“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.
Potanin, 50, is still married to the woman he started dating in high school and likes to talk about his three children and their sports championships. He doesn’t want money to ruin them.
“I feel it would be dangerous and wrong to give all my money to my children,” he said. “The weight of millions could break them. . . . I want them to feel confident in everyday life, but I want them to write their own lives from a blank page.”
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.”