Oligarch gets an assist from U.S. academics in whitewashing Russia’s reputation

The U.S. sanctioned former KGB agent Vladimir Yakunin years ago—but a number of U.S. professors are still working with his think tank.

Why are a series of American academics helping a Russian oligarch sanctioned by Washington? Getty Images / Illustration by Diana Ofosu
Why are a series of American academics helping a Russian oligarch sanctioned by Washington? Getty Images / Illustration by Diana Ofosu

Few figures in the Kremlin stand as close to the nexus of the trends defining modern Russia — rank kleptocracy, Western sanctions, a socially conservative agenda — as oligarch Vladimir Yakunin.

Yakunin, a one-time KGB general and former head of Russian Railways, has been close to President Vladimir Putin for decades, using that proximity to allegedly bilk staggering sums. He has devoted his wealth to a variety of causes: anti-LGBTQ campaigns and organizations; helping bring far-right Westerners to Russia; even reportedly building a mansion with an entire room devoted to his wife’s fur coat collection.

In the past few years, Yakunin has also funded the construction of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC-RI), a Berlin-based organization that describes itself as a think tank seeking to bridge the widening gaps between global “civilizations.” With additional offices in Moscow and Vienna, the organization claims it is attempting “to help make our world a more sustainable, inclusive, and fairer place for all humankind.”

But to critics, DOC-RI is little more than a soft face for Russian aggression — a front group trying to whitewash Russia’s reputation. “I’m absolutely sure that the [DOC-RI’s] main goal is to promote the Kremlin’s agenda, and it’s always been about that,” Olga Shorina, director of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation — an organization named for the former Russian opposition figure slain near the Kremlin in 2015 — told ThinkProgress.


The Kremlin has employed other tactics to spin its kleptocracy, such as hiring former European politicos as lobbyists, or waging fake social media campaigns. But there’s one stark difference between DOC-RI and the other Russian public relations efforts: in 2014, the U.S. sanctioned Yakunin, citing his role as Putin’s confidant.

And yet, even in the wake of the sanctions, DOC-RI nevertheless managed to recruit a number of academics from American universities to help lend the organization credence and expand its reach.

Some of the academics are listed as as “experts,” while others are listed as members of the group’s “program council.” One is even a member of DOC-RI’s “supervisory board.” And all are listed as working with an organization that, as Deutsche Welle wrote, was “founded and financed” by a man who maintained a far closer relationship with Putin than almost anyone else — and who is perhaps the most prominent former Russian official now sanctioned by the United States.

Dialogue with a kleptocrat

It’s worth noting at the outset that there is nothing illegal in the work these academics have done with the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. While Yakunin’s American assets have been frozen and he is prohibited from entering the U.S., the European Union has thus far refrained from sanctioning him, allowing him to continue traveling to DOC-RI events.


But it’s not as if the academics at these American universities can plead ignorance about Yakunin’s involvement; after all, DOC-RI’s ties to Yakunin, who is listed as both a founder and member of DOC-RI’s program council, are as obvious as they are myriad.

When the think tank was founded in 2016 — itself an outgrowth of Yakunin’s Dialogue of Civilizations, which had primarily held an annual forum in Greece dedicated to “dialogue” — Deutsche Welle wrote that Yakunin was the one who “launched” the organization. Another German paper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reported that DOC-RI was “to become the headquarters of a worldwide network of Russian think tanks,” with which Yakunin would “make the Russian view of the world popular.” At its core, the paper continued, DOC-RI was an “instrument of Moscow’s hybrid warfare” against the West.

As Ilya Zaslavskiy, an expert on corruption in Russia and head of the Underminers project — which examines how Russian oligarchs use their wealth to undermine liberal democracies — wrote, DOC-RI is “widely regarded as the Kremlin’s main propaganda ‘factory’ in the West.”

How the organization obtains its funding is unclear. A DOC-RI spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the group was “independently funded,” and DOC-RI has denied that it receives funding from the Kremlin. But Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that Yakunin was planning on investing $30 million of his own money into the group.

As with other Russian oligarchs, Yakunin’s fantastic wealth appears entwined with his close ties to Putin — a relationship that began when Yakunin joined Putin in the 1990s to co-found the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, often cited as the beginning of the kleptocratic cabal that would eventually lead the Kremlin. Forbes has estimated that Yakunin’s wealth is now in the billions.


While Yakunin — whom The Economist identified as a former KGB general — has not followed some of his compatriots in purchasing football clubs or mega-yachts, recent investigations have connected his wealth to a global network of shell companies. Reuters, for instance, found in 2014 that Russian Railways, with Yakunin as its head, had “paid billions of dollars to private contractors that disguise their ultimate owners and have little or no presence at their registered headquarters.”

Yakunin was also the subject of an extensive Quartz investigation in 2017, which examined how the Russian oligarch stood as the poster-child for “reputation laundering,” using British companies to spin a new image of himself for Western audiences. As the investigation found, “Russian Railways’ operating costs more than tripled during Yakunin’s decade at the helm, while the size of its rail network increased just 1.2 percent.”

Opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny wrote that Yakunin’s family had “built a huge business empire” through “corruption and mismanagement,” accruing a network of wealth “worth billions of dollars.” Added Navalny, “In all other countries, the railways are used for movement, but we use them for stealing.” (Yakunin left Russian Railways, his main business venture, in 2015 and has denied allegations of corruption.)

With that sizable wealth, Yakunin has helped build DOC-RI into one of the foremost fronts for the Kremlin abroad. In hosting speakers that praise Russia’s geopolitical moves, providing platforms for those who laud Russian elections, and helping network illiberal politicians across Europe, DOC-RI has taken the lead in pushing Moscow’s messaging.

As Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher on links between Russia and the Western far-right, wrote, Yakunin often pushes a notion of a “multipolar world,” which is “a Russian politically correct euphemism for anti-Americanism.” (It’s worth noting that a “dialogue of civilizations” is popular among post-Soviet kleptocracies, seen prominently in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.)

A quick glance through DOC-RI’s Twitter feed attests to the think tank’s pro-Moscow slant:

When he’s not working with DOC-RI, Yakunin has further helped spear Russia’s drive to support anti-LGBTQ movements across the world, including in the United States. “Yakunin is one of Russia’s primary drivers in its anti-gay campaign, and is one of the biggest boosters in Russia of the World Congress of Families — one of the foremost anti-LGBTQ organization in the world,” Politico Magazine wrote in 2017.

Despite all of this — Yakunin’s role in Russia’s kleptocracy, the attendant U.S. sanctions, the support for homophobic campaigns — academics at American universities have willingly signed up to his program at DOC-RI, happy to take the funds to travel to DOC-related events.

“The main problem is that Yakunin’s wealth is of questionable provenance,” Shorina told ThinkProgress. “And the same questions are raised about the Dialogue of Civilizations’ funds. So when these academic people are paid by Yakunin, they have to know that this money may not be [clean].”

Academic corruption

There are eight academics at American institutions officially affiliated with Yakunin’s think tank. Some are listed as working at Ivy League schools — Columbia, Princeton — while others are at lesser-known schools, like Grand Valley State University and Wilmington College. Some of the academics have published papers with the organization, while others have merely attended events, adding a veneer of legitimacy to the organization.

One of the academics is also Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party’s 2008 presidential candidate who is perhaps best-known for pushing conspiracy theories about 9/11.

“Yakunin is one man, and he plays his own game — he plays to his own piper.”

According to Olga Shorina with the Boris Nemtsov Foundation, they all serve as little more than “marionette puppets” for Yakunin’s project.

When contacted by ThinkProgress, some of the academics claimed they had no idea Yakunin was sanctioned. “I didn’t know that Yakunin is sanctioned,” Richard Falk, a professor emeritus at Princeton and member of The Nation’s editorial board, said. Peimin Ni, a professor at Grand Valley State University and member of DOC-RI’s program council, said he’d “never heard confirmation about the sanction. I heard about it. So it’s true, right?”

For others, however, the fact that Yakunin is sanctioned by the U.S. government didn’t give them any pause in signing up.

Walter Mignolo, a professor at Duke University, said it’s “well known” that Yakunin was sanctioned by the U.S. But when asked if Yakunin’s sanctions concerned him, Mignolo replied, “Not really. There are many powerful men in Germany, France, and the U.S., to name a few, who are head[ing] or supporting intellectual and political organizations, offering grants and fellowships, and driving think tanks. As a decolonial thinker I do not take things at face value.”

Mignolo added that he’d joined DOC-RI because “its mere existence is a call and a signal that imperial monologue and neoliberal homogenization of the planet will not work, and it doesn’t.”

Fred Dallmayr, a professor emeritus at Notre Dame, told ThinkProgress that the sanctions against Yakunin “would be a concern if the whole organization is sort of personalized with Mr. Yakunin, but I have never done that. Yakunin is one man, and he plays his own game — he plays to his own piper.”

Some of the professors working at American universities — McKinney, Columbia University’s Akeel Bilgrami — didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about why they were affiliated with a think tank founded by a sanctioned Russian oligarch. But others were forthright about what they thought their participation could accomplish, as well as their positive impressions of Yakunin.

“I’ve talked to [Yakunin] quite a few times — he seemed quite sincere about the stuff that he seems to genuinely care about, [like] social justice,” Steve Szeghi, a professor at Wilmington College, said. “He’s a critic of the neoliberal trade model, [the] Washington Consensus, as I have been throughout most of my economics career.”

Added Ni, “The thing that [Yakunin] was doing at this institute and the forum was to promote the dialogue of civilizations, and that’s something that we think itself is not wrong, something that is very much needed.”

When contacted by ThinkProgress, the American universities at which these professors work appeared unaware of the relationship between their employees and DOC-RI — or whether there was any policy prohibiting staff from working with individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government.

“I’m not aware of a policy like that,” said Wilmington College spokesperson Randy Sarvis. Steve Hartsoe, a Duke University spokesperson, said the school “has no affiliation with the Dialogue of Civilizations so, as you are doing, it’s best for you to speak with [Mignolo] about his intellectual pursuits.”

Some of the universities, including Columbia University and Grand Valley State University, didn’t respond to emails and phone calls asking about their schools’ policies regarding professors working with sanctioned former Russian officials.

War and peace

While none of the professors said they would ask DOC-RI to remove their affiliation, some expressed concern about the direction the think tank had taken over the past few years.

“Once it turned into a think tank, it seemed somewhat different from what it was originally, [which was] a platform for dialogue,” Ni told ThinkProgress. Szeghi pointed to the increasing presence of Kremlin-friendly politicians at DOC-RI events as a reason for concern. “I can’t pinpoint the exact time of the change — it was probably like two or three years ago,” he said. “I felt prior to that time that all the stuff about ecology was sincere, but then all of a sudden the conference started attracting some right-wing politicians.”

“A complete dialogue obviously has to include a Russian also.”

Even Dallmayr — who, as a member of DOC-RI’s supervisory board, is the highest-ranking professor in the group — expressed pause about what the group had become, at least in terms of regressing from dialogue. “There was a shift done without my consultation, I was opposed to it, you know,” he said. “I’m still not happy with it.”

Still, that shift was not enough for Dallmayr to break with the organization. Nor were sanctions from the U.S. government, corruption allegations, or Yakunin’s role in helping coalesce anti-LGBTQ forces globally enough to make any of the other academics remove their names from the ranks of those affiliated with DOC-RI.

“The point… is to be as dialogue-oriented as possible,” Dallmayr said. “And a complete dialogue obviously has to include a Russian also.”

However, in an email following his interview with ThinkProgress, Dallmayr said he would finally be leaving DOC-RI — but not because of the fact that Yakunin has now been sanctioned for over four years. “I am planning to resign my position on the ‘Supervisory Board’ of DOC-RI,” he wrote. “The main reasons are advanced age (90) and failing health. According to the Statutes, resignation takes 3 months to take effect.”

To close, Dallmayr added one additional note: “Here is something from scriptures (Psalm 120:6-7): Too long have I dwelled among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”