As Russian oligarchs were getting richer in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, major institutions in the United States, from the Guggenheim Museum to Harvard University, were filling their coffers with the Kremlin cronies’ cash — and helping launder their reputations in the process, according to research by the Anti-Corruption Data Collective (ACDC).
Wealthy Russian businessmen, many of whom are now sanctioned, have donated between $372 million and $435 million to more than 200 nonprofits in the US in the last two decades. The findings are laid out in a database created in 2020 by investigative reporter Casey Michel and George Washington University Professor David Szakonyi for ACDC and reexamined in a new article by Michel for New York Magazine.
Because nonprofits are not required to disclose exact donation figures, the researchers relied on publicly available annual documents and data aggregated by private companies, deriving from these sources a wide range that provides a snapshot of oligarchic contributions. For instance, a 2016-2017 donor report for New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) names the Renova Group of Companies, owned by notorious sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, in a list of benefactors who contributed “$500 or more” to exhibitions, programs, or endowment funds. A MoMA spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the museum received a “one-time modest grant” from Renova to sponsor a scholars’ panel and publication in 2017. The following year, when the US Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on the company, MoMA removed Renova from its list of potential future sponsors, the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) received anywhere between $150,000 and $350,000 from the V-A-C Foundation, founded by energy tycoon Leonid Mikhelson, in 2015 and 2017. Mikhelson has evaded sanctions thus far despite his ties to Gennady Timchenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A spokesperson for the AIC said the museum has had no involvement with the foundation since then.
The database illustrates how oligarchs used philanthropy to transform themselves “from malign actors to anodyne businesspeople,” Michel writes for New York Magazine, not unlike like members of the Sackler Family, who concealed the lethal source of their fortune behind endowments and named spaces.
“Following Moscow’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, an overdue wave of attention has been focused on where Russian and post-Soviet oligarchs hide their wealth in the West — from real estate to private equity to the art market,” Michel writes in the article’s introduction. “Until the past few weeks, however, less attention had been paid to how these oligarchs launder their reputations (in addition to their illicit assets) and gain access to the highest rungs of western policy-makers in the process.”
ACDC’s database also names metal magnate Vladimir Potanin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s richest oligarch, who donated more than $5 million to the John F. Kennedy Center and an unspecified amount to the Guggenheim Museum, even securing a seat on the latter’s board. (He stepped down as trustee of the Guggenheim early last month, a week after Russia invaded Ukraine.)
Potanin and many other Russian tycoons made their fortunes through the government’s controversial loans-for-shares scheme in the 1990s, which led to the privatization of state-owned assets. And as their wealth solidified, so did their foothold in the art market: They became frequent faces at international art fairs, waved their paddles at auction houses, and poured their tainted cash into museums, institutions, and nonprofit think tanks.
Beyond the US, Russian oligarchs have leaned on institutions in the larger West to obscure their Kremlin connections. The Ukrainian-born, Russian-raised billionaire Len Blavatnik, who rejects the title of oligarch but has ties to multiple sanctioned individuals, gave $250 million to Harvard University between 2013 and 2018, and at least £50 million (~$65 million) to London’s Tate Modern and £75 million (~$98 million) to the University of Oxford.
In a recent open letter, Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center called for these and other beneficiaries of oligarchic wealth to rename programs and buildings named after them, citing Blavatnik specifically, whom the group says “derives massive insider benefits from Putin’s regime.”
“The West is finally waking up to the fascistic and inhumane nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime,” reads the letter, signed by over 200 scholars and organizations in Ukraine and elsewhere.
“In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine that began a week ago, the time has come for academic and cultural institutions to do the same, to both support the victim of this aggression and to counter the Putin regime’s pervasive toxic propaganda.”
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