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Russian Oligarchs: How Billionaires Try to Improve the Image of Russia in the USA
October 8, 2019 11:52

Russian businessmen and companies controlled by them donate millions of dollars to cultural events, exhibitions and tours to promote Russian culture in the United States and improve Russia's image, The New York Times wrote on Sunday. At least five billionaires from Russia and one major banker are  actively promoting Russian art and culture abroad and especially in the USA.  Russian businessmen support museums, finance exhibitions and tours of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theaters, and are members of the board of trustees and boards of directors of cultural organizations. 

Billionaires in Museums

Since 2002 Vladimir Potanin is a member of  trustees of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Not so long ago, he donated $ 6.45 million to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center in Washington. With the help of this money, the Russian Lounge was  created. It is a zone in the Center of Kennedy, which is called on the site of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation "a unique look at Russia without traditional cliches." The name of Potanin is engraved on the honorary plaque hanging in the building.

In 2005, the Potanin Foundation sponsored an exhibition of Russian art for 800 years - from icons to paintings of the 19th century - at the Guggenheim Museum. It was simply called "Russia!" 

In 2011 the owner of Novatek Leonid Mikhelson  helped to organize an exhibition of Russian contemporary art at the New Museum in Manhattan. Two years later, the museum included him in the trustees. Michelson held this position until 2018 - that is, three years more after his company came under US sanctions. Mikhelson hosted contemporary art exhibitions - often with a focus on Russian artists - through his V-A-C foundation. The foundation’s mission is to build bridges and understanding through culture.

In 2012 Mikhail Prokhorov announced a donation of $ 1 million through his foundation for the three-year cultural exchange program TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today. The program was launched in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Billionaires in Theatres


The Mariinsky Theater troupe performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was organized with  the help of Victor Vekselberg’s company  Renova. Artists performed on the Academy stage in 2015 and 2016. Among the organizations that received funding from Vekselberg are the Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery in London. In 2017, Renova reported that it spent $ 13.5 million on “art and culture” in the period from 2007 to 2016.


VTB Bank and its manager Andrei Kostin also promote Russian culture in the United States. The bank held two events at the Kennedy Center in Washington. In October 2016, artists from the Bolshoi Theater performed at one of them. According to The New York Times,   the bank invited several senior officials from the Department of State, including Daniel Fried, who is responsible for the sanctions policy.   Fried declined the invitation.

The bank denies that its investment in art and culture is dictated by the Russian government. “The state and its representatives do not influence VTB’s decisions to support museums, theaters and artistic groups,” a VTB representative comments. The representative of Peter Aven, who sponsored exhibitions of Russian art in the Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts, as well as in the Guggenheim Museum, gave the same comments.

Some experts interviewed by NYT believe that donations by businessmen to promote Russian art may be a kind of compliment to Vladimir Putin. The President of Russia approves the protection of national interests abroad, according to the interlocutors of the publication. 

There is no evidence that donations of business are somehow coordinated by Moscow. Another thing is that businessmen, according to the publication, maintain good relations with the Kremlin, and their actions meet the desire of Vladimir Putin to use soft power and cultural diplomacy to improve Russia's image, which is considered hostile due to the conflict in Ukraine and alleged interference in the elections. 

The US also uses cultural diplomacy, but the Russian version is more “coordinated,” experts say. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told NYT that he made   less efforts in Moscow in this direction than his Russian counterpart in Washington, Sergey Kislyak. The authorities themselves are promoting the Russian culture and Russian heritage in the United States: in 2017, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a working group for these purposes.

Businessmen can be led by a purely patriotic urge to return to their homeland Russian works of art that were taken abroad by  nobles, sold by the Bolsheviks and lost after the revolution, The New York Times notes. Entrepreneurs use philanthropy to glorify their homeland, reflecting it as "an enlightened source of masterpieces of opera, dance and art," the publication adds. So, Vekselberg invested more than $ 100 million in the purchase of Faberge eggs from abroad and opened a special museum for the collection in St. Petersburg. Dmitry Rybolovlev spent $ 2 billion over several years to purchase works by Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci, NYT claims. In addition, art opens the door for businessmen to high society.

Author: Anna Dorozhkina

Tags: Russian Oligarchs Russian business Russian companies Russian International  

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