Russian oligarchs who are close to President Vladimir Putin face renewed scrutiny and sanctions. These oligarchs have transferred trillions of dollars out of Russia to offshore tax havens. They have holdings in the U.K. and U.S real estate, and other investments. They also funnel millions of dollars into U.S. charities.
Russian oligarch donations, whether intentional or not, cast a rosier glow on the oligarchs’ own reputations; keep them connected to powerful Americans even when their companies are under sanction; and potentially even give them a voice in shaping U.S. attitudes and policy toward Russia.
It was a major event that Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2014. This brought greater attention to both Putin’s political conduct and the ultra-wealthy business leaders surrounding and supporting him. A comprehensive investigationThe Anti-Corruption Data Collect (ACDC), of whom the Institute for Policy Studies is a part, has now begun to scrutinize the charitable giving of these oligarchs.
The ACDC investigators found that a set of wealthy Russians, several of whom are suspected of various forms of kleptocracy or foreign political interference, have donated hundreds of millions to American charities, with some even serving on those charities’ boards. The ACDC identified seven Russian oligarchs who were directly connected to U.S. interference campaigns and donated upwards to $372 million to more 200 American nonprofits in the past 20 years. Most of the recipients were arts and culture institutions such as Kennedy Center and Guggenheim Museum. Other elite organizations, such as Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic, received donations.
The ACDC has listed the following oligarchs as:
Viktor Vekselberg: Vekselberg’s investment company Renova donated over $13.5 millionVekselberg donated his time to the Clinton Foundation and many arts and culture organizations in the past decade, including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, and Carnegie Hall. He served on the board of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology for years until his involvement with “malign activities” led MIT to suspend him in 2018.
Leonid MikhelsonNovatek is the chairman of a natural gas supplier. Novatek also has his own private firm. V-A-C Foundation, which has given grantsMany prestigious museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. The New Museum invited him to join their 2013 board. board of trusteesThey invited their daughter VictoriaThree years later, he was joined by Leonid on the board. Leonid served as a board member until his company was approved by the U.S. government on 2021.
Vladimir Potanin: The presidentInterros, a Russian natural resources conglomerate, was donated by a former first deputy prime Minister. $6.5 millionThe Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, with funding for a new meeting room called the Russian Lounge. He was also a major donor of the Guggenheim museum, and served on their board before for twenty-years. resigningFollowing the invasion of Ukraine in March 2,
Charitable contributions help to “virtue-wash” the reputations of donors and their companies. They keep donors connected to what is happening in the world. New York Timesdescribes as a “high-powered American audience” even when their companies are under sanction — precisely what sanctions are intended to prevent. The sponsorship of pro-Russian exhibitions at the foremost museums, ballets, historic parksThis could help to reduce the image of Russia’s aggressive regime. Donations to think-tanks on policy could give donors the opportunity to influence U.S. policies and attitudes towards Russia.
While there is no evidence that this charitable activity was directly connected to Putin’s, it is clear that he uses it for his purposes. TheNew York Timeshas written that oligarchs’ donations “resemble bouquets to Mr. Putin who is known to smile on efforts to project the national interest abroad.” In fact, a Russia expert told the Times about oligarch charity, “This is what you do if you don’t want to do something dirtier.”
In their report, the ACDC wrote that the “staggering donations” from Russian oligarchs raise big questions about how carefully our charities review donations from wealthy individuals. And that they “highlight the urgent need for changes in the ways these institutions oversee such donations — and the ways the U.S. government oversees such institutions.”
As part of our charitable reform initiative, we have written that the autonomy of America’s nonprofit sector is imperiled by the growing concentration of wealth and philanthropic power being held in fewer hands — a trend we call top-heavy philanthropy. Wealthy donors — whether in the U.S. or abroad — are able to use a number of loopholes in our charitable system to reap personal financial gainOr to shape public policyThey use this advantage to their advantage. These abuses are becoming more difficult to spot as wealthy donors use their influence to improve charitable reporting. more opaque. We urgently need to reform our charitable system so that nonprofits do not become tools for financial enrichment or the advancement of self-serving policies or the whitewashing international aggression.