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Richest Russian Built NYC Power Over Decades and Lost It in Weeks

Vladimir Potanin stepped down from the Guggenheim and CFR cut ties with him as billionaires with links to Russia have their donations scrutinized.

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Blake Schmidt

March 16, 2022, 7:15 AM PDT

A month ago, Vladimir Potanin sat alongside the world’s financial and business elite on the advisory board of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and among the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

Those power circles, which included Tom Hill, the former Blackstone Inc. executive, and billionaires from Brazil and India, were cultivated over decades. Now, they’re closed off to Potanin, Russia’s richest man. Over the past two weeks, he’s dropped off both boards.

The nickel and palladium magnate, who is among the few original oligarchs who remain active in business in Russia, hasn’t been sanctioned. Potanin, with a net worth of $24.5 billion, is referred to as the mastermind behind the controversial loans-for-shares program that led to the privatization of natural resource companies after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Broke Oligarch Says Sanctioned Billionaires Have No Sway Over Putin

For much of the past two decades, U.S. cultural institutions in the arts, non-profits and education were willing to look past the history of how billionaires with ties to Russia amassed their fortunes. In Potanin’s case, he was seen publicly years ago with Vladimir Putin, including in an exhibition hockey game with the Russian leader in Sochi.

RUSSIA-OLY2014-SOCHI
Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Vladimir Potanin during a visit to one of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic venues, near the Black Sea city of Sochi, in February 2013.Photographer: Ivan Sekretarev/AFP/Getty Images

Potanin, 61, now stands out as an example of how quickly Western bastions of social capital are turning amid a pressure campaign on Putin to end the Ukraine war. While Russia’s elite have a number of ways to reshape their fortunes in response to the fallout, regaining their place in these institutions will likely prove a tougher task.

“The reputational risk right now of keeping an oligarch on an institutional board such as CFR is just too great,” said David Szakonyi, co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Data Collective, which has researched the philanthropy of billionaires whose fortunes are tied to Russia. “It’s going to be very difficult for Potanin to win back his former positions.”

Potanin, president of MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, which accounts for about 40% of global palladium output and 10% of refined nickel, did not reply to interview requests. 

The former first deputy prime minister of energy and economy under Boris Yeltsin spoke publicly last week for the first time since the Ukraine invasion, criticizing Russia’s retaliation against international penalties.

“We have to look respectable and composed, and our efforts should be directed not at ‘slamming the door’ but at maintaining Russia’s economic position in markets that we’ve been mastering for so long,” Potanin said on Norilsk Nickel’s Telegram channel on March 11.

Big Apple Benefactors

Some NYC-linked charities supported by Russian billionaires

Source: Official statements, Anti-Corruption Data Collective; includes donations since 2010 made directly or by their foundations or corporations.

*Moguls listed have not been personally sanctioned except for Fridman, Aven and Khan, by the European Union and United Kingdom in 2022; Vekselberg, by the United States starting in 2018. Donations listed were prior to those sanctions.

Potanin, along with oligarchs Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, are among the billionaires with links to Russia who have given more than $300 million to hundreds of the most prestigious U.S. non-profit institutions in the two decades ending in 2020, according to the Anti-Corruption Data Collective. At least $100 million went to more than 100 organizations in New York, data provided to Bloomberg show.

At the Guggenheim, trustees of the board were required to donate at least $100,000 a year, according to Thomas Krens, director emeritus at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, who said he had contact with Potanin for more than a decade. He recalled the Russian billionaire as steadily supporting exhibitions of Russian art and being “quiet, not outspoken” at meetings.

“Many oligarchs saw an opportunity and moved on that” to bolster their reputations with philanthropy in the West, Krens said in a telephone interview. “The response to this war and to Putin’s strategy has been one of trying to ostracize or shine a spotlight on the money and where it came from.”

Scant Sanctions

Many of the New York donors haven’t been sanctioned. That doesn’t prevent the questions.

Yancey Spruill, chief executive officer of New York-based DigitalOcean Holdings Inc., was asked at a conference last week about Len Blavatnik, a British-American billionaire whose Access Industries is the technology company’s largest investor.

“Educated in American universities, Columbia, Harvard Business School, made his money as an American,” Spruill said in response on March 8. “I know there’s a lot of speculation,” he said, adding that Blavatnik “has been knighted by the Queen of England.”

Blavatnik was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew his fortune in the Putin era when Russia’s state-owned Rosneft bought out his energy firm. At $36.9 billion, his net worth exceeds that of Potanin, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“What is happening in Ukraine is unimaginable and we, along with all fellow Americans, hope and pray that the conflict ends quickly and that all Ukrainian citizens are once again able to live their lives in peace and freedom,” Access Industries said in a statement.

Blavatnik has donated across the political and philanthropic spectrum, including to the Central Park Conservancy, Carnegie Hall, the Mount Sinai Health System and New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

Tough Tracking

It’s hard to track the full extent of charitable giving as institutions often don’t disclose their donors out of concern they’ll receive backlash over the politics of benefactors, Szakonyi said. Disclosures of specific donations may be in broad ranges or as even vaguer minimum amounts, and in some cases there may be no values disclosed at all, he said.

And even though some institutions are asking billionaire donors to step off their boards, they aren’t returning funds or closing exhibits. For example, the Guggenheim still carries an ongoing exhibition by Moscow-born artist Wassily Kandinsky that was sponsored by benefactors including Potanin — though his name has since been removed on the museum’s website.

Kandinsky Guggenheim
Kandinsky in New York CityPhotographer: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The display was a reminder of the complexity in undoing philanthropic support from billionaires who were welcomed in the heyday of a globalized gilded age.

“It is more difficult to unwind decades of generous oligarchic donations, which, after all, have served to advance public interest in the West, than it is to seize flagrant symbols of oligarchic wealth, which many people resent,” said Stanislav Markus, a business professor at University of South Carolina who has studied Russian wealth.

A CFR spokeswoman said in an email last week that “it would no longer be appropriate” for Potanin to remain a member of its global advisory board “in light of Russia’s continuing aggression against Ukraine.” The Guggenheim Museum said he resigned from the board.

Potanin has sprawling interests that include a Russian pharmaceutical firm, a ski resort, a copper project and at least two superyachts. 

Russia’s Richest

Potanin becomes the wealthiest man in Russia

Source: Bloomberg Billionaires Index

After building his fortune, Potanin began reinventing himself as philanthropist — becoming the first Russian to join Bill Gates’s and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge in 2013. He chairs the Hermitage Development Foundation, an endowment for the state museum in Saint Petersburg that was founded in 1764 with a collection of paintings acquired by Catherine the Great.

On his foundation’s website, Potanin said he wants philanthropy to be “more systemic, more business-like,” calling it a “vast, endless space that will never diminish.”

— With assistance by Amanda L Gordon, and Devon Pendleton

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