Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Andrei Klishas as the current chairman of the board of Interros. He is the past chairman. This version has been corrected.
The Kennedy Center isn’t in the habit of hiding its baubles, but the opening of its brand-new Russian Lounge took place one evening in May with barely a sotto voce murmur.
Proposed nearly three years ago, it was supposed to be a totem of an increasingly sophisticated cultural relationship between Russia and the United States. But in this era of economic sanctions and Buk missile launchers, the conversation has taken a different turn.
Spiffing up Russia’s brand was the main idea, though it was never going to be easy. But in 2011 metals magnate Vladimir Potanin decided to help set a new tone for his country, which he believed was finally coming into its own, and he announced that he was bestowing $5 million on the Kennedy Center. It was, as all these transactions usually are, a two-way deal: the prestigious arts institution gets the money, and the donor gets a chance to burnish his reputation by association.
In this case, Potanin, who made his fortune in the anything-goes 1990s, had the reputation of his whole country in mind. And, just to underscore his meaning, he also announced that he would pay for the construction of the new Russian Lounge at the Opera House, one that would represent the best of contemporary design, demonstrate to Americans the creativity and variety of Russia, and help to banish the old stereotypes of nesting dolls, traditional scarves and vodka.
He went public with his news on Dec. 1, 2011. Four days later, in the wake of brazenly rigged parliamentary elections, protests broke out on the streets of Moscow. Vladimir Putin, soon to reclaim Russia’s presidency, blamed them on the United States, and unleashed a bout of anti-Americanism that has spread and strengthened throughout Russia ever since.
Doggedly, work on the Russian Lounge went forward. After an extended competition, Sergei Skuratov’s sleek, cool design was selected by Potanin’s foundation. A year and a half behind schedule (which feeds into another Russian stereotype, though the Kennedy Center people were too polite to say so) and $1.45 million later, the lounge was opened to the public. Unusually for the Kennedy Center, no ribbon was cut. No fanfare was trumpeted. No boasting, no congratulating. The opera that evening wasn’t even a Russian one, but Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Potanin wasn’t there.
On performance nights, the lounge is reserved for patrons who have donated at least $1,200 in the previous year. Entering through opaque glass doors, they find a long backlit bar and chairs that are as white and crisp as new fallen snow in a Siberian clearing. Two sizable paintings by Valery Koshlyakov draw from the exuberant architectural fantasies of Russia’s 1920s. Wall panels of plaster have been worked by hand until they resemble the hard granite of Russia’s forbidding Arctic shore.
“We’re about the art here,” said John Dow, the head of the Kennedy Center press office. “We start, begin and end with the art.”
That’s not quite how Potanin saw it, back when this started. Russia already has its art; he wanted to use art to accelerate Russia’s opening out to the rest of the world. His foundation supports a number of groundbreaking creative projects in Russia itself — but his gift to the Kennedy Center wasn’t so much a lifeline as an announcement.
An aide to Potanin at his holding company, Interros, sent word that he would not be available for an interview until the fall. In general, Russia’s oligarchs have been keeping an extremely low profile since Putin annexed Crimea in March, and the West began imposing sanctions. Estimates suggest that they’ve lost billions already as an indirect consequence of the sanctions. But challenging Putin, especially at a time when he enjoys a surge of popularity at home, would be less than prudent for those who remember how an earlier tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, spent a decade in prison for doing just that.
For years, Potanin portrayed himself as a Western-oriented businessman. But Putin has made it clear that he wants to separate Russia from the West, culturally and financially. The former chairman of the board of Interros, Andrei Klishas, has been using his position in the upper house of the Russian parliament to denounce the West in particularly vivid terms — and is on both American and European sanctions lists.
Interros holdings in the United States — including Ford Modeling — are handled by Altpoint Capital in New York. Its chief executive, Guerman Aliev, has dabbled in local arts philanthropy himself. He sent word that he was not available for an interview.
But Pavel Spitsyn, the cultural attache at the Russian embassy here, said he hoped others would follow Potanin’s lead. “This is a good way to showcase Russian culture and build strong international bridges between our countries,” he wrote in an e-mail.
American tours by Russia’s marquee troupes continue. The Bolshoi Ballet, which appeared at the Kennedy Center in May, just completed a run in New York and in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Mariinsky was here earlier this year, and its ballet company is due back in early 2015. Alicia Adams, the vice president in charge of international programming at the Kennedy Center, said she hopes to land the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg for a production of “The Cherry Orchard” in the 2015-216 season.
“We’re dealing artist-to-artist, not government-to-government,” Adams said.
But Vladimir Urin, director of the Bolshoi, joined a host of other Russian arts figures in signing an open letter to Putin, lavishing praise on him for the Crimea annexation. More vocal than Urin is Valery Gergiev of the Mariinsky company.
“We’re not looking at the political Gergiev, but his artistry,” Adams said. “I know it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two. But Gergiev is great. He’s very even-tempered. He loves people. He’s gregarious.”
If the Mariinsky were to pull out of its 2015 commitment to the Kennedy Center, she said, it would be a “major blow.”
Gergiev was picketed in New York over the winter by people angry with what they see as Russia’s official homophobia. Protests didn’t materialize in Washington, somewhat to the surprise of Kennedy Center officials.
“There’s always an effort to figure out a way for the art to transcend the politics and the tension,” said Jenny Bilfield, head of Washington Performing Arts, the organization that booked the Mariinsky here. “And an orchestra is a thriving and throbbing entity of 100 people. It’s not monolithic.”
The Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York is in the second year of a three-year agreement with Moscow’s Prokhorov Fund to sponsor artists from both countries. Mikhail Prokhorov, who also made a fortune in metals, some of it in conjunction with Potanin, already has a strong American tie: He’s the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, which plays about three blocks away.
BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins wrote in an e-mail: “This cultural partnership has so far included visual arts, literary events, a Russian film series, and hip hop dance performances; it has served as a resonant, successful cultural exchange program. As far as the future goes, we will be reviewing plans for moving forward with our partners and would very much like to continue if possible.”
But smaller cultural exchanges have started to dry up, in part, according to Jeffrey Sexton, public affairs chief at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, because the Ukraine crisis has effectively killed the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which coordinated links between the countries on a number of topics.
“For ages culture has been vulnerable to the events unfolding in the political sphere. This rule has not been overthrown this time,” wrote Spitsyn, the Russian embassy official. “Unfortunately some, but not all, of our joint projects have been suspended or postponed.”
He said “undeserved hostile rhetoric towards Russia” impedes projects that would be good for both countries.
In April, Woolly Mammoth Theatre canceled a planned festival of Russian plays that was to be held this fall after deciding that financial support from Moscow was unlikely.
Adams likes to point out that if it weren’t for the Bolshoi, there might not be a Kennedy Center. During the company’s first tour here, in 1959, it performed at the Warner Theater, she said, and that helped galvanize a dormant proposal to build a new arts center for the capital that would offer a more fitting stage. (Its second U.S. tour coincided with the Cuban missile crisis.) The Kennedy Center finally opened in 1971.
Potanin can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that about a million people visit the Kennedy Center every year, not as audience members but just to see the building and the art. Some, undoubtedly, may come away from the Russian Lounge with a new respect for, or at least interest in, contemporary Russia. And it was a lot cheaper than his other recent image-building project: At Putin’s behest, he spent $2.5 billion developing the Rosa Khutor ski resort outside Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Those games were intended to be a symbol of Russia’s friendly and fun outreach to the rest of the world — until they were overshadowed by the mayhem in Ukraine.