Skip to main content

San Francisco church purchased with Putin-linked oligarch money back on market

In 2016, Russian oligarch Suleyman Kerimov invested $5 million to fund the purchase of a former church in Russian Hill known as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. | Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

A defunct San Francisco church that was purchased with $5 million of investment money from a Russian oligarch linked to President Vladimir Putin is back on the market after falling into foreclosure.

The property, currently listed by Colliers, includes both the historical Catholic sanctuary called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and an attached co-living space located at 906-908 Broadway in the city’s tony Russian Hill neighborhood.

While the listing describes an “exceptional opportunity” for a buyer, it makes no mention of the property’s bizarre history—and it’s a doozy.

In 2016, venture firm GVA Capital purchased the church for $7 million with the goal of converting the former house of worship into a startup incubator and tech event space called the Startup Temple. 

Of that sum, $5 million came from Suleyman Kerimov, one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen and a member of the country’s upper house of parliament, The Standard found in a November 2022 investigation.

Kerimov is a close ally of Putin and has ties to a financial network believed to hold the Russian leader’s wealth, according to the European Union and previous reporting by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In 2018, the U.S. Treasury added Kerimov to its sanctions list and later froze $1 billion of his assets in the United States, including a Delaware trust linked to the church’s purchase. 

The Standard’s analysis of hundreds of internal memos, emails and court records established for the first time the ownership structure of that trust and other companies in a stack of Kerimov-connected entities.

Moving Kerimov’s money into the Bay Area required more than a dozen lawyers, accountants, investment managers, bankers, agents and other experts, The Standard found.

In May 2022, the $300 Million yacht “Amadea” owned by Russian Oligarch Suleyman Kerimov was seized by Fijian law enforcement at the request of United States. | United State Department of Justice

Odd Business Idea

The Startup Temple was the brainchild of Pavel Cherkashin, a Russian businessman residing in the Bay Area. 

Together with Magomed Musaev, a Russian venture capitalist and president of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, Cherkashin founded GVA Capital to connect Russian investors to early-stage U.S. startups. 

In total, GVA invested $28 million of Kerimov’s money into Bay Area entities. The majority of that—$20 million—went to Luminar Technologies, a company that develops systems for self-driving cars.

Purchasing the defunct church may be Kerimov’s most unusual investment. In a January 2017 column in App Developer Magazine, Cherkashin compared startup culture to a “religious experience” and outlined his idea for a tech church.

That idea proved more difficult to implement in practice. After launching, the Startup Temple held a number of tech-related events, including a TEDx talk, a rave and an “intercontinental startup battle.”

Ultimately, however, it struggled to turn a profit. By 2020, it was planning to host school proms and weddings in addition to tech events.

The church entered foreclosure in 2020, Cherkashin told The Standard last year. 

In March, Lightstone Capital purchased the property during a judicial foreclosure sale. According to the San Francisco Business Times, Colliers is now attempting to sell it for roughly $7 million—essentially what GVA Capital paid for it.

Worsening the City’s Problems

The sanctioning of Kerimov and the fall of the Startup Temple were not the last time GVA Capital would come to public attention in the United States.

In May, Axios reported that Austin Russell, the 28-year-old American CEO of Luminar Technologies, led a bid to buy 82% of Forbes for $656 million.

According to Axios’ sources, Russell was brought into the deal by GVA Capital president Musaev. Despite serving as the face of the deal, Russell provided only $10 million of the money. The rest came from foreign investors. 

The church’s brief tenure as a temple of the Bay Area tech boom was more than a flash in the pan. It also had a distinctly detrimental effect on a city that has long struggled with homelessness.

When GVA Capital offered $7 million to purchase the church in 2016, Aaron Peskin, a member of the Board of Supervisors whose district includes Russian Hill, was angling to have the city lease the property and turn it into a homeless shelter.

“Had it not been for this huge infusion of cash, it would have been a navigation center somewhere around 2016,” Peskin told The Standard last year.