It did not take long for the tremors from Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolling into Ukraine to reach the British arts sector, long a beneficiary of Russian money. Institutions including the Tate and Royal Academy ended ties with Russian oligarchs and donors, including Petr Aven and Viktor Vekselberg.
But it appears the war has also led to questions about the role of Sir Leonard Blavatnik – listed by the Sunday Times as Britain’s richest man. While not on any sanctions list, the Ukrainian-born billionaire’s links to sanctioned Russian oligarchs were the focus of discussion among officials involved in a multimillion pound donation by him that helped ensure a trove of literary treasures were saved for the nation.
Blavatnik’s gift last year – the largest given by an individual to the UK for a literary treasure – amounted to half of the £15m raised by a national libraries charity, which saved the collection known as the Honresfield Library from being sold abroad. It is being shared with major UK cultural institutions, including the British Library.
However, correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that his Russian links were the subject of discussions at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in the days after the invasion of Ukraine.
“Do we know if the Blavatnik money has been paid for the Honresfield yet?” a senior official at the NLS wrote to the chief executive of the library, Amina Shah, on 28 February.
The official, the NLS director of business support Anthony Gillespie, added: “Blavatnik is a longtime friend and business partner of Ukrainian-born Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia’s richest men, who is close to Russian president Vladimir Putin and some other Russian-associated oligarchs being under western sanctions for support of totalitarian regimes and criminal activities.”
The NLS has since responded that Gillespie’s query to Shah “was of a procedural nature regarding whether there was a risk to the sale going through during a time when sanctions were being considered by the UK and other governments”. There is no suggestion Blavatnik is actively being considered for sanction.
Blavatnik’s name has become a near-omnipresent fixture at major British cultural sites as a result of his philanthropy.
After he made a £50m donation towards the new extension at Tate Modern, it was renamed the Blavatnik Building in 2017.
But his philanthropy has not gone without comment. Criticism has often followed his donations, especially when it involves institutions naming buildings after him.
In 2017, a leading political academic quit the University of Oxford – which benefited from £75m to set up the Blavatnik school of government – after it emerged that the billionaire had donated $1m (£800,000) to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee. Two years earlier, a collection of critics issued an open letter about his donation to the university, urging it to “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”. At the time Blavatnik made it clear he was not an associate of Putin.
Other correspondence released under FoI by the NLS gives a hint of the sensitivity attached to Blavatnik’s name.
Heavily redacted emails between NLS officials discussing the press release around the library donation, and the subsequent press reporting, include one that states: “Love the phrasing ‘Known as the Blavatnik Honresfield Library (formerly Honresfield Library)’ as if they literally didn’t just name it that and are very clearly trying to keep the name of a republican-supporting Ukrainian oligarch out of the headlines.”
While the name of the sender and recipient of the email was redacted, the apparently sarcastic comment was made in the context of NLS officials internally discussing a press release announcing the raising of money to save the Honresfield Library. Other correspondence reflected an eagerness on the part of the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) that any written references refer to the Honresfield Library as the “Blavatnik Honresfield Library”.
Those involved in the Blavatnik donation pointed out that he was a US and UK citizen, that it was made by his US charitable foundation and was given to the FNL at the beginning of November 2021, months before Russia invaded Ukraine.
A spokesperson for Blavatnik, who was knighted in 2017, said his relationship with Vekselberg is limited to an indirect minority interest in a company in which Vekselberg also holds an interest.
They added: “Sir Leonard has been actively trying to dispose of his interest for over three years while acting under explicit authorisation granted by the US Treasury department. For clarity, Sir Leonard’s personal and commercial activities are not, and have never been, involved with Putin, Russian politics, or the Russian government.
“Sir Leonard and the Blavatnik Family Foundation believe that what is happening in Ukraine is heartbreaking and he condemns the ongoing violence. Along with all fellow American and British citizens, Sir Leonard hopes and prays that the conflict ends quickly and that peace returns to Ukraine.”
In the meantime, the Blavatnik Family Foundation has donated millions of dollars to a range of charitable organisations working to assist Ukrainian refugees.