“I am Russian,” Potanin said in an interview at his office this week, “and I like it when the world learns about Russian culture.”
With the $5 million check written, Potanin, who traveled to Washington for the occasion, was off to lunch with a fellow billionaire, David M. Rubenstein, Kennedy Center chairman and co-founder of the Carlyle Group.
Both are on the Forbes list of billionaires — Potanin at No. 34 with $17.8 billion, Rubenstein at No. 440 with $2.7 billion. They like to spend their money in thrilling ways — Potanin bought Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 “Black Square” painting for $1 million in 2002 and gave it to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Rubenstein bought a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million in 2007 and put it on display at the National Archives.
Both plan to spend a lot more. Last year, Rubenstein signed the “Giving Pledge” initiated by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, a promise to give away at least half his money. Potanin likes the idea, too.
“I want to follow the example of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett,” he said. “I like it when I am compared to them. Theirs is very pleasant and prestigious company.”
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And now the name Potanin has been carved into the marble at the Kennedy Center, along with a handful of other donors who have given $5 million or more, including Rubenstein, who has pledged and given more than $25 million, making him the largest Kennedy Center donor ever. Not bad for a Russian oligarch, one of a small group of men known here more as robber barons than as international philanthropists.
Potanin is different — one of the more restrained of the oligarchs. In a rare conversation with a reporter, he talked at length with animation, candor and self-awareness. Relaxed, in an understated black crew-necked sweater and charcoal suit, he sipped tea with lemon in a conference room in the offices of his banking and metals company, Interros.
Potanin is neither Russia’s wealthiest man (that’s Vladimir Lisin, Forbes No. 14, $24 billion) nor its only art lover. Fellow billionaire Viktor Vekselberg (No. 57, $13 billion) spent $90 million in 2004 buying nine Faberge eggs and nearly 200 other glittery mementoes of Russia’s past from the Forbes family.
He is, perhaps, the most traditional. His former business partner Mikhail Prokhorov (Forbes No. 32, $18 billion) bought the New Jersey Nets and has a playboy reputation, once getting arrested when the police broke up a wild party at a French ski resort.