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Philly’s Wilma Theater is returning a donation from a group close to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich

Gifts from Roman Abramovich and other wealthy donors perceived to be close to Putin’s regime are coming under intense scrutiny.

In this file photo dated Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich sat in his box before the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge stadium in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
In this file photo dated Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich sat in his box before the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge stadium in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)Read moreMatt Dunham / AP

The Wilma Theater ended a partnership this month with an arts group backed by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich that was supporting the debut of a play in Philadelphia.

The break, over a local production of The Cherry Orchard, is another sign of the difficulties of being associated with Abramovich, after the United Kingdom froze his assets there in sanctions issued March 10. Officials cited Abramovich’s “close relationship” with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Canada and the European Union followed with their own economic restrictions on the businessman.

Until then, Abramovich’s money and charitable contributions had been long accepted by Western institutions. He had become a familiar name as owner of English soccer team Chelsea — one of the world’s richest and most famous clubs — and as a prolific donor to Jewish organizations and as an arts patron in Israel, Russia, and elsewhere.

Now, gifts from Abramovich and other wealthy donors perceived to be close to Putin’s regime are coming under intense scrutiny.

The Wilma has planned for The Cherry Orchard since 2018, and enlisted highly regarded Russian director Dmitry Krymov, who came out against the war in Ukraine last month.

The production is set to open April 12. It is an adaption of Anton Chekhov’s final play, about a family on the verge of losing their estate. A donation from the MART Foundation in 2021 — for $30,000, according to the Wilma — got another look as the war and related economic sanctions escalated.

The Wilma project had already won a $360,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2020.

Why Wilma returned the donation

On social media, MART and its founder, Sofia Kapkova, have openly acknowledged receiving support from Abramovich. The Inquirer also identified financial contributions with links to Abramovich made to the group’s U.S. nonprofit arm, the Modern Artlife Foundation. MART did not answer specific questions about donors, and a representative for Abramovich could not be reached. He has denied having close links to Putin in the past.

Both MART and the Wilma confirmed that they are no longer partnering on the play.

MART, in an emailed statement, said it was approached by the Wilma to work together, and that MART found financing from an American.

“After we received a request from the theater, we found an opportunity to finance the project,” MART said. “The money came from an American donor, who would like to stay anonymous and we respect their wishes. At the moment, the partnership with Wilma has stopped, by their request.” MART and Kapkova have posted on Instagram opposing the war in Ukraine.

According to the Wilma, its adaptation of the play was in the works before MART got involved and made a onetime donation in 2021.

“After the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, their supporter Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the U.K., drawing more attention to areas that he funds,” Wilma managing director Leigh Goldenberg said by email. “Although MART told us the funding for our project came specifically from U.S. sources, we still decided that the best values-aligned decision was to return the funds.”

The Wilma is not the only group reexamining philanthropic ties to the oligarch. In one prominent example of how perceptions of Abramovich have shifted, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, said it suspended a partnership with the businessman after the U.K. sanctions came down. It was a significant reversal: Yad Vashem had announced a major initiative with Abramovich two days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Abramovich is Jewish and also has Israeli citizenship. He has donated more than $500 million to support “health care, science, education, and Jewish communities” around the world, his spokesperson told the BBC in 2020. The year before, Abramovich set up a $100 million fund to back Russian film projects.

“Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nothing would have been suspect about this,” Temple University Professor Lila Corwin Berman said of Abramovich’s philanthropy. “Here is somebody who very publicly has funded lots of arts and culture ventures.”

Nonprofits can become reliant on mega-donors because they work in a system “premised on such enormous inequality,” said Berman, a historian who wrote a book on American Jewish philanthropy.

“These are the rules in which so many nonprofit actors have been operating and it might not be fair to have asked them to have predicted this,” Berman said. “But it also seems fair to ask them to think about this for the future.”

Becoming an oligarch

Abramovich became wealthy after the fall of the Soviet Union, purchasing a government-owned oil company, Sibneft, at a bargain price in 1995, and later selling his ownership stake back to the Russian government for billions.

Forbes recently estimated his fortune at $13.6 billion, and he has sunk some of it into luxury real estate, including homes in Colorado, as well as yachts, planes, and expensive art — in addition to the prized soccer team and philanthropy.

MART founder Kapkova had previously started Moscow’s Documentary Film Center. She launched MART in 2018 to showcase contemporary Russian artists in dance, theater, and film. Tax filings in the U.S. show the Modern Artlife Foundation applied for nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service in May 2019, and was set up as a Delaware entity. The group has worked on projects in Tel Aviv, London, and New York.

When MART produced its first festival in Tel Aviv, in March 2020, Kapkova posted a photo of herself with Abramovich, expressing gratitude for his support.

“Thanks to Roman Abramovich, ideologist and initiator of the festival!” Kapkova wrote March 8, 2020, per Instagram’s translation of the post. “Without his trust, his support, his involvement, his belief that ‘culture has no boundaries,’ this couldn’t have happened!”

MART told The Inquirer that it has “carried out a number of projects globally in partnership with respectable well-known institutions.” The organization said it’s “proud of the work we’ve done and are thankful to all individuals and organizations who have supported us throughout the years.”

Stamford Bridge

David Szakonyi, a professor at George Washington University, has studied charitable giving by Russian oligarchs. A lot of their philanthropy goes to good causes, he said. The issue is “where the money that’s being used potentially has unsavory origins,” Szakonyi said.

The money can also be hard to trace. “These individuals and their corporate holding structures have never been a paragon of transparency,” said Szakonyi, a co-founder of Anti-Corruption Data Collective.

The Modern Artlife Foundation’s tax filing for 2019, the most recent available from the IRS online, shows links to Abramovich among its $2.76 million in contributions.

The largest contribution, for $2.2 million, came from an entity called the RA Foundation, with the address of a Moscow office complex that an Abramovich firm purchased in 2013. MART did not say whether the foundation, which has the same initials as the oligarch, is affiliated with him.

Another 2019 donation, for $34,000, came from Eugene Shvidler, a longtime associate of Abramovich who worked for him at Sibneft. The address listed with the donation is Stamford Bridge, the London stadium for the Chelsea team that Abramovich purchased in 2003.

A $491,000 donation came from a company called Farleigh International Limited in the British Virgin Islands.

A British court judgment in 2008 described a company called Farleigh International Ltd. as a “vehicle for Mr. Abramovich’s personal investment interests,” The Inquirer found.

In 2016, a company by that name was identified by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as the source of shadowy donations to a nonprofit there. And reporting by the BBC News Arabic in 2020 later identified Abramovich as Farleigh’s ultimate owner. That finding was based on U.S. Treasury bank records leaked to BuzzFeed News.

The Inquirer found another set of donations by Farleigh in the U.S. totaling more than $6 million to the Ohr Somayach/Joseph Tanenbaum Educational Center, in Monsey, N.Y.

The donated funds were used to build a conference center named for Shvidler’s family, according to filings in a lawsuit. Shvidler spent time at the Jewish yeshiva after he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1989, he said in court documents.

A dispute between Farleigh and the educational center over how the gift was managed ended with both sides agreeing to dismiss the case in January.

Legal counsel out of an office in Stamford Bridge worked on the matter for Farleigh, and documents in the case described Shvidler and another associate, Michael Matlin, as agents for Farleigh. Matlin founded a New York investment advisory firm that manages money for Abramovich, the New York Times reported this month.

Lawyers for Farleigh did not respond to requests seeking comment from Farleigh, Shvidler, and Abramovich. A lawyer for Ohr Somayach also did not respond to comment requests, nor did Matlin.

A spokesperson for Shvidler told the Guardian this month that he is “praying for peace and an end to the senseless violence in Ukraine.”