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Special report: How Oxford partnered with Russian bank and Blavatnik

Maurício Alencar reports.

This investigation was made possible by all those who provided information to Cherwell. Special mentions must be attributed to our excellent news editors Charlie Hancock and Pieter Garicano, as well as our marvellous legal adviser Petra Stojnic.

Oxford University opened the Blavatnik School of Government (BSG) in 2010, a new landmark institution named after a benefactor whose fortune was largely built in Russia. In the same year, the Oxford Saïd Business School was entering another year of a partnership with the recently sanction-hit Russian bank Alfa Bank owned by oligarch Mikhail Fridman, a partnership which ended in 2011.

Speaking to Cherwell, Vladimir Milov, Alexei Navalny’s chief economic adviser and a former Russian deputy energy minister, named the three individuals, responsible for the BSG’s opening and the Saïd Business School’s partnership with Alfa Bank.

He told Cherwell: “I can tell you that I think by any reasonable standards, Oxford did not do a proper due diligence on Fridman, Aven, or Blavatnik.”

Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven are the founders of Alfa Bank, the largest private bank in Russia. Both oligarchs have been sanctioned by the U.K. Oxford’s Saïd Business School partnered with Alfa Bank to create an annual “Award for Excellence in Foreign Investment in Russia”. 

Leonard Blavatnik is a Ukrainian-born billionaire who has shared close business links to sanctioned Russian oligarchs. A citizen of the UK and USA, he owns major Western companies, such as Warner Music Group and DAZN. 

Following Cherwell’s discovery of Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin’s £3 million donation to Teddy Hall and $150,000 to the Saïd Business School, Cherwell has traced the origins of Oxford University’s ties to Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, and Leonard Blavatnik. 

This investigation into the foundation of the Blavatnik School of Government and the Saïd Business School’s partnership with Alfa Bank reveals:

  • The full story of how Blavatnik’s multi-million pound donations were accepted 
  • A former BSG professor, who resigned in 2017, criticises Blavatnik
  • The BSG invited a controversial former minister in Putin’s government for a “special masterclass”
  • How a critic of the BSG was silenced on multiple occasions
  • Fresh condemnation by ex-Oxford academics and key opponents to Putin’s government
  • Oxford representatives attending ceremonies at a Russian government palace

Sir Leonard Blavatnik: the ‘non-oligarch’ who made billions in deals with Russian oligarchs 

“He made his money [in Russia].”  

Viktor Vekselberg

Leonard Blavatnik grew up in the Ukrainian city of Odesa, then a part of the USSR. Blavatnik briefly studied at the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering, before emigrating to the US in 1978 with his family. There, he studied at Columbia and Harvard Business School. 

Blavatnik’s fortunes multiplied after his holding company, Access Industries, teamed up with Viktor Vekselberg’s holding company, Renova Group. Viktor Vekselberg was recently sanctioned by the UK government.

Blavatnik and Vekselberg’s company Sual Partners, which Blavatnik still “jointly controlled” up until at least 2019, held a 26.5% stake in Rusal, the world’s second largest aluminium company, based in Russia. Blavatnik was also on the Rusal board up until 2016. Rusal’s founder is Oleg Deripaska, who has also been sanctioned by the UK. 

Today, Blavatnik holds an indirect stake of approximately 8% in Rusal. Blavatnik’s spokesperson told Cherwell that he has been “actively engaged” in trying to dispose of this stake, but he has been prevented by other stakeholders. He left the aluminium company’s board in 2016. Blavatnik’s spokesperson informed Cherwell that he has had “no active, managerial, or operational decision-making role in the company since 2007”, and that he has “proactively stepped back from his role within the company”.

In 1997, Blavatnik and Vekselberg added a member to their partnership, teaming up with Mikhail Fridman to buy a joint 40% stake in TNK, an oil company which had been owned by the Russian state. Fridman, who is another UK-sanctioned oligarch, completed the trio consortium, the AAR (Alfa Group, Access Industries, Renova Group), who would go on to accumulate billions together. 

The AAR partnered with BP in 2003 to create TNK-BP. However, after harassment forced CEO Robert Dudley out of Russia in 2008, TNK-BP was sold to Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft in 2012. BP were partly paid through shares, which they are to “offload” due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

AAR was paid in cash. Blavatnik, Vekselberg, and Fridman received over $27 billion. Reuters reported that Putin “blessed the deal”.  Milov told Cherwell that this value was “an extreme excess of 40-60% above the market price”. He said he has never been able to understand the reason why Igor Sechin, the sanctioned CEO of Rosneft, paid this “premium” price. 

Despite the web of business connections between sanctioned oligarchs and Blavatnik, Blavatnik’s PR team insist that Blavatnik is not an oligarch. His representatives emphasise he has no personal, political or commercial ties whatsoever to Putin, or Putin’s government. Blavatnik is not a Russian citizen, but is a US and UK citizen. His spokesperson emphasised that “less than 1%” of his holding company’s investments are “Russian-related”.

In reaction to Vladimir Milov’s comments, the spokesperson pointed to Alexei Navalny’s own comments provided to the FT: “As far as Russia and I are concerned, he’s [Blavatnik] not a political oligarch. He isn’t buying newspapers here, he isn’t intimidating journalists, he basically isn’t involved with Putin.” 

Over the last decade, Len Blavatnik has integrated himself into the West, presenting himself as a modern investor and dedicated philanthropist. The Blavatnik Family Foundation has made sizable investments into Harvard University, the New York Academy of Sciences, Oxford University, and other institutions, totalling around $900 million. 

In 2010, the Blavatnik School of Government formally opened. Len Blavatnik was knighted in 2017 by the Queen for his philanthropy.

The Blavatnik School of Government, located just round the corner from Somerville College.
Image Credit: Martin Cooper/CC BY 2.0 via WikiMedia Commons

Some controversies surround Sir Leonard Blavatnik today. He is listed as one of the producers of a Russian war film, T-34, which the Ukrainian embassy in the US urged cinemas not to screen. Panama Papers also show a possible indirect link between former Russian minister Alexander Makhonov, who was forced to resign in 2017, and Blavatnik’s giant Russian streaming platform Amediateka.  

In 2017, it surfaced that Blavatnik made a $1 million donation to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee after Trump had been elected. 

Professor Bo Rothstein resigned from the Blavatnik School of Government after finding this out, saying at the time that “Donald Trump’s policies are antithetical to the goal of the Blavatnik School of Government, which aims to improve the quality of government and public policy-making”. Ngaire Woods, the Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, responded in an official statement: “Mr Blavatnik is entitled to make donations and give support to whichever politician he chooses”. 

Blavatnik’s spokesperson told Cherwell: “Sir Leonard Blavatnik has made donations to both Democrats and Republicans. The Trump campaign never received any financial support from this donation.”

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rothstein told Cherwell: “Since Mr Blavatnik is from Ukraine, I find it a bit strange that I have not been able to find any support for Ukraine or any statement against the invasion from him. If I would still have been at the Blavatnik School, I would have worried that this is because Mr Blavatnik has some connections to the Putin regime that he does not want to put at risk.”

Rothstein added: “Given his enormous wealth, one would have expected a large donation to help the Ukrainian people in this very horrible situation.”

Sir Leonard Blavatnik’s spokesperson emphatically stated that Rothstein’s claim linking Putin to Blavatnik was “false and unfounded”. The spokesperson also said that the Blavatnik Family Foundation has donated “millions of dollars” to charitable organisations working to “assist Ukrainian refugees”, such as Save the Children, the International Red Cross Committee, and Doctors without Borders.

“Sir Leonard believes that what is happening in Ukraine is absolutely unimaginable and, along with all fellow Americans and British nationals, hopes and prays that the conflict ends quickly and that all Ukrainian citizens are once again able to live their lives in peace and freedom. 

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia is causing a humanitarian catastrophe to unfold in Europe. The University will support and comply with all sanctions introduced in the current crisis. We have not received any donations from sanctioned individuals or organisations. 

“Sir Leonard Blavatnik is the founding donor of the Blavatnik School of Government and without his generosity, the creation of the School would not have been possible. He has always respected the academic independence of the School and never attempted to direct its activities. The School will continue to be named after him.”

Sir Leonard Blavatnik declined Cherwell’s request for an interview. 

Who carried out due diligence on Mr Blavatnik? 

“There is no point in disclosing the names of the CRD since they did not conduct the due diligence.”

Internal Oxford email

For Oxford University to accept a donation, the Development Office, with advice from the Legal Services Office, must create a due diligence report for the Committee to Review Donations (CRD) to either approve or reject. 

The University’s freedom of information responses state that the jobs of “relatively junior staff” in the Development Office are of a “lower level of responsibility”, meaning that they are not able to publicly release details of individuals who conduct due diligence reports. 

However, the guidelines for the Committee to Review Donations are publicly available. Yet it seems that the University dramatically changed the CRD guidelines in 2015, following an earlier change in late 2008 or early 2009.

The previous CRD guidelines, from 2009-2015, explicitly state that “donations will not be accepted… not because there is a concern about the source of the funds, but because this could create a conflict of interest”. 

The committee is made up of external appointed persons and “members of the Congregation who shall represent the divisions”. 

Two CRD meetings were held to review proposed donations by Len Blavatnik. 

Retired academic and Oxford alumnus Martin Dewhirst submitted various FOI requests between August 2015 and September 2016 for full information regarding due diligence into Mr Blavatnik’s donations. 

The names of the individuals within the Development Office who initially submitted a report of due diligence to CRD could not be revealed under section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act. An internal email reasons that relevant individuals are “relatively junior staff”. However, Cherwell can reveal the names of those who sat on CRD in 2008 and 2010, the two years where Blavatnik’s donations were reviewed by the committee.

2007/08 CRD members reviewing Mr Blavatnik's donations:

Dr John Hood, Vice-Chancellor
of Oxford University
Dr Jon Dellandrea, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University
Sir Victor Blank 
Former chairman of Lloyds TSB, who was pressured to resign. 
Robin Butler
House of Lords crossbencher and former PM Private Secretary
Andrew Goudie 
Former Master of St Cross College  and Geography academic 
Julian Savulescu
St Cross College fellow and biomedical ethics academic

2009/10 CRD members reviewing Mr Blavatnik's donations:

Ivor Roberts
Former President of Trinity College and British Ambassador 
Jessica Rawson
Fromer Warden of Merton College and art historian 
Julian Savulescu
St Cross College fellow and biomedical ethics academic
Timothy Endicott
Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford and All Souls Fellow
Irene Tracey
Head of Department of Clinical Neurosciences
Pauline Neville-Jones 
Baronness and former Counter Terrorism government minister

In a response to Dewhirst’s first FOI request in August 2015, it was stated that Professor Irene Tracey and Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones “sent their apologies for the 2010 meeting”. Cherwell was informed that at least two members did not attend meetings discussing Blavatnik’s donations to the University. 

The response to Dewhirst’s FOI request also revealed that there had been internal discussions via email about whether CRD member names should have been revealed or not. 

One email outlines that, of the nine CRD members, excluding Dr John Hood and Dr Jon Dellandrea, “who considered the donation”, six did not object to the inclusion of their name, one did not respond, and two objected “strongly”.

One of those who objected said they were “not happy at all” as it would be “misleading” to say that the CRD carried out due diligence on Blavatnik’s donations. 

The other individual who objected stated that they “don’t consent” to their name being released as they “did not evaluate the due diligence into the legality of the source of Mr Blavatnik’s funds”. They added that the responsibility of due diligence belonged to the Legal Services Office. 

Ilya Zaslavskiy, an anti-corruption campaigner and Oxford alumnus, noted that there were no Russian speakers on the committee. The University also confirmed in an FOI response that CEO Robert Dudley or any former TNK-BP employees were not “asked for views” on Blavatnik’s donations, and no “experts on the recent and contemporary history of Russia” sat on any committee. 

Peter Oppenheimer, formerly a fellow at Christ Church College, echoed Vladimir Milov’s criticism of Oxford University’s due diligence on Len Blavatnik’s donations. 

He told Cherwell: “Oxford’s purported mechanism for verifying the ethical acceptability of money that it receives is clearly deficient, if it indeed works at all. There is clearly a case [for renaming the BSG], and therefore this is a case which should be answered.”

Oppenheimer also questioned the academic advantages of the School: “The main thing to be condemned is that if you will be taking money from someone like Blavatnik, it should be taken for something which is an academic priority, not for objects which serve as some kind of prestige booster for the self-interested executive of the University. The fact that the DPIR said ‘we don’t want this’ was simply ignored.” 

Cherwell has sent an FOI request to the University to further understand the Department of Politics and International Relations’ (DPIR) position on the Blavatnik School of Government in 2008-09. 

A University of Oxford spokesperson stated: “The University of Oxford’s core objectives of teaching and research are supported to a significant extent by donations and research funding. The funds we raise help discover cures for debilitating disease, offer solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and assist worthy students, from diverse backgrounds, to obtain an Oxford education.  Our donors have no say in setting the research and teaching programmes of the posts or infrastructure they fund, nor do they have any access to the results of research, other than publicly available material.”

They added: “Decisions about significant donations are made by the University’s Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding, which includes independent, external representatives, who consider the reputational risks based on the source of the funding and its intended use in the University. We have robust and rigorous guidelines regarding the acceptance of donations and research funding.”

Cherwell has contacted all CRD members for comment.

Controversies surrounding 
the Blavatnik School of Government: 

BSG invited Putin minister for "special masterclass"

In 2013, Putin’s former financial minister Aleksey Kudrin was invited to the BSG to conduct “a special masterclass on his experiences in the Russian government”. Kudrin was Russia’s Minister of Finance between 2000 and 2011. 

Vladimir Milov informed Cherwell: “Kudrin was a pretty loyal servant of Putin. He helped him by consolidating a lot of money and petrol revenue in the so-called stabilisation fund.  He’s the architect of a system of control over key assets in the economy and a system which accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars, which really helped to strengthen Putin’s political control over Russia.”

A University spokesperson stated that a speaker invitiation does not equate to endorsement. 

Image Credit: Afeda/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dean of BSG sat down for interview with RT

The Dean of the BSG, Ngaire Woods, was interviewed by RT, Putin-backed broadcaster, in 2015. The Russian broadcaster recently had their Ofcom licence stripped the regulators took note of “RT’s relationship with the Russian Federation”. 

In the interview, Ngaire Woods, the Dean of the BSG, praised the institution in her interviw with RT: “In building the School, we are building scholarship programmes from each region of the world funded from each region of the world.”  

Alex Salmond and other British figures have long faced criticisim for appearing on RT.  

Professor Ngaire Woods has been contacted for comment. 

Image Credit; Manuel Lopez/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Silencing the critics: Blavatnik and Oxford’s PR battalions 

“These people have now proven that they will go to lengths to censor me.”

Ilya Zaslavskiy

In an FT profile on Blavatnik, Fox and Seddon wrote that Blavatnik’s “head of press relations asks reporters to confirm that Blavatnik will not be referred to as an oligarch in any article before agreeing to arrange potential interviews”. Connie Bruck of The New Yorker too was unable to secure an interview with Blavatnik, and afterwards referred to Blavatnik as an “oligarch” in her article.

When Prince William opened the Magdalen Longwall Library at the BSG, former Oxford student Martin Dewhirst told The Oxford Student:“A photographer from Cherwell was told in no uncertain terms not to photograph me and my placard in front of the BSG, even from the opposite side of the street.” Martin Dewhirst and Cherwell’s photographer were told that if pictures were taken, the photographer’s name would have been “taken by an employee”. 

Beyond Blavatnik, reporters and other researchers have encountered various stumbling blocks when confronting Oxford University administrators. 

In November 2010, Ilya Zaslavskiy met with Ngaire Woods. He told Cherwell that he was dismissed, and was told by Woods that “Blavatnik is not an angel but at least he is not as bad as his partner oligarchs”. Zaslavskiy commented: “That is her standard of global governance.” 

A spokesperson for Blavatnik stressed: “Sir Leonard’s personal and commercial activities are not involved with Putin, the Kremlin, Russian politics or the Russian government.”

In April 2012, Zaslavskiy set up a meeting with Chancellor Chris Patten and Michael Cunningham, Executive Director of Oxford’s North American Office. The meeting took place in a luxury hotel, where Zaslavskiy handed Patten and Cunningham a copy of a leaflet on Blavatnik and Alfa Bank. 

Zaslavskiy recalls: “They patronised me. Both of them essentially recommended that I keep quiet. Both promised to come back with follow up on my facts and due diligence, and never did.”

Zaslavskiy said he was also censored from commenting on the Oxford North American Office’s Facebook account. This occurred after he commented on a question “about due diligence and Blavatnik” under a photo of Blavatnik and Patten posted by the Oxford North American Office on Facebook. Zaslavskiy sent an email complaining about this “case of censorship”.

In 2016, Ilya was thrown out of an Oxford alumni fundraiser in Washington DC. He recalls how Cunningham rushed to him and grabbed him by the elbow and dragged him out. Both Chancellor Patten and Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson were present, as well as hundreds of other attendants. 

Speakers, including VC Louise Richardson, gather for Oxford North America alumni event.
Image Credit: Ilya Zaslavskiy

Prior to the meeting, Zaslavskiy submitted a public letter to VC Louise Richardson. In it, he says: “Vested interests within Oxford’s administration evidently believe they can easily sell University’s reputation in exchange for money and higher public and academic status.” 

University officials were evidently worried about Zaslavskiy’s presence at the event. A journalist, John Keenan, sent an FOI request regarding discussions about Ilya Zaslavskiy’s open letter to VC Louise Richardson. 

One unnamed individual stated: “We do not want the Washington DC programme to be soured by the campaigners’ intervention.” 

John Keenan told Cherwell: “Oxford University has to recognise that decisions on donations sends a message about its value. Is it happy that values are reflected in donations from oligarchs, and what that says now about the situation in Ukraine? They have to answer that themselves.” 

Cherwell approached Lord Chris Patten, Michael Cunningham, and Professor Ngaire Woods for an interview. Patten, Woods, and Cunningham declined the offer.

Oxford in Moscow: Partnering with oligarchs 

“It is not out of the ordinary to build links with corporate organisations in countries that are of research interest to the School.”

Oxford University in 2015.

Perhaps the murkiest partnership Oxford University has held is with Alfa Bank, belonging principally to Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven. Oxford’s Saïd Business School and Alfa Bank jointly awarded a prize to a “foreign investor in Russia” who has a “significant positive impact on the community, demonstrated by the size of the investment”. 

The award was first recorded in 2003, and the winner that year was Procter & Gamble. Other winners included Nestle, Intel, and McDonalds. Unilever was its last winner in 2011. A University spokesperson states that the Saïd Business School was not involved in a partnership in 2003. As recorded on the Alfa Bank website, the earliest year of the Oxford Saïd Business School’s involvement is 2007.

There is no information about the prize on the Saïd Business School website. A FOI response from the University to Ilya Zaslavskiy from October 2015 stated: “It would not be sufficiently relevant to mention on the School’s website. We have no website content about the award, and there is nothing that has been erased.” 

Links to the award continue to exist on Alfa Bank’s website. 

The 2011 awards ceremony took place at a Russian government palace, the Reception House of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ceremonies in other years also took place at this Russian palace.

Cherwell has seen one image which shows an Oxford University official, Dr Dana Brown, alongside oligarchs Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, standing in front of a billboard showing the Oxford University crest alongside the logo for Alfa Bank. Cherwell is unable to confirm what year this image dates from.

Speakers to have attended the prize event include former PM John Major (2005) and controversial attorney to Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani (2008). 

In the FOI response to Zaslavskiy, the University claimed they have “no available record of who carried out due diligence on Alfa Bank” or any “record of the reason” for the award to have ended in 2011. 

The exact terms of this deal between the Saïd Business School and Alfa Bank are inextricably unclear. The University told Zaslavskiy: “This award did not involve relationships with individuals or a legal partnership with Alfa Bank, but was about participation in an award scheme to recognise Excellence in Foreign Investment in Russia.”

Zaslavskiy told Cherwell: “Not only [Oxford] provides reputation laundering to kleptocrats and Putin’s cash handlers, but it gives them access and ability to penetrate the political establishment, co-opt high level administrators, officials and former politicians.”

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “Alfa Bank is not a donor to Oxford University.  The connection Saïd Business School had with Alfa Bank was over a decade ago, when a former Associate Fellow sat on Alfa Bank’s award selection committee for 3 years. This involvement ended in 2011. The School did not commit nor receive any money as part of that involvement. The only exception was payment for travel expenses to the Moscow awards ceremonies.”

Alfa Bank was contacted for comment. 

This article was updated at 15:00 on Tuesday 5 April to correct that Ngaire Woods declined an interview and to correct that Oxford’s partnership with Alfa Bank did not last 9 years.

The article was updated at 19:25 on Wednesday 6 April to add in extend Navalny’s comments and edit 3 phrases relating to Len Blavatnik.

Artwork by Ben Beechener.

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