Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg on his charity projects - interview

Viktor Vekselberg: "I thought I understood the West"

Until sanctions were imposed on him, Viktor Vekselberg consistently made it to the Forbes’ top 10, with the exclusion of 2008 to 2010, unfavorable years for metal manufacturers. In 2020, he placed 12th on the list with his fortune of $10.5 billion (photo credit: YURIY CHICHKOV/FORBES)
Until sanctions were imposed on him, Viktor Vekselberg consistently made it to the Forbes’ top 10, with the exclusion of 2008 to 2010, unfavorable years for metal manufacturers. In 2020, he placed 12th on the list with his fortune of $10.5 billion
Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg has really been down on his luck since the United States imposed sanctions on him in April 2018. With many business and charity projects in the US, a partner and long-time friend Len Blavatnik who is an American citizen, and a son Alexander, who was born and is still living in the US, Vekselberg was considered “one of America’s own,” as opposed to other Forbes’ list members who suffered the same fate. 
While the Renova Group owner can go to Switzerland, he can’t do anything with any Swiss company shares, which make up a major part of his fortune. With more than $1.5 billion frozen in Western bank accounts, Vekselberg has, for the most part, been involved in social activities as head of the Skolkovo Fund, and as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Moscow Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. The former position was taken from him at the end of 2020, and he gave up the latter just recently. What follows is an exclusive interview with Vekselberg, who turns 64 on April 14, first published in Forbes Russia.
Two years ago, you said the Skolkovo Fund was your main project and that it took up 50% of your time. In mid-December 2020 it was announced that following a reform, Skolkovo, Rusnano, and six other entities would be moved under the management of VEB.RF, a state development corporation. On New Year’s Eve, VEB.RF Chairman Igor Shuvalov was appointed head of the fund’s executive board, replacing you, while you chair the Board of Trustees of Skoltech – the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. What does this mean for you?
The first decade of Skolkovo has ended, and a new stage has begun, one that requires new tasks. The development of Skoltech is one of the key priorities for the next ten years. In my opinion, education is of paramount importance, so it was decided that I would deal with strengthening Skoltech’s role and turn it into an innovative research hub for all research institutes. Ten years ago, when the research institutes emerged, the idea was to create a so-called “innovation elevator.” The assumption was that each institute would be responsible for its sector, with a joint effort to focus on promoting the most advanced projects, and nurture those “unicorns” everyone in our country wanted to see. However, not everyone has succeeded yet, but everything is developing in a spiral-like fashion. As I see it, integrating Russia’s main research institutes under the auspices of VEB.RF is the right move.  
You emphasized several times that you didn’t earn anything at Skolkovo – just the opposite, you invested a lot of money there. What other charitable projects are important to you?
I think that sooner or later every person feels the need to do good deeds. But charity comes in more than one form. You can just donate money to quality projects and not be personally involved or you can contribute your time and your emotions. The latter better suits my definition of charity because it provides feedback. That’s why I always try to do projects that resonate with my soul. Hence the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the Fabergé Museum, the Arkhangelskoye Palace restoration, and the KES Basket – Russian School Basketball League. And, of course, our major museums: The Tretyakov Gallery, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Hermitage, and Polytechnic Museum.  
You have been actively involved in Jewish causes – as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, and as a member of the Presidium of the Russian Jewish Congress.
I grew up in a Ukrainian family. All my relatives, except for my Jewish father, were Ukrainian – my mother, uncles, aunts. From a cultural point of view, we were a regular Soviet Russian-Ukrainian family, our language was Russian. When I was a child, it didn’t even occur to me that Vekselberg was a Jewish name. I only realized that in Moscow when my name didn’t allow me to be a student at Moscow State University. I went to the Moscow Institute of Transport Engineers instead, where I  studied automation and computer science.
What was your ethnic status in the school gradebook? Russian?
Yes, exactly. My father is Jewish, my mother is Ukrainian, and I am Russian. I heard my father’s tragic family history when I grew up. I came to Drohobych, near Lviv, for a summer vacation and started asking my father questions. It turned out that all of his family members –17 people – were sent to the ghetto during the war. My father was not in the city since he was off to war. At the end of the war, when the Germans were retreating, they exterminated the entire ghetto in three days – about 12,000 people. The site where the people were shot to death was not marked at all during the Soviet era – there were just mass graves in the forest.  My father and I set up a memorial there in the1990s. Of the entire family, only my father’s cousin survived. She was saved by Ukrainians who hid her in a forest dugout. After the war she managed to flee to America. I eventually met her in New York. She had found my dad in the 1960s, sent him letters, but he didn’t respond. She also sent small amounts of money to the Ukrainians who saved her. I found them later on but they asked me not to tell anyone in the city that they had hidden a Jewish girl during the war.  They were still afraid. Their children have also asked me not to say anything about it.  
My dad used to say that I’d never be able to understand how scary it was – Jews were murdered by local nationalists rather than by Germans. And this nationalist hatred hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s been just muffled, hidden. When I learned about this and realized I was 50% Jewish, I naturally became interested in Jewish culture. I’m not really a religious person, but I treat all religions with great respect. At the same time, I feel a stronger connection with the Jewish culture than with the Christian one. During my childhood, I didn’t know a single word in Yiddish except for one expression that I sometimes heard from my dad: “Kishen tuches!” (Kiss my ass!) 
The Holocaust, which has affected my family, is very important to me. And of course I will do everything in my power to see that it doesn’t repeat itself. I have been helping this cause and will never stop as long as I am able. This is why the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is an important part of my life. I think it turned out to be a highly significant project.
You’ve been chairman of the board of the museum since its founding. There are rumors that in 2021 you’re going to leave this position. Is this true, and if so, what brought you to this decision?
Actually, these are not exactly rumors. I’ve been in that position for too long. Every business requires new initiative, new blood and the museum has a good team of interested people. The contribution of Alexander Boroda, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, has been huge. The Board also includes Roman Abramovich and Len Blavatnik, my business partner.  By the way, it was Abramovich who donated the present building to the museum [this was the former Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, where the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art was located prior to 2011]. Businessman Vadim Moshkovich recently joined. Mikhail Gutseriyev, another businessman, one of the board’s original trustees from its very first day, is not Jewish. We have Muslim representatives and members of the Russian Orthodox Church as well. I think this diversity is very important. After I leave my current position – operations manager actually – I will take on the role of honorary chairman. 
You have strong ties with the US: you have relatives there, your children studied there, and you once relocated your family there. Your son still lives in America and your partner Leonard Blavatnik is a citizen. Your businesses and a number of charity projects were based there. How did you deal with the sanctions imposed on you by the US Treasury? To what extent do they make your life and work difficult? 
I once said that it was quite a catastrophe for me, although my words were interpreted too literally then. Without a doubt, the sky did not fall but my worldview really changed. I always thought I understood the West – much better than others do. I understand how things work there, and I’m a good judge of character, so the sanctions gave me quite a jolt. It never occurred to me that a civilized world with its views and positions could make decisions like that in one fell swoop. The most painful part was the reaction of those around me.
The world split in two – thank God, unequal parts: those who support me and those who have simply disappeared. What’s more, among those who disappeared are people I could have not possibly suspected of being able to cut off all ties (because of the sanctions). And I’m not talking about business ties – that I can somehow understand. I mean regular human relationships. Of course I had difficulties running my businesses both there and here. As for philanthropy, all projects abroad had to be shut down, while in Russia, our opportunities have been reduced. We supported the Bolshoi Theatre, the Mariinsky Theatre, various museum projects, many charitable funds. But now, unfortunately, because of the sanctions, funding many of these projects had to stop. 
Your American and Swiss banks accounts containing more than $1.5 billion have been frozen. Is there any way you can use this money?
Larger amounts are frozen and can only be used with US Treasury Department authorization. They haven’t allowed me to use the money for charitable purposes, not even to fight the pandemic. We were talking about relatively small amounts, several million dollars that I wanted to transfer to help battle COVID-19 in Europe. That’s become an unpleasant revelation for me. How can you possibly decline a request to transfer money to those in need at such a difficult time? After the pandemic broke out we did quite a bit in Russia. All of the businesses in the Renova Group participated in these projects, each in its own way. We purchased COVID-19 tests and ventilators, sent medicines all over the country, and simply helped regional organizations on request. Our airport business took a very active part, delivering food to elderly. The total amount we spent last year fighting COVID-19 is about two billion rubles.
But at the same time, we have large international businesses, so I personally received many appeals for help, among them, also from Jewish communities in Switzerland. My natural reaction was ‘one of our businesses has money frozen in its Swiss bank account, so take it and help your community members.’ This is not for my personal use, not for my business, but solely for charity. We sent a request to the Treasury Department. It became a very long story and ended with nothing  – no answer, not yes or no. 
Did you make any further attempts?
I did in the summer, when American Forbes organized a major online charity conference. I was invited, which was strange, as I am on the sanctions list. It was a very respectable conference. The greatest philanthropists from all over the world delivered addresses. This is where Bill Gates announced his $300 million donation to help develop the vaccine. Words spoken there were so true. A great address was delivered by Ursula von der Leyen [the President of the European Commission]. She called on everyone to join the effort to fight the pandemic. She impressed me and after the conference I sent her a letter explaining my situation, and that I want to help those in Europe in need. I asked her to help me get approval from the US Treasury Department. Someone from her office replied, saying something along the lines of “we didn’t fully understand what you were talking about, and of course, we are all for supporting everyone, but what do sanctions have to do with it?” I sent her a more detailed letter, and that’s where the story ends. 
Your American projects cannot be financed either, can they? Fort Ross, for example?
We had several US based projects a while ago, mostly in the sphere of innovation technologies. Fort Ross, however, is a charity project. It’s a small Russian fortress in California which dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. We helped restore it. The agreement was signed with Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was California’s governor. The project was developing with great enthusiasm: the museum was functioning, we organized national events and historical reenactments, brought children there, shot movies. But everything stopped because of the sanctions, and now we can’t help at all. The last thing we did was set up a large windmill that was built in Russia’s Vologda based on old blueprints, and transferred to California. 
What other innovation projects did you mention?
We had a rather large innovation fund covering about 40 projects, but everything stopped. By the way, in terms of charity, here’s another interesting story.  The return of the Danilov Monastery bells from Harvard to their one-time home in Russia. Back in the 1930s, the monastery bells were about to be melted down so the bronze could be used elsewhere. Charles Crane, an American businessman and Harvard graduate, bought all 18 bells for the price of scrap metal and transferred them to the US. The bells were installed in Harvard’s bell tower. In the mid-2000s, Russian Orthodox Church representatives turned to us with an appeal to help return the bells. They had been trying to reach an agreement with the Americans but were unable to. I thought the task was quite simple. The Americans would understand the historical value and what it meant to a country and would certainly agree to return the bells. I went to Boston and met with Harvard’s president, whose initial reaction was that no, the bells belong to them, and there was no chance of returning them.  
We started to convince them and found supporters to help us. We finally reached an agreement in 2007. They demanded that we make exact copies of the bells, and we did.  They were cast in Voronezh, and people from Harvard came just to test the chime — they insisted on an exact match. We spent a lot of time and money on this, between 7 and 8 million dollars. The bells were transported to Saint Petersburg by sea and blessed in the square in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, then taken to Moscow on flatbed trucks. When they arrived in Moscow, a ceremony was held to celebrate their installation in the Danilov Monastery. All along the way the bells were greeted by crowds of believers.
And you received an honorary certificate from Patriarch Alexy for that.
Yes, the Patriarch awarded me the Order of Sergius of Radonezh.
You had another American project, purchasing the famous Faberge Imperial Easter Eggs from the Forbes family that were about to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. How did you manage to have the auction canceled, and how much did it cost you?
It all started with the news that the Forbes family had decided to sell its collection of Fabergé objects and was to be put up for auction at Sotheby’s. A catalogue of the entire collection was published with about 200 objects, including nine Imperial Easter Eggs. Malcolm Forbes and his wife had collected the objects for several decades and each was up for sale separately with its own price. I realized the collection’s historical value for Russia and how great it would be to return it home in its entirety. We sent Forbes’ an offer based on an average catalogue price for each piece in the collection. Nobody really believed it would work out, but a miracle happened: they replied, saying they were ready to sell the entire collection without going to auction. Now I have a framed New York Times clipping telling the story. Why did the Forbes brothers agree?  They were probably sorry to sell the collection in pieces, so they sold it on the condition that the collection remain complete and available to be viewed by the public. 
It’s noteworthy that many of the collection’s objects were used by members of the Forbes family in their everyday lives – desk accessories, dishes, etc. They didn’t intend to maintain their history for a museum, as opposed to us. We were asked to hold an exhibition in New York before taking the collection to Russia. We still keep in touch, and Cristopher is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Fabergé Museum. 
Did we understand correctly? Did you buy the collection for $100 million?
Well, something like that.
And how much did you invest in the foundation of the Fabergé Museum?
About $50 million if we take into account the Shuvalov Palace renovation alone. I wanted the museum to be set up in Moscow, and we spent a lot of time negotiating with Yury Mikhailovich [Luzhkov, then Moscow mayor]. I asked him to select a building in the center of Moscow, but he didn’t make it happen. However, Valentina Ivanovna [Matviyenko, then Governor of St. Petersburg] almost immediately offered to rent out the Shuvalov Palace, provided we’d renovate it. It was in ruins. We spent more than four years renovating it.  It was very interesting to turn back the pages of Soviet history and slowly become immersed in the world of 19th century Russia. At first, the palace belonged to the family of Count Naryshkin and was passed on to Count Shuvalov. Descendants of the Naryshkin family still live in Russia and in Switzerland. They have visited us and brought old photographs. Really fascinating.
Does the museum return any profit?
No profit at all [laughing]. No commercial success would be sufficient to operate a museum like this. The world’s best museums exist thanks only to their donors and benefactors. Our permanent exhibition alone currently contains 4,000 objects, which, by the way, took way more money to collect than it did to buy the Forbes collection. And we’ve gone even further, setting up “external” (satellite) exhibitions, bringing Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí exhibitions to Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  
Do these painters’ works interest you personally or is it the museum’s choice?
It was mostly me who was behind bringing Dalí. I take great interest in his personality and philosophy, and especially like his observation, one of my favorites: “I’m too intelligent to be a good painter.”
Do you have his paintings in your collection? Have you purchased something over the last few years?
Yes, I have Dalí, but I haven’t purchased anything in the last three years. I can’t participate in international auctions for well-known reasons.
You’re very much involved in children’s education; you’re head of the Board of Trustees of the Skolkovo International Gymnasium. What connection do you have to the Sirius Educational Center, to which you handed over your luxurious hotel in 2015 built to accommodate Olympic guests? Why did you have to hand it over to children?
The logic of the country’s leaders at the time was simple. What should be done with the (physical) material legacy left by the Olympics? So they came up with an idea to set up a major children’s center that would utilize Sochi’s sports grounds and other facilities. We were the best —nobody built anything better than we did. A high-ranking delegation came and agreed that it was the best.
So were you forced to hand it over?
We were asked very politely. Believe me, they can ask in different ways. And we were reimbursed for all expenses to the last kopeck. Sirius was also given an exhibition center where they set up labs; a school was built, too. Eventually, the children had a serious innovative education center. It would have hurt our feelings had the hotel been handed over to someone else, no matter what sign that someone would have operated under. But since it was handed over to children, I am quite pleased.
What is your favorite children’s project?
My favorite children’s project is KES Basket – the School Basketball League. For over ten years we’ve been promoting children’s basketball. We created a real school basketball league from scratch. It started with a local project in the city of Perm and now covers 69 regions and several neighboring countries. More than a million boys and girls – not just from major cities but also from small villages – are vying for the grand prize – a trip to the EuroLeague Final Four event.  We’re really proud of this project!