No Amount of Charity Is Worth Defending Putin’s Oligarchs
Much like Germany’s industrialists aided Hitler’s atrocities, Russian billionaires’ money cannot be disentangled from Putin’s war crimes.
The U.K. announced sanctions against seven Russian oligarchs on Thursday, including Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, found itself somewhat flat-footed by the news.
For the past two weeks, Yad Vashem has defended its new “long-term strategic partnership” with Abramovich, which was announced on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The gift was “an eight-figure donation,” according to spokesperson Simmi Allen, who said the oligarch was to be the second-largest donor to the institution. The funds were to build a new research center and create two versions of its Book of Names, memorializing 4,800,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis.
While Yad Vashem’s initial press release lauded Abramovich as one of its esteemed “circle of friends,” who has given more than $500 million to Jewish causes worldwide, it didn’t mention the term “oligarch,” nor the dual Russian-Israeli citizen’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, nor the questionable ways in which he acquired his great wealth (reported to be around $13 billion according to Bloomberg). This includes his steel company, Evraz, which supplies the Russian military with materials for its tanks, the same ones currently invading Ukraine, something his spokesperson has denied.
As detractors criticized the Holocaust museum for its tone-deafness at a time when much of the world cut ties with Russian money, Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan stood by his decision, asserting Abramovich hadn’t been sanctioned—yet. What Dayan failed to disclose was that two weeks prior to the Russian invasion, he and other beneficiaries of Abramovich’s largesse in Israel petitioned the U.S. embassy to keep him from being sanctioned.
But now that the U.K. announced it was freezing all of Abramovich’s assets and imposing a travel ban on him and his one-time business partner, industrialist Oleg Deripaska, Yad Vashem responded that it was suspending the ambitious partnership.
While I welcome the news, it’s too little too late.
The fact that Yad Vashem, a nonprofit, non-partisan foundation, would do the bidding for a man linked to corrupt financial activity and the Kremlin proves dirty money can soil even the cleanest of hands.
I spoke with Polish journalist, Jewish activist and author of Living in the Land of Ashes Konstanty Gebert about Yad Vashem’s lobbying against sanctions. He said, “Never has moral authority been squandered that fast. It is as if the Vatican had interceded in favor of the Gambino [crime] family because they are all good Catholics.”
It also raises the question: should nonprofits be taking money from those linked to criminal enterprises, let alone lobby for them?
No, says anti-corruption activist Bill Browder, who created the Magnitsky Act to sanction Russian officials implicated in the death of his tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 for fighting oligarch theft and plunder. “Nobody would take money from the Columbian drug cartel. The same should apply to Russian oligarchs.”
Abramovich’s proactive use of Yad Vashem to get ahead of the sanctions and sanitize his world standing is “reputation laundering,” as Casey Michel called it in his book America Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History. It’s a well-known playbook, Michel argued, citing a litany of Russian oligarchs who have sought to whitewash their dirty deeds through philanthropy, turning our most vaunted cultural institutions into “reputation laundering factories” that attract the same sketchy agents who have already poured their ill-gotten funds into American hedge funds, real estate, and shell companies, according to a 2020 report by the Anti-Corruption Data Collective.
“Any institution, regardless of its area of focus, should refrain from taking Russian oligarchic money,” Michel said. “All of these oligarchs made their wealth through either political connections to the Kremlin, links to organized crime, or both. And we know that they have spent years attempting to launder their reputations—and the reputation of the Kremlin—through their donations to Western nonprofits.”
“There is no sanitation possible for the invasion,” Ben Ferencz—the only remaining prosecutor from the Nuremberg war crimes trial and the chief prosecutor for the U.S. Army at the Einsatzgruppen trial—told me. As for the oligarchs’ claims that they have nothing to do with Putin or his war in Ukraine, Ferencz adds: “I don’t buy it. What they’re saying and doing have nothing to do with each other. They think that they can get away with murder, but murder is murder, and they should be put on trial.”
At the very least, their names shouldn’t be gracing the boards of our most respected institutions. Among the beneficiaries of monies donated by oligarchs, who were later implicated in foreign interference operations and sanctioned, are George Washington University, Cornell and NYU, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kennedy Center, and the Guggenheim. Even pro-democracy think tanks like the Atlantic Council and the Council of Foreign Relations have taken oligarchs’ cash.
I applaud those who have since distanced themselves from oligarchs, like the Guggenheim, which announced the resignation of Vladimir Potanin from its board after a 20-year tenure, and pledged to return a portion of his donations. The Royal Academy of London also tendered the resignation of its trustee, Alfa-Bank head Petr Aven. The Kennedy Center, MIT, the Museum of Modern Art and the Clinton Foundation all reported that they stopped receiving donations from oil tycoon Viktor Vekeslberg when he was sanctioned in 2018 “for operating in the energy sector of the Russian Federation economy,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Already, some of the sanctioned oligarchs are trying to rehabilitate their images and fortunes.
Mikhail Fridman, co-founder of Alfa-Group and one of the creators of the Genesis Prize (which Time dubbed the “Jewish Nobel Prize”), who also funded the memorial at the Holocaust site Babin Yar (which was bombarded by Russian missiles), is throwing his charity rubles around to try to cover up the news that he found himself locked out of the company he founded in London last week. Along with his sanctioned cronies Avn and German Kahn (chairman of Russia’s third-largest oil company, TNK Oil), Fridman announced last week that the three are donating $10 million to Ukraine’s Jewish community.
But what is the point of giving to a community while fueling the very mechanism of its destruction? What does $10 million in charity mean when it comes from men whose combined net worth is estimated to be $21 billion—accrued at the expense of Russian citizens whose average annual income hovers below $11,000? Isn’t it time to stop pretending there’s anything benevolent about men whose fortunes are enabling one of the worst humanitarian disasters to hit Europe since World War II?
There are many lessons to learn from the Holocaust, but one that resonates is the great evil caused by unchecked political power coupled with outsize economic wealth.
“The story of the Holocaust isn’t of great suffering and mass extermination,” the late survivor Kitia Altman once told me as she tried to explain the mechanisms of the Nazi slave labor enterprise that imprisoned her and my own mother. “The Holocaust is the story of greed and corruption.”
The network of camps she and my mother barely survived isn’t well known. Its name, Organization Schmelt, sounds more like a type of herring than the SS Oberfuhrer and former Gestapo head from Wroclaw, Poland, after whom it was named.
According to Yad Vashem scholar Bella Gutterman’s book, A Narrow Bridge to Life, Schmelt sought to fill his and his superior SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler’s coffers by creating an independent enterprise of forced labor camps where he could exploit Jewish youth and stash away the profits he plundered in a secret account—unknown even to the central SS authority—and that would allow him to expand his influence throughout Silesia and into Sudetenland. As he wooed industrialists to his ambitious scheme of slave labor to the benefit of the Reich, “his organizations’ profits skyrocketed.”
Of course, none of the Jewish teenagers who were smuggled to these remote camps and were worked nearly to death knew they were pawns of Nazi greed. But the German industrialists who competed to run the slave labor factories in what grew to be a constellation of 177 camps— thanks to lucrative contracts with the Wehrmacht (German military) and financing from Deutsche Bank—sure did.
Altman argued that had German industrialists not colluded with Hitler, the Nazis would never have had the resources to kill 6 million Jews, let alone funnel hundreds of thousands of Jewish youth (like herself and my mother) into work camps where they fought for their lives and endured unspeakable brutality.
Germany’s business elites met with Hitler before the March 1933 election, intoxicated by his vow to eradicate trade unions and communists (code for Jews). They contributed a combined 3 million reichsmarks (roughly $30 million today) to the Nazi cause.
Gustav Krupp, who was the first to pledge 1 million reichsmarks, was made Hitler’s fuhrer of industry, becoming a key arms supplier of the Wehrmacht. Another company that was vital to the Nazis was I.G. Farben, whose huge cash infusions—4.5 million reichsmarks by the end of 1933— also aided Hitler’s rise. The chancellor rewarded his donors by allowing them to operate the Monowitz slave labor camp at Auschwitz and contracted them to manufacture Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers.
Of course after the war, these titans of German industry disavowed knowledge of the war crimes their money fueled (and for which they were charged at the Nuremberg Trials), much in the way so many oligarchs now are claiming they have nothing to do with Putin—and if anything are against the war and are working to broker peace and providing humanitarian aid.
Their words aren’t only empty, they are disgraceful. It’s a form of reparations without any admission of guilt or wrongdoing, and that’s something Ferencz, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, establishing every human being’s inalienable rights to freedom, dignity and equality, and negotiated the terms of restitution to victims of Nazi slave labor after the Holocaust, would know.
“They [the Russian oligarchs and the businessmen who colluded with the Nazis] have a lot of common,” said Ferencz. “They want power and wealth, and are willing to look the other way as innocent people including mothers and children are killed, and thousands are dying.” That is until sanctions were mentioned, and they suddenly became “peacemakers,” as Abramovich claims he is—though one has to wonder how he can broker peace with Putin if he also has nothing to do with him.
That sort of posturing reminds Ferencz of his dealings with Alfred Krupp, who reigned over an empire of slave labor camps while pleading innocent to war crimes. “He denied everything, but I had files of their corporate records, and everything had to go through him,” Ferencz says. “I asked him, ‘I see from your correspondence, that you had to sign off on all the slave labor your firm used.’ He denied it.”
Any cultural institution that accepts funds from Putin’s “financial trustees,” as Browder calls the oligarchs, is an enabler of his war crimes. Just as Hitler used Krupp to soften his image among Germany’s elites, Putin has dispatched his oligarchs to be his cultural emissaries, buying influence in our top-tier political, cultural and social institutions and desensitizing us to his ultimate goals—undermining Western democracy and numbing us to his crimes against humanity. That must end now.
Giving comes with strings attached, and when it’s blood money, its stain can never be erased, as Altman said in a thunderous voice. Or as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskyy tweeted the day Russian missiles rained down on Babin Yar—the ravine where nearly 34,000 Jews were massacred over the course of two days during the Holocaust and whose oligarch-funded memorial was left miraculously unscathed—why say “never again” while enabling 80-year old history to repeat itself?
“We've now seen the result [of enabling Western institutions to be bought by Putin’s henchmen], with the bodies continuing to pile up in Ukraine following Russia's invasion,” says Michel. “There is zero reason these nonprofits should have taken this money in the first place—and now they have a moral imperative to return it. “
I get that this is a hard time for cultural institutions like Yad Vashem, whose public funding has weathered two years of a global pandemic at a time of surging anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and far-right extremist violence. But when money is funneled through questionable means by a man linked to the Kremlin—implicated in inciting far-right, anti-Semitic, extremist violence—its hallowed place as a conveyer of Holocaust memory and center for international learning about genocide demands a higher ethical bar, not a lower one.
“Those businesses have blood on their hands,” Altman said of the German industrialists that gave Hitler the raw materials he needed to kill millions. “And no amount of reparations can erase it.”
Or as Ferencz wrote in the preface for his book, Less Than Slaves, about his efforts to seek compensation for Holocaust survivors enslaved by I. G. Farben, Krupp, AEG, Rheinmetall and Daimler-Benz, “the German term for the varied restitution programs, Wiedergutmachung, literally means ‘making good again.’ But it was a ‘Mission Impossible’ since the harms sought to be remedied can never be made good again.”
I thought of Ferencz and Altman’s words as President Joe Biden announced sanctions last week, and the world rallied to enforce them, isolating Putin and Russian businesses to the point where the ruble has lost its value. Today’s news of U.K. sanctions against Abramovich and six others, coupled with the recent U.S. ban on Russian oil, further lifted my spirits.
If only the world had responded to Hitler in the same way.