For Denis Aven, Yale was a great place. He had friends, cash in his pocket, and cachet. Her Campus, a women’s college magazine, even singled him out in 2014 as “a Campus Cutie” who studied economics, spent spring break in Mexico, and seemed like “a worldly European.”
Yet Aven (class of 2016) is more than a worldly European. Like his twin sister, Daria, who also graduated from Yale, Denis is a child of sanctioned billionaire Petr Aven, the former head of Russia’s largest private-sector bank, and a member of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The Aven twins, in fact, are part of a rarefied breed: the sons and daughters of oligarchs whose immense wealth may have helped secure them a safe berth in the always-tough-to-enter Ivy League.
But the immense wealth of the oligarchs has brought problems to Yale. It now appears that the hunger of university officials for the cash of these kleptocrats—especially within its staid School of Management—led administrators to knowingly give the Kremlin and Putin’s cronies influence over the school, and thereby risk its integrity.
Greasing the way for your kid to get into an Ivy is not new. (Just ask George W. Bush or Stephen Schwarzman.) Yet, these days, Yale seems to have more than its share of students and alumni who are the children of oligarchs. There’s Irina Vekselberg (School of Management class of 2005) and her younger brother, Aleksander Vekselberg (Yale class of 2011), the children of sanctioned aluminum czar Viktor Vekselberg.
There’s Laura Fridman (class of 2015) and Katia Fridman (class of 2018), daughters of sanctioned multi-conglomerate kingpin Mikhail Fridman. There’s Denis and Daria Aven. There’s Alexander Abramov Jr. (class of 2014), son of steel czar Alexander Abramov. And there’s Laila Blavatnik (class of 2024), daughter of billionaire investor Len Blavatnik. (Alexander Abramov and Len Blavatnik, who is not a Russian citizen, have not been sanctioned.)
And it’s the university’s connections to these billionaires that have some faculty questioning the resulting ties to the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, a Kremlin-linked institution, seats on Yale boards, and the possibility of an outsize influence over the school.
“We worked a lot with the development office because we wanted to build a relationship,” says Viktor Vekselberg’s daughter, Irina, when she describes Yale’s desire to have deeper ties with Russia. “We went to prominent people. [The development office] had their own list,” she explains. (In other words, she and her father tapped their peers while Yale drew up its own list of wealthy contenders.) The academics were not entirely naïve, however. As Irina puts it, “Yale didn’t want politically connected people.” (A Yale spokesperson says, “We are not able to confirm such conversations.”)
However you characterize these men’s ties to Putin, the origins of their wealth are clear. Fridman (estimated worth: $10.4 billion) is a longtime business partner of Aven’s (estimated worth: $4.4 billion), who is an avid art collector with a Surrey estate who ran Russia’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank. (Alfa Bank has supported Evraz, the steel-and-mining group now accused of helping to provide materials used by the Russian military in the invasion of Ukraine.)
Abramov (estimated worth: $6.9 billion) is a business partner of now sanctioned Roman Abramovich and owns a significant stake in Evraz. Among a long list of shady dealings he’s been accused of is conspiring with Vekselberg (estimated net worth: $16.8 billion) to bribe Ukrainian officials in connection with the nationalization of the steel-and-iron manufacturer Nikopol. (Both men denied the accusations.)
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, many of these oligarchs’ names have disappeared from their previously prominent places on Yale boards and councils. As recently as late February, Aven and Abramov were listed as members of Yale’s President’s Council on International Activities. And then they weren’t.
When asked why the men’s names were no longer publicly displayed, a Yale spokesperson said “both men’s terms expired last year,” apparently unaware of the fact that the terms were not set to expire until June 2022.
Meanwhile, Fridman’s name has vanished from the Yale Schwarzman Center Advisory Board, a group of “leading artists and arts supporters.” All that remains of Fridman’s, Aven’s, and Abramov’s connections to the university seems to be Yale Daily News clippings and departmental letters covering their presence at various events, such as the talk Fridman gave at the School of Management last April, or the time in 2018 when “long-time friend of the University, Petr Aven” (as he was referred to in a Department of Economics newsletter) endowed a professorship in the Department of Economics. (According to Yale, donors have to shell out $6 million to endow a professorship.)
When asked to confirm donations from Vekselberg, Abramov, Fridman, Aven, and Blavatnik, the school responded, “Yale generally does not discuss details of donor gifts.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, many of these oligarchs’ names have disappeared from their previously prominent places on Yale boards and councils.
While strategic Web-site scrubbing has so far been sufficient to keep Yale’s entanglement out of the news, the School of Management has had a far more difficult time trying to airbrush its deep Russian ties—specifically its partnership with the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo (commonly known simply as Skolkovo). According to a 2016 agreement, the School of Management and Skolkovo entered into an academic partnership whereby Yale and its professors were paid for teaching visits to Moscow.
After faculty pushback over the connection to the shady school, the partnership was ended in 2018. Then, quietly, Skolkovo was added to the Yale-created Global Network for Advanced Management, a collaboration of graduate schools of business, where it remained until after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Founded in 2006 by oligarchs and Russian businessmen, with the stated mission of developing middle-management workers for large corporations, Skolkovo has a board of directors that is a veritable Who’s Who of the sanctioned, including Andrei Fursenko (an executive aide to Putin), Igor Shuvalov (chairman of the state development corporation VEB), and Dmitry Medvedev (formerly a president and a prime minister of Russia and now deputy chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation). Sponsor companies include now pariahs Sberbank, VEB, and Rosneft, among others.
At least from the outside, everything seemed to be fine for Yale and its partnership—until Russia invaded Ukraine. Then, on March 8, the Global Network for Advanced Management’s steering committee released a statement announcing Skolkovo’s “suspension” and citing “the Russian economy.” Meanwhile, the dean of Skolkovo said he hoped classes would resume in the future. (Skolkovo did not respond to a request for comment.)
Dina Mayzlin, a former School of Management professor of Ukrainian descent who grew up in Moscow, was horrified. “[The statement] omits any mention of the close connection between the school leadership and the Russian government. This lack of transparency suggests to me that the Global Network for Advanced Management’s steering committee is either deeply embarrassed by its association with Skolkovo or plans to reinstate the connection as soon as possible.” (No one from the steering committee would speak on the subject.)
What Mayzlin does not say is that the School of Management’s connection with Skolkovo through the Global Network for Advanced Management is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Yale’s relationship with the sketchy Russian school.
The Development Office
The hidden story of Yale’s connection with Skolkovo begins on August 25, 2008, when Yale scheduled a development tour for associates of Viktor Vekselberg. This was 24 days after Russia started to shell Georgia. And it was the year that Yale would lose 25 percent of its endowment due to the Lehman Brothers–fueled crash of the stock market.
Yale needed money, and the School of Management, which was trying to raise its profile, was hungry for donors as well. For the Yale development office, Vekselberg—whose daughter, Irina, had graduated in 2005, and whose son, Aleksander, was currently attending the school—seemed like someone worth getting to know.
As to who approached whom first, neither side seems able to recall. But as Aleksander Vekselberg had begun studies on campus the year before, 2008 would’ve been a natural time for the school to welcome a relationship.
So, that day, the development office rolled out the red carpet for two of Vekselberg’s associates, his longtime lawyer Jay Haft and Olga Miller, president of Renova USA, the now sanctioned energy conglomerate that would eventually be the source of donations. As Irina explained, it’s common practice for gifts to come through the U.S. arms of businesses or foundations, which would explain why the Department of Education shows a grand total of zero gifts from Russia to Yale in its public records. (Meanwhile, in the last year and a half there were 173 Swiss—or catalogued as Swiss—donations, even though there were only 13 Swiss students enrolled the last time it was documented publicly, in 2018.)
The tour consisted of meetings with deans and department heads, and the plan, according to a document produced by Lucy Frost, the former senior director of principal gifts in Yale’s development office, was “for developing pilot programs at Yale that share Viktor Vekselberg’s vision of building bridges between Russia and the United States.”
The day included stops at the School of Music, the Department of Physics, the MacMillan Center (described on its Web site as the university’s “focal point” for international affairs), and the School of Management. It was understood that Vekselberg was going to start with small donations and test out the relationship, according to an anonymous source at Yale who was part of the visit. (A Yale spokesperson says that “philanthropic decisions are unique to each donor.”)
According to Frost, “Mr. Vekselberg was keen on exploring opportunities for connecting with Yale, philanthropically and otherwise. He really wanted to explore ways he could support the university beyond his wallet. He wanted to share his influence, if you will.” (Viktor Vekselberg could not be reached for comment.)
Or, as Irina puts it, her father wanted to stress the importance of connections. She tells the story of the time the Yale Symphony Orchestra attempted to set up a trip to Russia and one of the students had a visa issue. She explained, “You need some political connections to pull that through.”
Various department heads were called into duty for the tour. At the School of Music, Dean Robert Blocker greeted his guests with an air of gravitas. Haft and Miller spoke with him about longtime Putin friend and famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, proposing a visiting professorship. (Irina confirms that her father donated to the School of Music—a claim Dean Blocker originally denied but now confirms.)
At the Department of Physics, Vekselberg’s team agreed to fund a “pilot program” for around $60,000 in the form of visiting-professor scholarships, which would send three Russian scientists to Yale for short stays. The “metric of success” that Vekselberg set, says a Yale physics professor, included publications in recognized scientific journals. The money to cover housing, travel, and health insurance, on top of salaries, was tight, but it still offered the scientists more than they would make in a typical post-doctoral position in Russia.
While strategic Web-site scrubbing has so far been sufficient to keep Yale’s entanglement out of the news, the School of Management has had a far more difficult time trying to airbrush its deep Russian ties.
Other departments also partook of the largesse: Vekselberg helped to fund a 2010 Russian-artists residency at the Yale School of Drama, a 2011 Russian-film week, a 2015 Russian-studies project, and a contemporary-Russian-politics conference in 2016.
One person who had no interest in Vekselberg’s money on the day of the tour was the School of Management’s dean at the time, Joel Podolny—even though the stated purpose of the visit as listed on that development document was to “explore partnership opportunities with Moscow School of Management Skolkovo or other Russian business school.” While Podolny declined to speak for this article, according to people who know him, he felt money from Vekselberg would come with a burden. He was not willing to take money from a dodgy source. (By January of 2009, however, Podolny was gone from the School of Management, having taken a job as dean of Apple University, and the Yale-Skolkovo connection was later cemented.)
Vekselberg seems to have been associated with Skolkovo since its early days. At its first commencement ceremony, which took place in a suburb of Moscow, he presented purple-robed graduates with their diplomas and expressed his hopes the school would soon “have an international community of alumni on par with those of Yale and Harvard.”
More than that, however, Vekselberg was, it turns out, also the point person for a project of the Russian government that shares a name (as well as a murky association) with the business school—the Skolkovo Foundation.
The Skolkovo Foundation and the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo were both parts of Dmitry Medvedev’s plan in the late 2000s to bring the Russian economy into the 21st century. The goal was to create Russia’s own Silicon Valley, and to do this Vekselberg turned to Western universities.
In 2011, for example, the Skolkovo Foundation partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Vekselberg joined M.I.T.’s board two years later—and that’s where the story grows more strange. One of the most vocal opponents of that deal—and the person who pushed for Vekselberg’s 2018 removal from M.I.T.’s board—happens to be a Yale School of Management associate dean.
Lately, School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld has gone viral for his list of U.S. companies that have—and haven’t—withdrawn or suspended their business in Russia. Yet with all the attention going to this Yale professor’s “naughty or nice list,” another of his recent articles got lost in the fray.
On March 1, he co-authored a piece in Fortune in which he described the M.I.T.–Skolkovo Foundation deal. In exchange for M.I.T.’s sending professors and researchers to Russia to help build Skoltech—planned as a Russian version of M.I.T.—M.I.T. received an initial donation from the Skolkovo Foundation of $300 million, which was later followed by a $200 million donation from the Russian government, and then several installments of $20 to $50 million from the Skolkovo Foundation. (M.I.T. told Sonnenfeld that it shares a “profound commitment to protecting the interests of the United States in both security and competitiveness.”)
Skoltech’s 2018 annual report boasts how its M.I.T.-trained Russian researchers were now working in fields such as A.I., 5G, and genomics, and monetized their work with U.S.-sanctioned businesses such as Gazpromneft, Huawei, and Russia’s National Research Nuclear Institute.
At the School of Management, Sonnenfeld’s M.I.T. exposé landed like a bomb, making some Yale faculty nervous about the school’s deep ties to Skolkovo. While the Skolkovo school is technically separate from the foundation—as several Russian sources emphasized—the Skolkovo school shares a $250 million high-tech campus with Skoltech, and its International Advisory Committee consists of many of the same now sanctioned members as the Skolkovo Foundation’s board of directors.
Men such as Andrey Sharonov, who was the Skolkovo School of Management’s president until 2021, also sit on the foundation’s board of directors. In addition, Sharonov is vice president of Sberbank. Andrei Fursenko similarly sits on the boards of both the Skolkovo school and the foundation. He is an executive aide to Vladimir Putin and has long been considered one of the president’s closest advisers. He has been the subject of sanctions by the U.S. since 2014. Dmitry Medvedev also sits on Skolkovo’s board and serves as the foundation’s board chair. Medvedev is under U.K. sanction.
Still, despite these red flags, the Yale School of Management jumped into a partnership with the Skolkovo school in 2016. The dean of the School of Management at the time was Edward Snyder, who had come to Yale from serving as dean at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He was determined to put the School of Management on the world stage, and for him that meant building global networks. In 2012, he created the Global Network of Advanced Management, and he strategically asked Irina to join the Council of Global Advisors. He was interested in expanding the School of Management’s reach and developing a larger international network, according to sources at the School of Management.
“[A year later] I shared my reservations [with Snyder] about Skolkovo,” Irina says. “But he said, ‘We need a school in Russia,’ and he asked me which one.” Skolkovo, which Irina describes in our conversation as “scary” and “unknown,” was, she told him, really the only option.
School of Management professors started being approached to teach in a behavioral-insights program at Skolkovo, with some, such as Zoe Chance, feeling uncomfortable and refusing, and others, such as Shane Frederick, welcoming the free trip to Moscow. And then there were some, such as Ravi Dhar, who went and now want nothing to do with the topic. When I visited him at his office at the School of Management, he said he did not have time to speak with me. From behind a cracked door, I heard him say, “There’s someone in the hallway asking about Skolkovo.”
In the summers of 2016 and 2017, Yale and Skolkovo ran programs with a small team of School of Management professors who flew to Moscow. Skolkovo described the course as “Behavioral Economics Immersion” and “a joint educational programme” with the Yale School of Management to “study the basic principles of behavioural economics.” Yale professors who participated received reimbursements, though Frederick claims he was probably paid less than he normally would have been for a visiting professorship. “It was a very sterile place,” he says, describing being housed in a university dorm room.
Asked if Yale received money from Skolkovo, Snyder says, “We weren’t taking money,” stating that no money has been exchanged with any of the Global Network for Advanced Management schools in the last 10 years. “I won’t comment any further given that you obviously don’t believe what I say.”
Irina, however, says the opposite: “There is some sort of financial exchange between [the School of Management] and Skolkovo.”
A spokesperson for the School of Management confirmed that “the total revenue the program generated, through participant registration fees collected by Skolkovo, and the grants from Yale, was $626,000.”
The funding agreement, says Doug White, a former director of Columbia University’s Fundraising Management program, “absolutely raises red flags. What does Yale get from this? A half a million dollars? To Yale, that’s nothing.... Is their reputation worth it?”
Professors from Skolkovo also visited the School of Management in September of 2017. There were plans underway for the program’s renewal, and for more School of Management professors to go to Russia, in the summer of 2018.
Then, in the spring of 2018, Sonnenfeld was invited with four other School of Management colleagues to teach a summer management-partnership program at Skolkovo. It prompted him to fight to have Yale sever ties with the Russian school.
“I have been a professor for 42 years and served on A.A.C.S.B. [Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business] accreditation teams as well as the five-person board of trustees of the Academy of Management, with 30,000 global professors,” Sonnenfeld says. “But never heard of this Russian school.” He points out that Skolkovo was the only School of Management partner institution not academically accredited.
All five professors declined to go to Moscow, but not before Sharonov and a man named Clyde Tuggle showed up. Tuggle, who has a Yale divinity degree and had served as president of Coca-Cola’s Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus division, sat on the Yale President’s Council on International Activities with Abramov and Aven. Sonnenfeld refused to meet with them. A few weeks later, he saw that his name, as well as the names of his four colleagues, was still on Skolkovo’s Web site, even though they had already turned down the offer.
Sonnenfeld became focused on unraveling the mystery. Noticing the brand logos of Ernst & Young and Mastercard on Skolkovo’s Web site, Sonnenfeld reached out to the C.E.O.’s of those companies, Mark Weinberger and Ajay Banga. Both denied they supported the school.
Next, he reached out to “several State Department officials, from across three administrations, [who] all also advised distancing ourselves,” Sonnenfeld says. One of these individuals was Robert Hormats, who was Under Secretary of State for Economic and Energy Affairs to Hillary Clinton and who lectures at the School of Management. Over the phone with me, he denied knowing anything about Skolkovo or Yale’s connection to the institution, which suggests that even in Washington there is sensitivity around these partnerships.
In the spring of 2018, Sonnenfeld presented his findings to the Deans’ Council at the School of Management. The group voted to end the partnership, and it was officially terminated on April 23. Snyder was on leave at the time, with the co-author of Sonnenfeld’s Fortune article, Anjani Jain, in his place.
Then, in 2019, Snyder returned from leave to work at the School of Management. At this point, Vekselberg had been sanctioned by the United States, partly for his connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and Rosneft had been sanctioned since 2014. Snyder immediately added Skolkovo to the Global Network for Advanced Management, even though it was the only university out of 32 that was not accredited. Skolkovo continued to be a member of the network up until March 8 of this year.
Really, though, at least since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the sentiment about university partnerships with organizations so closely tied to the Kremlin had changed. When the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev came to the Yale campus in January of 2015, he was met by a small group of student protesters holding signs reading: 4,700 killed in Putin’s war against Ukraine and Russia, pull out your troops now. (In recent weeks, Gergiev has been dropped by the Munich Philharmonic after refusing to condemn the war in Ukraine.)
And then there’s Oleksii Antoniuk, a sophomore at Yale University. He’s from western Ukraine, where his father remains, though his mother has fled to Poland. I ask him if he has thought about going home to fight.
“I’m not a trained soldier. If I go back home, I would not be able to fight,” he says.
Antoniuk thinks he can make a bigger impact by staying in the United States. He says that after getting off the phone with me, he is going to the admissions office to pressure them to let in more students from war zones. He said he wasn’t opposed to Yale’s admitting children of oligarchs—if those children go through the normal admission process—but stressed fairness. He thinks Yale needs to change its mission. As he says, “Yale has enough money to turn down the richest donor.”
Clara Molot is an Associate Editor at Air Mail and a graduate of Yale, class of 2021