Over the past couple of weeks, one particular subset of the global super-rich has risen to the forefront of the debate over so-called “toxic donors,” and whether some philanthropic gifts would better be left untouched. I’m referring, of course, to Russian oligarchs, whose famed wealth has come under intense scrutiny—and sanctions—since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Conspicuous consumption has been one favorite pastime of Russian billionaires, many of whose ties to the Russian state under Putin have now landed them in hot water. But as one might expect, many Russian oligarchs have also turned their billions to philanthropic pursuits—including here in the United States.
These donors and their grantees are now experiencing a backlash. As the war in Ukraine drags on and the international community ratchets up the pressure, U.S. beneficiaries of oligarchs’ largesse have backpedaled on Russia-related programming and, in the case of several arts organizations, turned away pro-Putin performers. Meanwhile, Russian billionaires have voluntarily exited prominent roles in civil society and sport, from a trusteeship at the Guggenheim Museum to the ownership of U.K. football club Chelsea F.C. Analysis by the Anti-Corruption Data Collective identified millions in donations from tycoons aligned with Putin, and activists have called on Western academic and cultural institutions to reject their donations and naming rights, among other measures.
The response is just the latest chapter in an ongoing debate over exactly when an ultra-wealthy donor should become persona non grata to current and potential grantees. The Sackler family, the Mercer family, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeffrey Epstein, Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby have all been the subjects of past toxic donor controversies. In certain cases, the answer is (or should be) pretty straightforward. In others, it means grappling with complicated questions about what, exactly, makes a “good” billionaire and what makes a “bad” billionaire.
In an effort to track the current controversy, we’ve compiled a list of oligarchs who’ve been active on the U.S. philanthropy circuit, as well as a couple of big U.S. donors who have major career connections to oligarch wealth, even if they aren’t oligarchs themselves—and frequently contest the idea that they are.
But first, that does raise the question: What exactly is a Russian oligarch?
Well, the term is a loose one, but it typically refers to businessmen from Russia and other post-Soviet states who enriched themselves in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall. In most cases, they took advantage of the economic free-for-all surrounding the transition from state control to a market-based system, including by jumping in on the “loans-for-shares” program under Russian President Boris Yeltsin—a corruption-ridden process in which the government sold off major state industries for a fraction of their value.
The lucky winners went on to consolidate their control over wide swathes of the Russian industrial base, often selling those holdings for billions in profit. Many also forged or maintained connections with the government as Putin consolidated his own grip on the Russian state over the past two decades.
Without further ado, here’s a list of oligarchs who’ve been active philanthropic donors in the United States—and who’s been getting their money.
Often characterized as the wealthiest man in Russia, Potanin founded and chairs Interros, a conglomerate active in energy, mining, finance and a variety of other sectors besides. Like many here, the origins of his fortune go back to the early 1990s and the loans-for-shares program. Potanin has a long business history with another oligarch on this list, Mikhail Prokhorov. The longtime Kremlin insider is also, reportedly, on hockey-playing terms with Putin.
In the U.S., Potanin has been a significant patron of the arts (a theme we’ll see a lot more of). He’s a longtime donor to the Guggenheim Museum, where he recently departed the board of trustees. He has also given millions to the Kennedy Center in Washington, where leadership must now grapple with the fact that Potanin’s money funded a so-called “Russian lounge” at the venue.
A longtime business partner of Potanin, Mikhail Prokhorov acquired large chunks of Russia’s metals industry in the post-Soviet scramble. He went into the investment business after parting ways with Potanin in 2007 and owned the Brooklyn Nets between 2010 and 2019, when he sold the team to Alibaba Group co-founder Joseph Tsai.
Prokhorov founded the Cultural Initiatives Foundation in 2004. While much of the oligarch’s giving takes place in his home country, some of it has touched down stateside, including a $1 million gift to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to fund U.S.-Russia cultural exchanges. Karen Brooks Hopkins, BAM’s former president, recently regaled us with an account of the “chilly” reception she received during a trip to Siberia to secure that funding.
Leonid Mikhelson’s acquisition of a post-Soviet stake in a gas pipeline construction company led him to found NovaTek, now one of Russia’s largest natural gas producers. This oligarch is no stranger to U.S. sanctions—the feds slapped them on back in 2014 following the Russian occupation of Crimea, a region with immense natural gas reserves.
Nevertheless, Mikhelson has given repeatedly in the U.S. and in Western Europe through his V-A-C Foundation. Beneficiaries include the New Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in the U.K., and the Art Institute of Chicago, where Mikhelson’s money funded a show on Soviet art in 2017. One of the oligarch’s primary philanthropic interests is promoting Russian art, which he is also doing in Moscow via an art center designed by the firm of celebrated architect Renzo Piano.
Viktor Vekselberg founded the Renova Group in 1990 with a college classmate, Len Blavatnik, his partner in numerous business ventures in early-1990s Russia. Like Mikhelson, Vekselberg has also been under U.S. sanctions for the past several years.
In Russia, Vekselberg has been an active donor to Jewish causes. Among his larger donations there was $50 million for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Vekselberg’s stateside giving has focused, unsurprisingly, on the arts. Recipients over the years include the Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art and Carnegie Hall, as well as the Tate Modern in London.
Vekselberg has also been a patron of Fort Ross, a historical site in Sonoma County, California, that marks the southernmost extent of 19th-century Russian settlement along North America’s western seaboard. Through an entity called the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, Vekselberg backed the California state historic park and on-site programming on Russian culture and heritage until sanctions forced him to call it quits. He also gave the Clinton Foundation a six-figure sum and has supported the U.S.-Russia Forum at Stanford University.
The Ukraine-born co-founder of Alfa-Bank and LetterOne is also one of a set of Jewish Russian oligarchs who founded the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which promotes Jewish identity worldwide, and especially among Russian-speaking Jews. The organization also issues the $1 million Genesis Prize.
The Genesis Philanthropy Group recently directed $10 million in emergency aid to Jewish communities in Ukraine, money that is currently going to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, and other Jewish community groups.
Fridman’s business career has unfolded in close partnership with other oligarchs who back Genesis, including Petr Aven and German Khan. He also worked with Len Blavatnik and Viktor Vekselberg to acquire the state-owned Siberian oil company TNK in the late 1990s. In partnership with BP and with Blavatnik and Vekselberg’s firms, the company went on to become one of Russia’s top oil producers. Fridman and his partners received nearly $30 billion after they sold the firm to Russian state oil concern Rosneft in 2013. Fridman has been characterized by the European Union as a close associate and “enabler” of Putin.
As with Fridman, Petr Aven’s wealth derives from the success of Alfa-Bank and investment firm LetterOne. Formerly a minister in the fledgling post-Soviet Russian government, Aven went on to head Alfa-Bank, which grew into one of the nation’s largest financial institutions.
While Aven isn’t of Ukrainian origin like his longtime associate Fridman, he is another one of the Jewish Russian oligarchs who founded Genesis Philanthropy Group. Aven is also one of the many oligarchs fond of backing the arts in the U.S. and western Europe—he’s sponsored Russian art exhibitions at the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern.
Despite their longstanding efforts to build international business empires with roots in the west, both Aven and Fridman have been hit hard by E.U. sanctions, and recently stepped down from their positions at LetterOne. Damage to the two men’s reputations in the U.S. goes back further, including to their embroilment in allegations of their involvement in collaboration between Putin’s government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Known for his ownership of the AS Monaco football club, Dmitry Rybolovlev got rich in part from his stake in potash fertilizer producer Uralkali. Having consolidated majority control of the firm by around 2000, Rybolovlev went on to sell it a decade later and relocate to Monaco. He has been a Western-Europe-based investor since then, also acquiring the Belgian football club Cercle Brugge K.S.V.
On the U.S. philanthropy front, Rybolovlev has donated to a number of health charities, including at least $1 million to the Mayo Clinic, as well as to amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.
Most of the figures above are usually characterized as oligarchs, even if they may no longer spend most of their time in Russia. There are other active philanthropists in the U.S. for whom the term isn’t really applicable, but who can still be considered “oligarch-adjacent” due to the nature and origins of their wealth. They include the following two donors:
Born in Ukraine and now a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom, Blavatnik isn’t a Russian (though he was raised and attended school in Russia). However, the businessman, who is now among the U.K.’s wealthiest people, made his money in a manner similar to many of the oligarchs listed above. That is, he bought up Russian state industries in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, channeling many of those investments through his firm Access Industries—which also owns stakes in a variety of non-Russian concerns.
Blavatnik also partnered extensively with other oligarchs on this list as he made his fortune. In particular, he’s been a longtime associate of Viktor Vekselberg, his former college classmate and Renova Group co-founder. Blavatnik was also a party to Mikhail Fridman’s acquisition of oil firm TNK and its eventual $55 billion sale to Rosneft.
Blavatnik’s U.S.-focused giving has been extensive. Education and Jewish causes are among the primary interests of his Blavatnik Family Foundation, a low-profile grantmaker that has nonetheless given significant gifts to places like the Harvard Medical School, Stanford University and the Mount Sinai Health System. In 2020, the Blavatnik Family Foundation partnered with Warner Music Group on a $100 million fund “to support charitable causes related to the music industry, social justice and campaigns against violence and racism.” At the same time, Blavatnik has also been a major Republican political donor, including via a $1 million gift toward Trump’s inauguration committee.
Though he’s Russian by birth, this prominent tech investor was not personally involved in the messy post-Soviet privatization of state assets. Having moved to the U.S. around that time to study, Yuri Milner went on to found DST Global, a venture capital shop that made a killing in part through investments in places like Facebook, Twitter and a whole host of others.
The thing is, a sizable proportion of Milner’s initial investment money came from Russian sources, including from a mogul who very much does fit the oligarch bill—Alisher Usmanov—as well as from other companies with Kremlin associations. Milner has pushed back against the idea that these ties, and his Russian nationality, should automatically make him a target of suspicion or sanctions. His Breakthrough Prize Foundation recently came forward with a strong statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the philanthropic realm, science has been Milner’s forte. He and his wife have signed the Giving Pledge (science featured heavily in their pledge letter), and have given through a number of Breakthrough-branded initiatives like the Breakthrough Prize, Breakthrough Initiatives and Breakthrough Starshot—an attempt to study the feasibility of interstellar travel by solar sail. In multiple cases, Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook luminaries are also involved in Milner’s philanthropic initiatives.