Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Oxford University took millions from key ‘crony’ of Vladimir Putin

Labour MP calls for Oxford to donate oligarch’s money to an anti-corruption campaign

Jenna Corderoy profile2.jpg
Jenna Corderoy Martin Williams
7 March 2022, 1.08pm
The Vladimir Potanin Foundation donated to Oxford University's Saïd Business School
Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo

Oxford University accepted more than £3m in donations from a billionaire Putin “crony” who was accused in the UK Parliament of “robbing assets from the Russian people”.

Vladimir Potanin is one of Russia’s richest men, with a fortune of over $23bn. He served as the country’s deputy prime minister in the 1990s and is now president of one of the world’s largest metal producers, Norilsk Nickel.

The Russian oligarch’s £3m Oxford endowment, for an Earth Sciences fund, was first reported on Friday by the Cherwell student newspaper.

Now openDemocracy has discovered that the oligarch’s foundation donated a further $150,000 to an Oxford University fellowship scheme named in his honour.

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Responding to openDemocracy’s findings, Labour MP Margaret Hodge called on Oxford to “sever all ties with Potanin” and donate the money he gave to an anti-corruption organisation.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Hodge named Potanin in a list of oligarchs “who are involved in companies of strategic importance to the Russian economy” and who are “cronies of Putin, who are propping him up and allowing him to create havoc in Europe”.

“They have made their money only because they are close to the Kremlin,” she said, “and they sustain their wealth only because they remain close to the Kremlin.”

On Wednesday, it was announced that Potanin had stepped down as a trustee at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The museum did not say why he was leaving, but a statement said the Guggenheim “strongly condemns” the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Potanin’s 88-metre superyacht, Nirvana, was seen cruising in Maldives waters the same day.

The Vladimir Potanin Foundation’s $150,000 donation to the Oxford fellowship was revealed following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by openDemocracy. The money was used to fund a scheme at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, under which fellowships are awarded to “professionals working in Russia on projects addressing social challenges”.

They have made their money only because they are close to the Kremlin, and they sustain their wealth only because they remain close to the Kremlin

Speaking to openDemocracy, Margaret Hodge said: “If it is indeed true that Potanin has donated to Oxford University, I fully expect this venerable institution to do the right thing.

“Oxford should sever all ties with Potanin, call time on the scholarship in his name, and – instead of returning the money – why not donate it to an important anti-corruption campaigning organisation, like Spotlight on Corruption?”

Responding to questions from openDemocracy, Oxford University said it had also received a research grant from another Russian organisation that was worth more than £10,000.

But it refused to provide further details, saying it was “consulting with the organisation concerned” to decide whether to stay silent.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK has sanctioned 11 oligarchs with close links to the Kremlin. But despite calls for more restrictions, the government has so far been unable to sanction more individuals as it has struggled to build a case against them.

A spokesperson for Oxford’s Saïd Business School said: “We accepted a $150,000 grant from The Vladimir Potanin Foundation in 2017 for 15 Russian charity workers, selected by us, to attend our Oxford Social Finance Programme between 2017 and 2019. The grant process 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 Ukraine and hope a peaceful outcome is soon reached.”

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
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