A man billed as the national orchestra academy’s composer-in-residence operates under a pseudonym, has “dubious” musical credentials and has bought multiple passports, including a Maltese one.
Alexey Shor, whose real name is Alexey Vladimorovich Kononenko, first showed up on Malta’s musical scene in 2015, when he sponsored an event organised by the European Foundation for the Support of Culture (EFSC).
Kononenko included a glowing endorsement by the foundation’s president Konstantin Ishkhanov to support his 2015 application to buy a Maltese passport.
Ishkhanov, who is keen to play down the foundation’s links with Russia, is another figure who popped up on the Maltese musical scene out of nowhere, with the EFSC splashing cash which soon curried him favour with the national orchestra and the political class.
In interviews, Kononenko, who is a mathematician, claims to have stumbled into music in his 40s, with his talents having been discovered by chance.
He says he gave up his full-time job and never looked back after having had the opportunity to write a ballet for the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malta and Russia, after everyone involved “wanted my music”.
The event in question was organised by the foundation in conjunction with the Russian embassy in Malta.
Mind the gaps
A sizeable gap in his life, made difficult to research due to his use of the Shor pseudonym, existed between his arrival in the US in the 1990s and his eventual purchase of Maltese citizenship in 2015.
Kononenko’s social media profiles and public contact details all go by the name Alexey Shor. Kononenko told Times of Malta that Alexey Shor is simply a “stage name”, with Shor being his mother’s maiden name.
“My actual last name is quite a mouthful. It’s much easier to say and remember Shor as opposed to Kononenko.”
Documents reviewed by Times of Malta show Kononenko spent a notable chunk of his working life at Renaissance Technologies, a US hedge fund company.
Renaissance’s most famous fund, known as Medallion, has been described by Bloomberg as the “blackest box” in all of finance, with no one on Wall Street able to explain how it consistently delivered market-beating gains for years on end.
In 2021, Renaissance’s executives reportedly paid $7 billion (€6.5 billion) as a settlement for a tax dispute with US authorities. Kononenko told Times of Malta that he was a research scientist with Renaissance and had nothing to do with the reported tax settlement.
At the time of Kononenko’s stint at Renaissance, the company co-CEO was Robert Mercer, a billionaire backer of ex-US president Donald Trump.
Mercer was also a backer of Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct data-mining company that worked for Trump’s campaign and is notorious for manipulating elections.
Cambridge Analytica has been suspected of being used to spread Russian disinformation, though its links to Russia were never proven.
Kononenko described Mercer as a colleague, saying their relationship was strictly work-related.
His “meteoric” rise within Renaissance, as described in press reports, is said to have irritated colleagues, with his promotion being described as a “power-play” within the organisation.
While news reports describe Kononenko as a Russian, he insisted he was born in Ukraine, which at the time was part of what was known as the USSR.
From St Kitts to Malta
Born to a Muscovite father and a Ukrainian mother, Kononeko emigrated to Israel in 1991, later moving to the US, where he gained citizenship.
Documents reviewed by Times of Malta show Kononenko bought a passport from St Kitts and Nevis in 2013, adding another layer of mystery to anyone interested in researching his past.
Just one year later, Kononenko began the process to buy another passport, this time from Malta, documents found in the Passports Papers leak show.
On his application form, Kononenko told Identity Malta that when he emigrated from the USSR in 1991, he renounced his USSR citizenship as part of the standard emigration process that existed at the time.
He openly declared in a cover letter annexed to his 2014 residency application that he had “no immediate plans to permanently live in Malta”, or any intention to stop residing in the US.
Henley & Partners, the passports concessionaire at the time, advised Kononenko’s representative that on one of the application forms, the country of next intended settlement should be listed as Malta, despite Kononenko having no plans to actually move to the island.
In a follow-up letter the following year, Kononenko spoke about his passion for composing, saying he sponsored two concerts in Malta as well as his tie-in with the EFSC.
Sources familiar with the local music scene said the foundation acted as a public relations machine for Kononenko, pumping money into raising his profile as a composer.
The PR campaign included sponsored articles and interviews in the media.
Malta’s philharmonic orchestra soon found itself playing Kononenko’s compositions, as it criss-crossed the world on a lavish and costly tour financed by the foundation, helping further boost the Malta passport buyer’s profile as a composer.
According to two sources, he relies on ghostwriters to compose his music
According to two sources, Kononenko relies on ghostwriters to compose his music.
Kononenko denied taking credit for other people’s work, insisting he has always been very meticulous in assigning credit to his collaborators, with all the proper notations visible on his YouTube videos, music scores and programme notes.
By 2022, Kononenko had gone from a complete unknown to being described as “one of the most prolific and widely-played composers of our time,” in an interview on a website dedicated to Russian art and culture.
The foundation, too, has maintained a high-profile in Malta.
In 2021, it sponsored Brillanti, a glitzy music competition show with a prime time airing on the Labour Party’s channel ONE TV.
Show host Joseph Chetcuti described the foundation’s aid as being “indispensable”.
The national orchestra had briefly paused its collaboration with the foundation in 2020, after Times of Malta exposed its links to an organisation run by a Russian agency often accused of running intelligence operations around the world.
Apart from the foundation, Ishkhanov also headed another Maltese organisation called the Maltese-Russian friendship foundation, which published a magazine in Russian and English called The Maltese Herald.
Kononenko says he first met Ishkhanov during a visit to Malta, having been impressed by a music festival he organised.
“I came to learn that the festival was put on by Konstantin Ishkhanov, whom I did not know at the time. Given my love of classical music and the valuable contribution Mr Ishkhanov and his organisation were making to the arts and music in Malta, I reached out to him and offered to sponsor some concerts.
“I demonstrated my fulfilment of the relevant part of the requirements for the citizenship application with a letter of recommendation from Mr Ishkhanov,” Kononenko told Times of Malta.
Why all the passports?
Kononenko says his worldview has been shaped by his experiences – the Soviet system in Ukraine, the move to the Middle East, terrorist activity in the world, including Israel, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent chaos in former Soviet republics.
He also points towards authoritarianism rising in various parts of the world, the rise of anti-Semitism in the US, the increase in class distinctions, violence and crime in the US and the erosion of the rule of law, even in a pillar of democracy such as the US.
“While United States citizenship is considered a gold standard, it is not always safe to travel and remain as an American in many parts of the world, particularly as an American Jew. Similarly, Israeli citizenship presents its own set of challenges in many parts of the world.”
Kononenko says he would have “gladly” obtained Maltese citizenship when he first considered gaining an additional citizenship, however, it was not available at the time, and St Kitts & Nevis was the only real option available.
I feel a great deal of affinity and affection for Malta and its people
He said although the citizenship had its value for travel in the British Commonwealth, it also had its limitations, particularly when it comes to visa-free travel.
“In fact, I doubt I ever used this passport.”
By contrast, Kononenko said the Maltese citizenship programme was instantly attractive to him, because of Malta’s history and stability.
“Maltese citizenship also promised access to parts of Europe with the ability to remain for extended periods. In the process, it had the ability to permit my children to live in the EU during and after their college, if they so chose.
“During the application process, I got to know and love Malta. Since I obtained my citizenship, I have visited Malta on many occasions and have participated in music festivals. I feel a great deal of affinity and affection for Malta and its people. Malta is now an important part of my life.”