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‘It’s shameful’: Russian-linked billionaires have given enormous sums to the West’s leading educational and cultural institutions

‘It’s shameful’: Russian-linked billionaires have given enormous sums to the West’s leading educational and cultural institutions


They’ve sponsored fellowships at Ivy League colleges, have instructional facilities named after them, and sit on the boards of main cultural establishments in the USA and Western Europe. They’re celebrated philanthropists and patrons of the humanities.

However there’s one thing else these donors share that different well-heeled benefactors don’t: Deep monetary ties to Russia.

Whereas there’s nothing new concerning the fame laundering of the oligarch class, it’s dealing with renewed scrutiny within the wake of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The current renaming of the “Russian Lounge” at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Middle for the Performing Arts underscores the sensitivity surrounding such relationships.

Vladimir Potanin acquired his “philanthropic management” on the Kennedy Middle — the place his identify is inscribed on the polished marble partitions together with Normal Motors, Boeing and Capital One — with a $5 million donation in 2011.

Potanin — Russia’s wealthiest businessman who performs hockey with Putin and has thus far dodged Western sanctions — made his fortune devising a system for Russian enterprise leaders to mortgage cash to the cash-strapped administration of then-president Boris Yeltsin within the mid-’90s. When Russia couldn’t repay the loans, the businessmen have been allowed to purchase key state belongings for pennies on the greenback. On the time, Potanin and his enterprise accomplice purchased 38% of the mining and steel firm Norilsk for $170.1 million, a stake that may be value almost $20 billion 15 years later.

Across the time of the Kennedy Middle donation, he said that he hoped it will “current a picture of up to date Russia to the American viewers, stepping past the clich├ęs about our nation.”

However contributions like this seem to serve one other goal.

It’s “the basic instance of basically attempting to purchase a greater fame … to distract from the truth that you are still very a lot tied to an authoritarian regime,” mentioned Jordan Gans-Morse, professor of corruption within the post-Soviet period at Northwestern College.

An previous American playbook

Potanin, who was identified by the US Treasury Division in 2018 as one in every of almost 100 influential Russian billionaires with shut ties to the Kremlin, is not the primary or solely oligarch to make use of his wealth to aim to sway the opinion of Western elite. In truth, it is a web page straight out of an previous American playbook.

Nineteenth century robber barons famously splashed their names throughout orchestra halls and museums to shed their reputations as ethically doubtful industrialists who amassed monumental wealth on the backs of America’s most susceptible. It labored: When most People hear the identify Andrew Carnegie, they in all probability consider Carnegie Corridor or Carnegie Mellon and never one of many deadliest labor confrontations in American historical past, which occurred at one in every of his metal crops in 1892.

A newer instance is the best way the Sackler household behind Purdue Pharma reportedly donated tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in what critics say was an effort to obscure the lethal legacy of its blockbuster drug OxyContin. Prestigious Western cultural establishments, such because the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in New York and the Louvre in Paris, have needed to reckon with donations from the Sackler household within the aftermath of the opioid disaster. The Nationwide Portrait Gallery in London turned down a $1.3 million donation from the household in 2019 and others have additionally pledged to not take Sackler cash sooner or later.
A sign welcomes visitors to the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2019.

In a lot the identical manner, Putin’s interior circle — a lot of whom are oligarchs who’ve profited off corruption and made their wealth in illicit methods — use philanthropy within the West to launder their reputations and acquire entry to American and European excessive society, in line with consultants.

Dartmouth sociology professor Brooke Harrington mentioned oligarchs of any nationality usually goal three sorts of establishments with their donations — cultural, political, and academic.

Whereas most universities are required to reveal items and contracts with overseas actors exceeding $250,000 a yr underneath federal regulation, a 2020 report by the Division of Training discovered widespread noncompliance. Yale, the report states, “underreported its overseas items and contracts by $375 million.” Harvard, in flip, “seems to own insufficient institutional controls over its overseas donations and contracts,” the report discovered. Yale acknowledged the difficulty on the time saying the college did not submit reviews between 2014 and 2017, however had since corrected this. Harvard said it had recognized “a wider vary of contracts” and up to date its reviews accordingly.

Seven Russian billionaires donated lots of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} to American universities, charities, museums and foundations simply since 2009, in line with an evaluation from the Anti-Corruption Knowledge Collective and CNN reporting.

Some consultants say cultural and academic establishments can do extra to forestall the fame laundering of their donors.

Revered establishments have a duty to not glorify those that constructed their wealth by illicit commerce, mentioned Louise Shelley, a public coverage professor at George Mason College.

Now, some cultural facilities and universities are grappling with what to do with oligarchs’ donations.

“If they’ll co-opt the thought leaders, in addition to the political leaders, as properly the cultural leaders — it turns into a lot more durable to cease no matter it’s that Putin needs to do,” Harrington, the Dartmouth professor, mentioned.

Viktor Vekselberg’s partnership with MIT: “It’s simply completely wild”

A decade in the past, Putin needed to cease the brain-drain of scientists and engineers to the West and domesticate home-grown tech at a $3 billion Moscow-based innovation middle.

On the time, Washington and Moscow have been making an attempt a more in-depth relationship and the celebrated Massachusetts Institute of Know-how offered the proper mixture of data, credibility and fame for the Russian undertaking.

The Skolkovo Basis — led by one in every of Putin’s shut allies Viktor Vekselberg — entered right into a partnership with MIT in 2011 to construct the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Know-how, or “Skoltech,” outdoors of Moscow.

Keith Stevenson, Skoltech’s provost, instructed CNN in an interview that the principle premise of the connection was to develop “tutorial excellence and analysis that might be contributing to the expansion of the economic system around the globe.”

Vekselberg, like many different oligarchs, made his cash through the privatization of Russia’s pure assets, particularly oil and metals, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The collaboration with Skolkovo offered MIT with over $300 million, half of which was earmarked to develop Skoltech’s curriculum and the opposite half to make use of “for its personal improvement,” in line with Boston’s WGBH Information.
Kremlin-connected children grew up in the very countries whose societies their parents claim to reject
Firstly, Russia was “an ally,” MIT professor and former President of the Skolkovo Institute Edward Crawley instructed WGBH Information, and mentioned the connection was much like one the college would have with another overseas establishment.

Nevertheless, Vekselberg and Skolkovo rapidly caught the eye of federal investigators.

Just a few months after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, Boston’s native FBI workplace printed an uncommon warning:

“The [Skolkovo] basis could also be a method for the Russian authorities to entry our nation’s delicate or categorised analysis improvement services and dual-use applied sciences with army and industrial utility,” the assistant particular agent in cost wrote.

“Any such exercise doesn’t go on at Skoltech,” mentioned Stevenson, claiming the FBI was “speaking to people who had actually no true understanding of who was initiating the undertaking.”

MIT, too, was fast to dismiss the considerations and even renewed Vekselberg’s appointment to its Board of Trustees in 2015.

Viktor Vekselberg attends a meeting at the G20 Summit in 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Vekselberg made at the very least 4 donations to the college between 2015 and 2017, in line with the Anti-Corruption Knowledge Collective, and had a scholarship named after him.

In an announcement to CNN, MIT confirmed Vekselberg has not donated to the college since 2017.

Involving Vekselberg to construct the “innovation ecosystem” at Skoltech was “completely logical,” Stevenson mentioned. “He is a really well-experienced, internationally-known businessman.”

Stevenson added he couldn’t touch upon Vekselberg’s relationship with the Kremlin however mentioned that, at Skoltech, his involvement “has been fully on knowledgeable degree to assist construct innovation.”

Vekselberg didn’t reply to CNN’s request for remark.

Casey Michel, an professional on kleptocracies and illicit finance and writer of a book on overseas investments within the US, sees it otherwise.

“It’s simply completely wild how some of the infamous oligarchs to emerge from Russia was in a position to get hold of a seat on the precise board of some of the prestigious universities in the USA of America,” Michel mentioned.

MIT scrubbed its web site of Vekselberg’s identify and eliminated him from its board solely after he was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for benefitting from Putin’s regime. The US Treasury Division mentioned he performed “a key function in advancing Russia’s malign actions” — together with the occupation of Crimea, supplying weapons to the Assad regime, making an attempt to subvert Western democracies and malicious cyber actions.

It didn’t, nevertheless, finish its partnership with Skolkovo.

Even a federal investigation into the monetary relationship between MIT and Skolkovo did not cease the main analysis middle from renewing its collaboration with the Russians in 2019. That was simply months after MIT’s Media Lab was pressured to publicly apologize for its American soiled donor Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of working an underage intercourse trafficking ring earlier than he dedicated suicide in August 2019.

In April 2019, MIT introduced an enhanced vetting course of for accepting donations. In an announcement to CNN earlier this month, MIT mentioned its evaluation course of “examines dangers associated to nationwide safety, safety of mental property, compliance with federal legal guidelines, knowledge safety and entry, and different related points whereas searching for to assist the free and open pursuit of data.”

Two months in the past, after the invasion of Ukraine, MIT lastly severed ties with the Russian basis saying “this step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian authorities in Ukraine. We take it with deep remorse due to our nice respect for the Russian folks and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the various extraordinary Russian colleagues we’ve got labored with.”
MIT President L. Rafael Reif said the termination of the connection with Skoltech “comes with appreciable unhappiness, however the actions of the Russian authorities made our selection clear… This doesn’t diminish our satisfaction within the work we did to develop Skoltech and within the first-rate analysis that has flowed from the connection.”

Harrington, the Dartmouth professor, mentioned that when contemplating donations, establishments should bear in mind who they’re presupposed to serve.

“It is the duty of those establishments to ask themselves: does it serve the general public good?” Harrington mentioned. “Do they exist to do fame laundering and facilitate the agenda of what’s clearly now an enemy state?”

What’s extra, Michel argues that universities, particularly elite establishments like MIT, have in depth assets in-house to find out the place massive donors’ cash comes from.

“They’ve to know themselves as having these assets to have the ability to really look at and perceive what the implications of those donations, these open doorways of entry, could also be,” Michel mentioned.

“It’s incumbent upon them,” he added, “to know the supply of this wealth.”

A Soviet-born billionaire was knighted, however his donations nonetheless elevate eyebrows

Maybe probably the most prodigious instance of Russian fame laundering is that of Len Blavatnik. The Ukrainian-born billionaire made his cash through the privatization of state-owned commodities like aluminum and oil following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Blavatnik, who holds each British and US citizenship, was awarded knighthood within the UK for his philanthropy and has rubbed elbows with a few of Hollywood’s most well-known — and notorious — folks, together with Harvey Weinstein, with whom he used to host a luncheon on his yacht through the Cannes Movie Pageant.
Len Blavatnik and Harvey Weinstein attend a private dinner in Moscow on June 11, 2015.

Blavatnik has repeatedly denied having connections to the Kremlin. “Mr. Blavatnik is just not Russian. He is an American citizen, and has been for nearly 40 years, (he) was born in Ukraine. He has no involvement in Russian politics or within the Russian authorities,” a spokesperson for his firm Entry Industries mentioned in an announcement offered to CNN.

Nevertheless, Blavatnik is near Vekselberg. Three years in the past, Vekselberg — Blavatnik’s faculty good friend and enterprise accomplice who was sanctioned by the US again in 2018 — instructed the Financial Times: “All his most important cash, he made right here in Russia, with me.”

Blavatnik and Vekselberg owned main stakes in Russia’s largest aluminum firm, Rusal.

“That’s the most corrupt business in some of the corrupt international locations on the earth. You’ll be able to’t disentangle the sources of this wealth from the preliminary sources of the corruption,” mentioned Michel.

“You can not have made that cash with out particular political connections or connections to organized crime or connections to different oligarchic figures,” he added.

In consequence, Blavatnik’s donations and ties to oligarchs have raised eyebrows previously.

When Oxford College accepted greater than $100 million from Blavatnik in 2010 to determine the Blavatnik College of Authorities, critics, in a letter printed within the Guardian, insisted the college “cease promoting its fame and status to Putin’s associates.”

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the college mentioned its authorities college would proceed to be named for the businessman. “With out (Blavatnik’s) generosity, the creation of the College wouldn’t have been attainable. He has at all times revered the tutorial independence of the College and by no means tried to direct its actions,” in line with an announcement from Oxford College printed by its student paper.

Since then, Blavatnik has made a number of different sizable donations, together with $25 million to Carnegie Corridor in New York — which named a seating part after him; $65 million to London’s Tate Fashionable — which named a constructing after him; $35 million to Yale — which named a fellowship after the enterprise tycoon; in addition to a number of multi-million-dollar grants to Stanford College, Columbia College and the College of Pennsylvania.

In 2018, Blavatnik made the most important ever donation to Harvard’s medical college — a whopping $200 million.

Anti-corruption activists warned about Blavatnik’s efforts to export “Russian kleptocratic practices to the West” in a 2019 letter to the board of the Council on Overseas Relations, which named an internship program after Blavatnik following a $12 million donation.

“It’s our thought of view that Blavatnik makes use of his ‘philanthropy’ — funds obtained by and with the consent of the Kremlin, on the expense of the state price range and the Russian folks — at main western tutorial and cultural establishments to advance his entry to political circles,” the group of 55 American and European overseas coverage consultants and anti-corruption activists wrote. “Such ‘philanthropic’ capital allows the infiltration of the US and UK political and financial institutions on the highest ranges.”

Federal regulation prohibits overseas nationals — and thus, most Russians — from donating to US political campaigns. However Blavatnik, together with his US citizenship, is a major donor to the Republican occasion. He has additionally made some smaller donations to Democrats and was photographed with former President Invoice Clinton at a gala at Lincoln Middle in 2013.
Len Blavatnik, left, and former US President Bill Clinton speak at a gala at Lincoln Center in New York in 2013.

Blavatnik’s success in enhancing his fame as an American and British citizen “is simply head and shoulders above all these different oligarchs,” mentioned Michel, who believes the businessman owes a part of that success to his nationalities.

His passports would additionally protect him from sanctions, Michel defined.

“There isn’t a capability for the US to sanction its personal residents, to grab its personal belongings and to successfully bar them from ever visiting the USA of America — and the identical would go for the UK as properly,” he mentioned.

Establishments grapple with what to do

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, western establishments have scrambled to distance themselves from oligarchs and their donations.

The Tate Fashionable in London severed ties with Vekselberg and one other oligarch, Petr Aven, who till just lately headed Alfa-Financial institution in Russia and is sanctioned by the European Union.

Different establishments, reminiscent of Harvard College, are taking a softer method.

Harvard’s Medical College, which opened the Blavatnik Institute after the $200 million donation from the businessman 4 years in the past, has not mentioned it will return the funds or rename the institute. Fairly, it has funded a number of visiting trainee positions on the college for Ukrainian scientists wanting to flee their war-torn nation.

Harvard declined to remark.

Yale, which has a grant program named for Blavatnik, mentioned the college wouldn’t enable people topic to US sanctions to make donations.

Potanin resigned from his function as trustee of the Guggenheim Museum in New York after almost 20 years. The Council on Overseas Relations additionally dropped him from their board.

The Kennedy Middle’s “Russian Room” reopened in March underneath the identify the “Opera Home Circles Lounge.” A spokesperson instructed CNN that the time period restrict for the identify of the room had expired, however individually referenced the warfare in Ukraine as an element within the renaming.

“As a result of tragedy in Ukraine, the Kennedy Middle and the [Potanin] Basis have mutually agreed to not use the identify Russian Lounge,” the spokesperson mentioned.

Potanin didn’t reply to CNN’s request for remark.

Nonetheless, Potanin’s identify stays carved within the marble partitions of the Kennedy Middle.

“It is embarrassing,” mentioned Michel. “It is shameful. It is a blight on the Kennedy Middle itself and its solely going to proceed getting old poorly.”

This story was up to date to incorporate a post-publication remark from Len Blavatnik’s firm, Entry Industries. A remark from Oxford College has additionally been added.

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