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Oligarchs, as U.S. arts patrons, present a softer image of Russia
The Guggenheim Museum. Photograph by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Vladimir Potanin, a Russian billionaire who made his fortune in banking and natural resources, has been a donor and board member of the Guggenheim Museum since 2002. More recently he gave $6.45 million to the Kennedy Center in Washington, which used some of the money to install the “Russian Lounge,” a meeting space, in the performing arts complex created, in part, by Congress. His name is now inscribed on a wall there.

At the New Museum in Manhattan, another wealthy oligarch, Leonid Mikhelson, helped underwrite a 2011 exhibition through his foundation, which is dedicated to the appreciation of Russian contemporary art. Two years later, the museum named him a trustee, a position he held until last year — three years after the company he directs was placed under sanctions by the U.S. government.

Fort Ross, a California state historic park that commemorates a 19th-century Russian settlement in Sonoma County, was struggling in 2010 when Viktor Vekselberg, another oligarch, stepped in to help financially. His foundation continued as a patron until last year, when sanctions were imposed on him and his company, and the Justice Department told the park’s caretakers to stop taking his money.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, rich Russians have emerged as influential patrons of the arts, and Western cultural organizations have often been the beneficiaries. Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center are among those who have received gifts from moneyed Russians or the companies they control over the past decade.

Though wealthy patrons have long used the arts to advance their individual tastes and social standing, much of the Russian giving is different. While oligarchs also promote their personal preferences and support a wide range of cultural activities, they often employ philanthropy to celebrate their homeland, depicting it as an enlightened wellspring of masterworks in dance, painting, opera and the like.

These patrons have been quite public in their philanthropy, and there is little evidence that their donations have been directed or coordinated by Moscow. But they all enjoy good relations with the Kremlin — a prerequisite to flourish in business in Russia — and their giving fits seamlessly with President Vladimir Putin’s expanding efforts to use the “soft power” of cultural diplomacy as a tool of foreign policy.

The effect, however cultivated, helps burnish the image of a nation whose aggression in Ukraine and election meddling have led it to be viewed by many as a hostile power.

“When Western publics think about Russia, Putin wants them to think about Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky,” said Andrew Foxall, a Russia expert at the Henry Jackson Society in London. “What he does not want Western publics to think about is the actions of his regime that goes to war with its near neighbors.”

Russian giving, and strained relations between the countries, created something of a minefield for U.S. cultural organizations, many of which depend on philanthropic support and embrace shared aesthetic experiences as opportunities for bridge-building. It presents them with an ethical challenge: Are they putting themselves at risk, however unwittingly, of helping promote a one-sided view of a country that the United States is officially sparring with?

Experts said accepting such donations runs counter to the spirit of U.S. policy designed to isolate some Russian interests.

“The whole point of sanctions is to prevent access,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Yet, because of their wealth, she said, individuals under government sanctions “are still allowed into these high echelons of cultural power.”

One Russian company employed culture to continue interacting with a high-powered U.S. audience, even after it had been put under sanctions.

The company, VTB, a Russian-government-owned bank under limited sanctions since 2014, held two galas at the Kennedy Center. The first, in October 2016, a month before the U.S. presidential election, featured a special performance by stars of the Bolshoi Ballet. The VTB logo decorated both the stage and the uniforms of the waitstaff, and VTB’s president, Andrey Kostin, spoke.

Among the people invited were at least two State Department officials, including Daniel Fried, a senior official responsible for sanctions policy who had already been lobbied by representatives of the bank. Fried, as the Center for Public Integrity first reported, declined the invitation.

“I was not going to the Kennedy Center for a VTB thing and be photographed with them,” he said in an interview. “The optics were terrible. We are not their friends.”

Several U.S. arts organizations declined to comment on whether they had given Russians a platform to spin public perception of their country. The Kennedy Center defended hosting the galas underwritten by VTB, describing its role as simply a landlord. “The Kennedy Center rents to all, while providing no judgment on the content or artistic quality of said events,” said a spokeswoman, Rachelle Roe.

But it also accepted a donation from VTB in 2017. The center said it had recently decided it would no longer accept money from the bank since its president, Kostin, was placed under full sanctions last year.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to these Russian efforts, even as the Kremlin is accused of using more insidious methods to sway U.S. public opinion and elections. The United States, of course, also employs cultural diplomacy through a program run out of the State Department whose preachy use of the Voice of America during the Cold War is well established. But several experts said the Russian version is more coordinated, more baldly designed to muddy the discussion at a time when that country is perceived by many to be overly aggressive.

Michael Carpenter, a former National Security Council adviser to President Barack Obama, said he had noticed years ago how oligarchs were using cultural philanthropy to stay in contact with influential U.S. political, diplomatic and business leaders.

“That access can be used to advance your business interests,” he said, “or the Kremlin’s interest.”

The Cultural Diplomacy of Communism
Russia’s rich traditions in ballet, fine art and orchestral music did not disappear during the days of the Soviet Union. But they became quite insular.

For decades, the production of art was tightly controlled by the state. Censorship was the norm.

That all changed after the fall of Communism as the wealth concentrated in a powerful set of business leaders fueled an explosion of artistic interest and outreach.

In 2005, Potanin’s foundation helped finance an 800-year survey of Russian art, from icons to 19th-century paintings, called simply “Russia!” at the Guggenheim. Putin spoke at the opening.

“Such events,” Putin said, “are the best and most eloquent way to understand a country that possesses huge humanistic and spiritual potential, a country such as Russia.”

Several experts on Russia said that spending by oligarchs can resemble bouquets to Putin, who is known to smile on efforts to project the national interest abroad.

“That is what you do if you don’t want to do something dirtier,” said Anders Aslund, an analyst at the Atlantic Council. “You are a patron of culture if you are trying to escape tougher demands from the Kremlin.”

The Russian government has made clear, as it said in a 2016 statement of principles, that “‘soft power’ has become an integral part of efforts to achieve foreign policy objectives.” The following year, the Foreign Ministry created a working group of advisers, including government officials and corporate executives, “to coordinate steps to strengthen Russian-American cultural ties, preserve and develop Russian-associated memorial sites and heritage sites in the United States, and implement relevant future projects,” according to a document provided to The New York Times by the Russian government.

Some of the philanthropy was driven by the former Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. A master networker in Washington, Kislyak helped arrange Potanin’s gift to the Kennedy Center, solicited help for Fort Ross and spurred an American philanthropist, Susan Carmel, to create an institute at American University that promotes Russian culture and history.

The ambassador later became entangled in the controversy over Russian meddling in the U.S.’ affairs. He returned to Moscow in 2017.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, recalled how Kislyak once told him that he had employed Russian culture as a tool to “get deeper into the fabric of society” in the United States. McFaul said he made limited efforts to do the same in Russia, but never with the kind of resources oligarchs offered.

Oligarchs resist the idea that their spending advances a national agenda.

One Oligarch’s Efforts in the United States
Along the Pacific Coast, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, visitors to Fort Ross find a 3,400-acre California state park that was once the southernmost Russian settlement in North America.

The park recreates the 19th-century lifestyle of Russians who scratched out an existence by farming and fur-trading long before California became a state. The signs are in English and Russian, and overhead the flag of the Russian company that once ran the settlement often flies.

“We are working hard not to focus just on the Russian era,” said Sarah Sweedler, who runs the Fort Ross Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps operate the site, “but Russia is the reason for the park, after all.”

It’s certainly the reason Vekselberg, the oligarch, stepped up at Kislyak’s request to create a private foundation, funded by his company, to help the park.

Over the next eight years, the foundation donated more than $1.5 million to the park, paying for projects like the hiring of a bilingual tour guide.

Last year, though, Sweedler said the Justice Department told the conservancy to stop taking the money. Vekselberg and his company, Renova Group, had been among the entities slapped with sanctions by the U.S. Treasury, which cited “a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities,” including its occupation of Crimea, aggression in eastern Ukraine, support of President Bashar Assad in Syria, “attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”

Some sanctions are based on behavior, but many companies or individuals, like Vekselberg, were punished largely because they are viewed as influential supporters of Putin who benefit from the actions of his regime.

Vekselberg, who is fighting the sanctions, declined to be interviewed.

It is far from the only cultural initiative that Vekselberg, 62, launched after making his fortune during the rough-and-tumble privatization of Russia’s aluminum and oil industries in the 1990s.

In 2004, he spent about $100 million to secure the return of a collection of imperial Fabergé eggs and created a museum to showcase them. Though Russia experts do not see Vekselberg as personally close to Putin, the effort synced with the president’s mission to bring Russian cultural artifacts back to Russia.

Last year, agents for special counsel Robert Mueller stopped Vekselberg at an airport, checked his electronic devices and sought to question him. Mueller’s team was interested in Vekselberg’s contact with Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer. The two men had had a meeting at Trump Tower in January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration. Vekselberg attended the inauguration.

Prosecutors said Vekselberg is affiliated with Intrater’s firm, Columbus Nova, and were intrigued by $500,000 in payments the company made to Cohen for what was described as consulting work.

Vekselberg has denied being involved in the payments. The investigators have not accused him of wrongdoing.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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