CNN  — 

Their names are etched in stone alongside some of the most powerful people and companies in American history – the Rockefellers, the Walgreens, and the Coca-Cola company.

They’ve sponsored fellowships at Ivy League schools, have educational centers named after them, and sit on the boards of leading cultural institutions in the United States and Western Europe. They’re celebrated philanthropists and patrons of the arts.

But there’s something else these donors share that other well-heeled benefactors do not: Deep financial ties to Russia.

While there is nothing new about the reputation laundering of the oligarch class, it is facing renewed scrutiny in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The recent renaming of the “Russian Lounge” at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts underscores the sensitivity surrounding such relationships.

Vladimir Potanin acquired his “philanthropic leadership” at the Kennedy Center – where his name is inscribed on the polished marble walls along with General Motors, Boeing and Capital One – with a $5 million donation in 2011.

Potanin – Russia’s wealthiest businessman who plays hockey with Putin and has so far dodged Western sanctions – made his fortune devising a system for Russian business leaders to loan money to the cash-strapped administration of then-president Boris Yeltsin in the mid-’90s. When Russia could not repay the loans, the businessmen were allowed to buy key state assets for pennies on the dollar. At the time, Potanin and his business partner bought 38% of the mining and metal company Norilsk for $170.1 million, a stake that would be worth nearly $20 billion 15 years later.

Around the time of the Kennedy Center donation, he said that he hoped it would “present an image of contemporary Russia to the American audience, stepping beyond the clichés about our country.”

But contributions like this appear to serve another purpose.

It is “the classic example of essentially trying to buy a better reputation … to distract from the fact that you’re still very much tied to an authoritarian regime,” said Jordan Gans-Morse, professor of corruption in the post-Soviet era at Northwestern University.

An old American playbook

Potanin, who was identified by the US Treasury Department in 2018 as one of nearly a hundred influential Russian billionaires with close ties to the Kremlin, isn’t the first or only oligarch to use his wealth to attempt to sway the opinion of Western elite. In fact, it’s a page straight out of an old American playbook.

Nineteenth century robber barons famously splashed their names across orchestra halls and museums to shed their reputations as ethically dubious industrialists who amassed enormous wealth on the backs of America’s most vulnerable. It worked: When most Americans hear the name Andrew Carnegie, they probably think of Carnegie Hall or Carnegie Mellon and not one of the deadliest labor confrontations in American history, which occurred at one of his steel plants in 1892.

A more recent example is the way the Sackler family behind Purdue Pharma reportedly donated tens of millions of dollars in what critics say was an effort to obscure the deadly legacy of its blockbuster drug OxyContin. Prestigious Western cultural institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris, have had to reckon with donations from the Sackler family in the aftermath of the opioid crisis. The National Portrait Gallery in London turned down a $1.3 million donation from the family in 2019 and others have also pledged not to take Sackler money in the future.