Leonard Blavatnik, a great Harvard donor and the wealthiest man in the UK wants to erase his Russian past
The billionaire made his fortune after the breakup of the USSR, but he distanced himself from the Kremlin when Vladimir Putin came to power and is now a leading donor in Britain and the US
Leonid Valentinovich Blavatnik, born in 1957 in Odessa, in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine, is these days better known as Sir Leonard Blavatnik. He is a citizen of the United Kingdom and the United States, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, and is the wealthiest man in Britain, as well as one of the richest men in the world.
Blavatnik cemented his fortune in Russia’s wild 1990s, under then-president Boris Yeltsin. But even though technically he is an oligarch because he made his fortune with the privatization of the former USSR’s state-owned aluminum and oil assets, he was crafty enough to use the Kremlin without getting too close to it: it was his business partner and former schoolmate Viktor Vekselberg who did all the dirty work involving political networking while he, an educated man who spoke several languages, took care of their international contacts.
The growing power of Vladimir Putin, who became president in 2000, made him feel more certain than ever that it was in his best interest to get away from that world. In 2013 he sold his holdings in Russia, just one year before Putin annexed Crimea and the West began to look at him with Cold War eyes.
With his Russian past behind him, Sir Leonard’s interests focused on the chemical industry (LyondellBasell), finances and entertainment (Warner, RatPac, Bad Wolf, AI Film, DAZN). Just a few weeks ago he injected $4.3 billion into DAZN, a streaming service that’s been dubbed “the Netflix of sports” and which had lost $1.3 billion during the Covid-19 pandemic. These are dizzying figures, but not to him: Bloomberg has estimated his fortune at $39.9 billion (€36.7 billion) while The Sunday Times considers him to be the wealthiest man in the UK, although in this case his fortune was said to be £23 billion (€27.5 billion).
As a child, his family moved to Yaroslavl, 161 miles north of Moscow, and Blavatnik was one of the few Jewish children to be admitted into an elite school. In 1978 he moved to New York, where he perfected his financial education and good eye for business. earning a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. A naturalized American citizen since 1984, two years later he founded Access Industries, his personal company.
The big business began after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Viktor Vekselberg showed him the enormous opportunities opening up in Russia with the transition to capitalism. “I was very skeptical. I’d been living in America for a long time and had a company,” Blavatnik told a 2015 gala in Moscow, according to the Financial Times. But Viktor’s power of persuasion was difficult to resist.
Blavatnik and Vekselberg became immensely wealthy, but Sir Leonard has always rejected the “oligarch” label, has done everything in his power to erase that murky past, and will not hesitate to use his army of lawyers to achieve it. Even the leftist newspaper The Guardian published the following apology in September 2017: “On 4 September 2017 we published an online article that in its headline referred to Sir Leonard Blavatnik as a ‘Putin pal.’ Readers may have understood this to suggest that he was a close friend and confidant of President Putin. Sir Leonard Blavatnik’s lawyers have informed us that their client has had no personal contact with President Putin since 2000 and that he has never been a close friend or confidant of President Putin. We apologise to Sir Leonard Blavatnik for the use of this term and have removed it from the headline.”
The Times did something similar on April 1, 2018: “Last week (...) we described Sir Leonard Blavatnik as a Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin associate. He says he is neither. We are happy to make it clear that he is a US and UK citizen and has had no personal contact with Putin since 2000.”
In the United States he is still described as an oligarch from time to time. In a story about internal division at a university over Blavatnik’s donations, an opinion piece in The New York Times wondered: “Is Harvard Whitewashing a Russian Oligarch’s Fortune?” And The New York Post called him the same last month when it included him on a list of oligarchs with properties in the city.
Donations are one of the billionaire’s favorite tools to cement his presence among Western elites, following the advice of John Browne, a former chief executive of BP, with whom he became close friends despite the 1999 turbulence in the alliance between BP and the Russian oil company TNK, which reached the courts in 2003. Blavatnik made $7 billion through the sale of his shares in TNK-BT to Russia’s Rosneft in 2013. He immediately took the profits to the West.
Len Blavatnik (as he is also known) was introduced to high society by Lord Browne and others, and he smoothed the path with extremely generous donations to Oxford University ($115 million in 2010), Harvard University ($50 million in 2013), Carnegie Hall ($25 million in 2016), Tate Modern ($65 million in 2017) and the Harvard Medical School ($200 million in 2018), among many others.
These donations are obviously not entirely disinterested. On the one hand, they represent insurance because they have given him enough respectability that Queen Elizabeth herself knighted him in June 2017, thereby granting him the definitive passport that disassociates him from Putin, the Kremlin and the oligarchs. They have also allowed him to cultivate his ego by putting his name on a remarkable amount of buildings and institutions, from the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford to the Blavatnik Building at Tate Modern, Blavatnik Hall at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard.
These days, Sir Len Blavatnik is a well-respected man in the West who continues to handle billions of dollars through his businesses. But his close friend Viktor Vekselberg cannot buy a plane ticket to New York to see his daughter and grandson because Washington placed him on a black list of oligarchs in April 2018. That’s the difference between earning and not earning respectability. And that’s something that seems to have more to do with how you move today than what you did yesterday.