Privilege and freedom
He grew up not in wealth but in privilege and freedom unusual for Soviet times. His father worked for the Soviet Foreign Trade Ministry and was stationed in New Zealand when the young Potanin was a teenager.
“In the Soviet Union, everyone was supposed to be just alike,” he said. “I never wanted to be just like everyone else. I could be better or worse, but I had to be different.”
Potanin followed his father into the trade ministry but emerged from the bureaucracy in the early 1990s, just in time to open an extremely profitable bank, then engineer the notorious loans-for-shares deal with the government, a plan much criticized for allowing budding oligarchs to buy up state property at fire-sale prices. In addition to banking, he got into metals. Today, the robber barons are criticized because most are not yet using their wealth as their earlier American counterparts did, creating endowments, financing libraries, building up the country. Potanin asks for time. Americans have been at this capitalism a lot longer.
“As new members of the club,” he said, “maybe the entrance requirements are higher. Maybe what is forgiven for older members is not forgiven for newer members. The most patient of my colleagues understand and quietly work trying to improve our reputation.”
Potanin recalled meeting Rubenstein in the mid-1990s, and they have encountered each other since in business and social settings. The acquaintance made him comfortable with the idea of getting involved with the Kennedy Center. “There’s a culture of success in America,” he said. “From early childhood you’re taught to be successful.”
In a telephone interview from Washington, Rubenstein recalled meeting Potanin over the years in business and social settings. “He’s a very impressive person,” he said, “very philanthropic.”
Introduction to Russia
On average, as much as $80 million of the Kennedy Center’s yearly budget comes from gifts, Rubenstein said. Potanin wants to use the opportunity to introduce Washington audiences to a Russia less known than “The Nutcracker” ballet, matryoshka nesting dolls and blue-and-white gzhel pottery, perhaps sending worthy but unheralded artists to Washington and creating a memorable experience with the Russian Lounge.
Here in Russia, Potanin likes to support museums that come up with good ideas, such as the Museum of Forgotten Tastes, which has re-created a traditional apple-flavored candy, and the Lights of Moscow Museum, which offers an exhibit of street and interior lighting dating back to medeival times.
“I don’t want just to keep traditions alive,” he said. “I want to share them. We will find a way to use the material we have collected. It will be what a person would see if he came to Russia and traveled to all these regions.”
And so Washington gets its own Russian oligarch. This weekend, he will attend the annual Kennedy Center Honors, surrounded by some of the brightest of America’s luminaries. American interest makes Russia more open, he said.
“Introduce yourself to the audience, try to smile, and maybe they will like you,” he said. “Let’s be interested in each other.”