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Russian oligarchs have donated millions to U.S. charities, museums and universities, analysis shows

As the world condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the data could amplify demands for American institutions to disavow donors aligned with Putin

Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin was a high-profile benefactor of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York until last week when he resigned from the board. An ongoing exhibition of painter Vasily Kandinsky was “made possible” by Potanin, according to the museum’s website. (Cindy Ord/AFP/Getty Images)
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American philanthropies, museums and universities have accepted millions of dollars from tycoons aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including several who are the targets of Western sanctions, according to an analysis by anti-corruption researchers.

Among the many beneficiaries are such storied institutions as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Mayo Clinic and the Guggenheim Museum, the research shows — a reflection of how deeply money from Russian oligarchs has penetrated American society.

The findings are likely to amplify demands that U.S. cultural organizations disavow donors believed to have profited from the Putin regime. The analysis was produced by the Anti-Corruption Data Collective, a group of academics, data analysts and policy advocates working to expose transnational corruption.

Russia-Ukraine war: Live Updates

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, civic groups around the world have pressured Western institutions to cut ties with Russians aligned with Putin. In New York, Carnegie Hall has halted concerts by conductor Valery Gergiev and pianist Denis Matsuev, while the Metropolitan Opera announced it will not engage pro-Putin artists.

Earlier this month, a petition signed by dozens of Ukrainian groups, anti-corruption organizations and prominent activists called on “all Western institutions to halt all forms of cooperation with Kremlin-connected entities and sponsors.”

“The West is finally waking up to the fascistic and inhumane nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime,” the petition said. “The time has come for academic and cultural institutions to do the same.”

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To produce the analysis, the collective scoured public sources for records of charitable contributions given personally by the oligarchs or by the companies and foundations they control. Because many large cultural institutions are not required to reveal their funding sources, the analysis probably reflects only a portion of the oligarchs’ donations. The institutions receiving the money often did not provide precise figures for the donations, only lower bounds, and the amounts could be substantially higher.

Among the oligarchs named in the analysis:

  • Viktor Vekselberg, an energy tycoon aligned with the Kremlin, who has donated more than $100,000 in his own name or through his company to an array of groups, including the Clinton Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art and MIT, where he established a scholarship in his name. The Treasury Department designated Vekselberg for sanctions in 2018 “for operating in the energy sector of the Russian Federation economy.”
  • Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, billionaires recently sanctioned by the European Union, who contributed more than $1 million through their Genesis Philanthropy Group to organizations including the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. The group also donated $7.9 million to Brandeis University from 2009 through 2016. The E.U. described Aven as “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs” and said Fridman had been “referred to as a top Russian financier and enabler of Putin’s inner circle.”
  • Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia’s richest men, who has given millions to the Kennedy Center and been a major benefactor of the Guggenheim Museum. Potanin has not been sanctioned but was among the Kremlin insiders who profited handsomely in the 1990s when the Russian government essentially sold off state-owned companies to politically connected business figures. He reportedly plays hockey with Putin and, according to state-owned news agency Tass, he and other oligarchs met with the Russian president at the Kremlin shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Leonid Mikhelson, whose gas company was sanctioned by U.S. officials in 2014 in response to Russia’s “continued attempts to destabilize eastern Ukraine and its ongoing occupation of Crimea.” He also attended the recent meeting with Putin, according to Tass. Mikhelson has donated at least $100,000 to the Art Institute of Chicago through his foundation, the analysis shows, with some going toward a 2017 exhibit. The New Museum in New York accepted a “small donation” from Mikhelson as recently as 2017. The museums declined to offer precise figures.
  • Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire named under a 2017 law requiring the Treasury Department to list oligarchs and political figures close to the Russian government. Rybolovlev has donated at least $1 million to the Mayo Clinic — most in 2011 or before — and to Amfar, the Foundation for AIDS Research, the analysis shows.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States and the European Union have led a campaign to pressure Putin through economic sanctions, including restrictions on Russian billionaires believed to have benefited from a corrupt regime. The Treasury Department has repeatedly “designated” business figures close to Putin, limiting their access to the U.S. economy. Since the Ukraine invasion, the Biden administration has threatened to use those measures more aggressively.

In just over a week, Western allies have imposed one of the most rapidly moving sanction campaigns in modern history against Russia. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Who are the prominent Russians facing international sanctions?

David Szakonyi, a political science professor at George Washington University and co-founder of the data collective, said some oligarchs have used extensive philanthropic contributions to “help launder their reputations and integrate themselves socially and financially in the West.”

These “contributions to charity and cultural institutions are done in hopes that Western society will look past questions about where their money comes from,” said Szakonyi, who developed the research into charitable donations with Casey Michel, author of “American Kleptocracy.” Szakonyi said the analysis highlights the need for stricter requirements on charities to disclose major donors.

None of the Russian billionaires listed responded to requests for comment. Some have called for peace in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, including Fridman, who was born in western Ukraine.

Last week, Fridman and Aven released a statement saying they would contest the recent E.U. sanctions against them, saying they were imposed on a “spurious and unfounded basis.” They also announced that their philanthropy would deliver $10 million in assistance to Ukrainian Jews.

Officials with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and Amfar did not respond to requests for comment.

None of the institutions contacted for this article said they were planning to return any of the donations. Several said that the money had been spent years ago, long before the current conflict.

However, some institutions were benefiting from the largesse of people close to Putin even as Russia invaded Ukraine. Potanin, for example, remained a high-profile benefactor of the Guggenheim until last week when he resigned from the board. An ongoing exhibition of painter Vasily Kandinsky was “made possible” by Potanin, according to the museum’s website.

The museum did not respond to questions about whether it would return the donations.

“Vladimir Potanin has advised the Board of Trustees of his decision to step down as Trustee effective immediately,” the museum said in a statement. “The Guggenheim accepts this decision and thanks Mr. Potanin for his service to the Museum and his support of exhibition, conservation and educational programs. The Guggenheim strongly condemns the Russian invasion and unprovoked war against the government and people of Ukraine.

The Kennedy Center accepted $6.5 million from Potanin’s company, Interros, in 2011, a Kennedy Center spokesman said. There are no active donations from him.

Officials at some institutions said they declined additional contributions after their benefactor had been sanctioned. A spokesperson for MIT, for example, said Vekselberg joined MIT’s board of trustees in 2013 but was suspended from the board in April 2018 “as a result of [Treasury] adding Mr. Vekselberg to its specially designated nationals list.”

Likewise, the Museum of Modern Art said it had received a “one-time modest grant” from Vekselberg’s Renova Group to sponsor a 2017 scholars panel and a publication. But after Treasury sanctioned Renova in 2018, a spokesperson said, “we removed Renova from our list of potential future sponsors.”

The Clinton Foundation, which received between $50,000 and $100,000 from Vekselberg’s company, said the donations ended “several years” before its designation.

Such explanations carry little weight with critics of the Putin regime, who argue that the donations should have been rejected even before the imposition of official sanctions.

“In most of these places, the due diligence has been quite superficial and did not take into account the critical articles and findings by Russian journalists and activists,” said Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Russia-born anti-corruption researcher and activist.

As the oligarchs rose to power after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many made these donations “to get a foot in the door” in American society, Zaslavskiy said.

“The donations were like an entrance ticket to the Western establishment,” he said. “Stalin could not dream of getting such influence in broad daylight.”

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