As the Western world moves to sanction overseas Russian money, Cherwell has found that St Edmund Hall and the Saïd Business School accepted donations from Vladimir Potanin, the oligarch and metals tycoon who is the second richest man in Russia.
Potanin, 61, has a net worth of $27 billion, as estimated by Forbes. In 2020, he was included on the US Treasury’s list of 210 Russian oligarchs, businessmen and politicians under considerations for sanctions, dubbed ‘Putin’s List’. He is widely known for regularly playing ice hockey with Putin. Potanin’s fortune fell by $3 billion on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. Potanin also served as the Deputy Prime Minister for 7 months between 1996 and 1997.
In 1999, Potanin founded the Vladimir Potanin Foundation to “implement large-scale humanitarian programs” in the fields of “culture, higher education, social sport and philanthropy development”. The foundation donated £3 million to St Edmund Hall in 2018 to endow a research fund for Earth Sciences, and to jointly establish the Vladimir Potanin Associate Professor and Tutorial Fellow in Earth Sciences with the University of Oxford. The endowment also funded the three-year Vladimir Potanin Tutorial Fellow of Russian Literature and Modern Languages.
The foundation also granted $150,000 to the Saïd Business School in 2017 for a fellowship scheme for the Oxford Social Finance Programme. The school selected 15 Russian charity workers to attend this programme between 2017 and 2019.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s allowed well-connected individuals to profit from the bloc’s transition to a market economy by gaining control over newly privatized state assets. Many of these deals were done privately, without competition. While in office, Potanin proposed the controversial ‘loans for shares’ scheme, which is seen as having furthered the rise of the oligarch class. This scheme effectively caused the consolidation of oligarchs’ control over the Russian economy. ‘Loans for shares’ encouraged wealthy businessmen to loan money to the Yeltsin government in exchange for state-owned shares in companies, many of which extracted and processed Russia’s abundant natural resources.
Of the programme, he told The Financial Times: “It is the biggest PR tragedy of my career. Of course, the privatisation process has to be transparent. And in our case it was not. My plan was different. I wanted to privatise the companies with banks and qualified people, raise their value, and then sell them.”
Through this scheme, Potanin and his long-term business partner Mikhail Prokhorov acquired a 54% share in Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel). The two businessmen separated their assets in 2007, leaving Potanin with 34.6% of the shares in Norilsk Nickel. The company’s total assets amounted to $20.7 billion in 2020.
On top of being the world’s largest producer of nickel, Norilsk Nickel is one of the world’s largest industrial polluters. In 2020, the company produced 1.9% of total global sulphur dioxide emissions. The company has announced that it intends to reduce suphur dioxides from its plants in the heavily polluted Norilsk region by 90% by 2025 from a 2015 baseline.
Potanin is the only Russian to have signed The Giving Pledge, in which the super-rich pledge to give a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Other signatories include Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerber, and George Lucas. He said his decision was motivated by a belief that “wealth should work for public good”, and as a way to “protect [his] children from the burden of extreme wealth”.
A spokesperson for St Edmund Hall told Cherwell that the gift was accepted “in good faith and at a time when relations with Russia were in a substantially better place. This was a one-off donation and the College does not anticipate any further funding from The Potanin Foundation.
“The College is deeply concerned at the events happening in Ukraine and sincerely hopes that a peaceful outcome will soon be reached,” they added.
The Saïd Business School told Cherwell: “The grant went through the University’s robust approval process and the partnership ended in 2019. The focus of the programme is to improve the social impact and philanthropic work of charities and non-government organisations (NGOs) across the world. As a global business school with students and alumni from across the world, we have been deeply saddened at events happening in the Ukraine and hope a peaceful outcome is soon reached.”
The University of Oxford, Interros, and The Vladimir Potanin Foundation were approached for comment.