Russian state; businesses which are under international sanctions following President Putin’s support of separatists in Ukraine.
Both social media giants would become mired in allegations that they were used by Russian agents to disseminate fake news and inflammatory statements prior to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, won by Donald Trump.
By coincidence Mr Milner is also an investor in a real estate venture co-owned by Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
For the duration of the Google Camp event, Mr Milner was based on a $250million superyacht called Andromeda, anchored a launch ride offshore
Yet the Russian made his fortune out of cashing in on the Facebook and Twitter shareholdings long before the election allegations.
He has used his wealth in a number of philanthropic or scientific causes. He is the backer of a project — launched by the late Stephen Hawking — to find alien life forms in far-off galaxies. Along with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin of Google, Milner funds the ‘Oscars of scientific awards’, the Breakthrough Prize.
His property portfolio has previously made headlines. In 2011, he spent $100 million on an estate in Silicon Valley. With a 25,000 sq ft house, it was the most expensive domestic sale in the U.S. at the time. He also owns an estate in the A-list Mexican resort of Cabo.
‘Make no mistake,’ a source told the Mail. ‘Yuri is not a ruthless oligarch gangster. He’s super-smart.’
Indeed, Mr Milner is the son of a Moscow academic father and doctor mother. He is said to have been named after the pioneering Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
He studied theoretical physics before becoming the first Soviet citizen to enrol in Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania — President Trump’s alma mater. He dropped out before graduating, worked briefly for the World Bank and then went home to plunge into Russia’s post-Iron Curtain capitalist maelstrom.
In time, he headed Mail.ru — the country’s biggest email server, before founding the vehicle which would become his financial transport of delight: DST, or Digital Sky Technologies.
In 2009, DST invested $200 million to buy 2 per cent of the nascent Facebook with the option to buy more. This valued the firm at $10 billion and many analysts thought he was mad. The shares were over-valued, they said.
As a result Mr Milner became close friends with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. When, on the verge of its public flotation in 2012, Facebook was valued at more than $100 billion, the brilliance of his punt became obvious.
Then, in 2017, the Paradise Papers were leaked. The source of some of the money behind Mr Milner’s bets on cutting-edge internet firms was revealed, and they showed that DST Global had acquired its significant shareholdings in Facebook and Twitter through indirect funding from Kremlin-controlled entities.
Via shell companies in discreet island tax havens, the Russian state-owned VTB Bank ‘funded a $191m investment in Twitter’ by DST. At the same time, Gazprom Investholding — an arm of the Kremlin-controlled energy giant — ‘financed an opaque offshore company, which funded a vehicle that held $1bn worth of Facebook shares’. Mr Milner and DST denied any wrongdoing or political motives. ‘Nothing more than business,’ he said.
‘We are getting money, and we are putting them in Facebook and Twitter. We are making money for our limited partners, and we are giving money back to them. For me, it’s a commercial arrangement.’
The Russian government money was no different from that of other investors, he insisted. The suggestion he and DST had somehow infiltrated the U.S. giants was a ‘fairy tale’. He said he sought Russian finance because American institutions would not back him at the time.
But the Gazprom money Mr Milner received to invest in Facebook came via another controversial major investor in DST, the Russian steel billionaire Alisher Usmanov.
The Uzbek-Russian oligarch, who has close ties to outgoing Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, owned a 30 per cent stake in Arsenal until 2018 and his £30 million deal over the naming rights to Everton’s new stadium is now being investigated by the Premier League. U.S. senators have called for Mr Usmanov to be placed under sanctions. He served six years in prison for fraud, extortion and ‘theft of socialist property’ under the Soviet Union, although he was later exonerated.
His business partner, Andrei Skoch, was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2014 for his ‘long-standing ties to Russian organised criminal groups’.
Mr Usmanov is a former head of Gazprom’s investment arm, and recently claimed he invested $420 million in Facebook through a fund managed by Mr Milner.
Michael Carpenter, the Russia director at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, remarked: ‘Kremlin-connected institutions make investments with strategic interests in mind — not just commercial interests, but state interests as well. They go hand-in-hand.’
He added: ‘Oligarchs who receive significant amounts of financial support from Russian banks . . . have to pass above a political threshold, meaning such support requires the explicit or tacit approval of those at the top of Russia’s crony capitalist system.’
Alexander Vershbow, U.S. ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush and Nato under Bill Clinton, said the Russian state institutions behind the funding were ‘tools for Putin’s pet political projects’.
Mr Milner denies being a ‘Putin pet’ and was shocked that his name appeared on the U.S. Treasury watch list in 2018. His supporters have described it as a lazy ‘cut and paste’ compilation of wealthy Russians rather than an accurate list of those close to the Kremlin. ‘Of course, it worries him,’ said a source. ‘He was one of the few on the list who has made his home in the U.S. If sanctions were imposed, he could not stay in America.’
Mr Milner denies other connections, too.
His London-based spokesman Paddy Harverson, once press secretary to the Prince of Wales, told the Mail last night: ‘Neither Yuri Milner nor any family member nor any entity affiliated with him or his family owns this property. He rented the property five years ago for a brief period of time.’
This denial is supported by Mr Foster. He has been quoted as saying: ‘About five or six years ago I helped my friend Yuri rent the house for a short time. The owner is an acquaintance of mine, but I can’t disclose his name.’
Publicly available records simply show that the house is technically owned by the Towner Bay Country Club. Mille Fleurs was sold via Sotheby’s in 2012 by means of selling shares in the club.
The new owner purchased the club shares to become the de facto owner of the house, but without his name being added to the title deeds.
New transparency legislation will come into force in Canada later this year to make it compulsory for the owners of properties to be publicly named.
Perhaps only then will the mystery of Harry and Meghan’s generous benefactor at last be solved.