Vladimir O. 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 United States government.
Fort Ross, a California state historic park that commemorates a 19th-century Russian settlement in Sonoma County, was struggling in 2010 when Viktor F. 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 the 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 V. 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.”
The Russian giving, and the strained relations between the countries, has created something of a minefield for American 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?
Two institutions accepted large donations from an oligarch whose company had been placed under sanctions by the American government. A third took money from a company that had been similarly penalized.
In two other cases, the cultural philanthropy was endorsed by the Russian Embassy, which for years has solicited oligarchs to help it promote Russia in America.
In other instances, from California to Brooklyn, American venues have hosted performances by Russian troupes whose operations are underwritten by companies or individuals under sanctions.
None of the transactions were illegal because the Russian donors were subject to limited sanctions that only restrict access to financial markets, not full blocking sanctions that generally freeze their American assets and bar doing business with a United States business or person. Still, experts said, accepting such donations runs counter to the spirit of United States 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 American 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 American presidential election, featured a special performance by stars of the Bolshoi Ballet. The VTB logo decorated both the stage and the uniforms of the wait staff, 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. Mr. 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.”
CreditThe New York Times
Several of the American 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, Mr. Kostin, was placed under full sanctions last year.
“The climate has changed since 2016,” said Ms. Roe.
Surprisingly little attention has been paid to these Russian efforts, even as the Kremlin is accused of using more insidious methods to sway American 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 R. Carpenter, a former National Security Council adviser to President Obama, said he had noticed years ago how the oligarchs were using cultural philanthropy to stay in contact with influential American 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. The Bolshoi toured, of course, but some of its excursions became threadbare affairs, its programming at times chained to ideological themes.
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.
Dmitry Rybolovlev spent $2 billion in a few short years capturing works by the likes of Picasso and Leonardo.
Mr. Vekselberg, an oligarch, and Mr. Kostin, a banker, joined the boards of the Mariinsky Theater and the Bolshoi, and helped, either personally or through their companies, to send them on polished world tours.
The spending evoked an era when 19th-century Russian czars and industrialists were among the world’s most extravagant arts patrons. Some of the newly rich, after forging fortunes in hardscrabble industries like natural resources, followed a patriotic impulse to recapture Russian cultural works smuggled abroad by nobles, sold by the Bolsheviks or otherwise lost after the revolution.
In 2005, Mr. Potanin’s foundation helped finance an 800-year survey of Russian art, from icons to 19th-century paintings, called simply “Russia!” at the Guggenheim. Mr. Putin spoke at the opening.
“Such events,” Mr. 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.”
More recently, Mr. Mikhelson, whose company, Novatek, is under limited sanctions, has staged exhibitions of contemporary art, often focusing on Russian artists, through his V-A-C Foundation.
Helen Weaver, a spokeswoman for Mr. Mikhelson’s foundation, said: “The foundation’s work is always about building bridges and fostering understanding through culture.”
Several experts on Russia said that the spending by oligarchs can resemble bouquets to Mr. 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.”
A spokeswoman for VTB, the bank under limited sanctions, said in a statement “that the state or its representatives do not influence VTB’s decisions to sponsor museums, theaters, artistic groups. If we get any requests from state representatives, we review them according to standard procedure.”
But 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.
Its efforts include the commemoration of a Russian site, Fort Elizabeth, on the island of Kauai, to mark the 200th anniversary of a Russian presence in Hawaii.
Some of the philanthropy was driven by the former Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. A master networker in Washington, Mr. Kislyak helped arrange Mr. 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 American affairs. He returned to Moscow in 2017. The embassy he left behind declined to comment further on questions The New York Times posed about Russia’s pursuit of cultural diplomacy.
“If the purpose of your article is ‘to investigate,’ rather than to promote Russian-American cultural ties, I’m afraid we cannot provide you further assistance,” said Nikolay Lakhonin, the embassy spokesman.
Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, recalled how Mr. 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. Mr. McFaul said he made limited efforts to do the same in Russia, once helping to bring through the Chicago Symphony, but never with the kind of resources the oligarchs offered.
“I remember joking with Kislyak when I saw him in Washington that he was able to convince these major business people to make serious investments,” he said.
Several oligarchs, or the companies they control, help underwrite the operations of the Mariinsky Theater, which coordinates cultural activities for several troupes that regularly tour in the West, including the world famous Mariinsky Orchestra. The organization is led by Valery Gergiev, the master conductor and ally of Mr. Putin, who, as head of state, has met regularly with the Mariinsky board.
The oligarchs resist the idea that their spending advances a national agenda.
Petr Aven, for example, leads one of Russia’s largest banks and has contributed financially to exhibitions on Russian art at the Tate Modern and Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he is also a trustee. The companies he helps direct have also helped underwrite exhibitions at museums like the Guggenheim.
But a spokesman for Mr. Aven said “he has not funded or contributed art to any exhibition at the behest of or in coordination with the government of Russia.”
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 the Russians who scratched out an existence by farming and fur-trading long before California became a state. Visitors tour the stockade, the Russian Orthodox chapel and a windmill like the one used by the settlers. The signs are in English and Russian, and overhead the flag of the Russian company that once ran the settlement often flies.
Some exhibits note the contributions of the Alaskans who joined the settlement as well as the indigenous Kashaya. But when schoolchildren visit, they sometimes dress as Russian settlers, marching with muskets across the park, shouting in Russian, “Levoy. Levoy. Levoy.”
Left. Left. Left.
“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 Mr. Vekselberg, the oligarch, stepped up at Mr. Kislyak’s request to create a private foundation, funded by his company, to help the park. The Russian president at the time, Dmitri Medvedev, attended the signing of the funding agreement with Mr. Vekselberg and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.
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.
“The contribution is modest,” said Ms. Sweedler, “and the influence they wield on the program is nonexistent.”
Last year, though, Ms. Sweedler said the Justice Department told the conservancy to stop taking the money. Mr. Vekselberg and his company, Renova Group, had been among the entities slapped with sanctions by the United States 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 al-Assad in Syria, “attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”
Some sanctions are based on behavior, but many companies or individuals, like Mr. Vekselberg, were punished largely because they are viewed as influential supporters of Mr. Putin who benefit from the actions of his regime.
Mr. Vekselberg, who is fighting the sanctions, declined to be interviewed.
Ms. Sweedler views the Russian investment in Fort Ross as a harmless cultural interaction, an important counterpoint to saber-rattling. Others see something more deliberate.
“For me it did raise alarm bells,” said Mr. Carpenter, the Russian specialist in the Obama administration. “Fort Ross was part of a soft power operation.”
Mr. Carpenter said the outpost was important enough to Russia that Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, urged the Americans to turn it into a national park.
Anatoly I. Antonov, the current Russian ambassador to the United States, was exuberant in his appreciation of Fort Ross after a tour last year. “It feels like in some Washington buildings, the air is spoiled with anti-Russian sentiment,” he said. “The air is different here. And people are different, too.”
It is far from the only cultural initiative that Mr. 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 Mr. Vekselberg as personally close to Mr. Putin, the effort synced with the president’s mission to bring Russian cultural artifacts back to Russia.
Later, with other oligarchs, he helped build a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, saying it would help paint Russia in a different light.
“The average American has developed this stereotype. They have a very wary approach to Russia, with the story of the evil empire and so forth,” he said at the time. “Americans who come here to work or visit, often for business, and come to this museum will assess what is going on in Russia in a different way.”
Mr. McFaul, the former ambassador, said he views Mr. Vekselberg, whose family owns homes in New York and Connecticut, as one of the more Western-oriented oligarchs. “I do think he considers himself a bridge-builder between the U.S. and Russia,” Mr. McFaul said.
But there have been rough spots.
Last year, agents for the special counsel Robert Mueller stopped Mr. Vekselberg at an airport, checked his electronic devices and sought to question him. Mr. Mueller’s team was interested in Mr. Vekselberg’s contact with Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer. The two men had had a meeting at Trump Tower in January 2017, just before President Trump’s inauguration. Mr. Vekselberg attended the inauguration with his cousin, Andrew Intrater, an American citizen and major donor to the event.
Prosecutors say Mr. Vekselberg is affiliated with Mr. Intrater’s firm, Columbus Nova, and were intrigued by $500,000 in payments the company made to Mr. Cohen for what was described as consulting work.
Mr. Vekselberg has denied being involved in the payments, and said he is only a client of his cousin’s firm. The investigators have not accused either man of wrongdoing.
Among the organizations that have received financial support from Mr. Vekselberg or his company are Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London. In a 2017 accounting, a Renova official said the company had spent $13.5 million on “arts and culture” in the nine years ending in 2016.
In many of these settings, the culture being promoted is Russian. Before Renova was hit with sanctions, for example, it helped fund a series of ballets and an opera in 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the Mariinsky Theater, which the academy described as “the beating heart of Russian culture.”
Mr. Vekselberg’s company was not the venue’s only Russian patron. A few years earlier, the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund, named after the billionaire who then owned the Brooklyn Nets, announced a gift of $1 million to help underwrite an exchange program with the arts organization: “TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today.”
In announcing the gift, Mr. Prokhorov said he was happy to “share some of the contemporary culture of Russia, the place I am proud to call home.”
Catherine Cheney contributed reporting from California and Michael Kolomatsky from New York. Susan Beachy contributed research.