Billionaire Len Blavatnik Pours Money Into Education, Medical Research, and History

The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Maria Di Mento

April 4, 2019

The Russian-American billionaire Len Blavatnik first made a splash in philanthropy in 2010 when he donated roughly $117.2 million to the University of Oxford to launch the Blavatnik School of Government with the aim of preparing students from all over the world for careers in public service.

Since then, Blavatnik has publicly given a total of about $500 million to mostly large institutions, both personally and through his Blavatnik Family Foundation, which was incorporated in 2018, according to GuideStar.

He gave his biggest contribution to date last year, a $200 million grant from his family foundation to Harvard Medical School for research and to help develop new therapies and technologies to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases; and he has given a collection of other large grants of $10 million to $50 million to Yale, the New York Academy of Sciences, and Columbia, among other institutions.

While he primarily backs science and medical research, he has also given to cultural organizations, including $25 million to Carnegie Hall in 2016.

Lesser known is Blavatnik’s creation and support of the Blavatnik Archive, a collection of historical documents, photographs, ephemera, and other materials that showcase Russian history and Jewish culture and history from the mid-19th through late 20th centuries with a focus on Worlds Wars I and II, and the period in between.

Expanding the Archive

The archive was born in 2005 when Blavatnik’s longstanding interest in history and his Russian Jewish heritage led him to acquire a collection of Judaica-themed postcards and posters from the period around the world wars.

He funneled a total of more than $5.3 million into the Blavatnik Archive Foundation from 2005 through 2017, according to the nonprofit’s tax forms, and it is likely he will continue to do so in the coming years as he seeks to expand the archive and make it available to the public online and to scholars studying that era.

Julie Chervinsky, the archive’s director, said in an interview that the plan is to continue to build it up over time with new materials not only from Blavatnik but from other collectors as well. Her team is currently in the process of digitizing its growing collection and is also racing to translate and make available a series of over 1,000 videotaped interviews it has conducted with some of the last living Jewish soldiers who served in the Soviet Union’s Red Army during World War II.

Chervinsky said Blavatnik wanted to provide a visual history for those who want to know more about the world wars and about Soviet and Jewish history through documents and oral histories of soldiers. The goal is to highlight the experiences of average, everyday people of that era.

“These were not the generals or high-ranking officials,” said Chervinsky. “These [materials] tell the stories of the lives and experiences of regular people, which is very important — to give people today a fuller picture of history that isn’t always shown.”

Along with its online offerings, the archive has in recent years produced several traveling exhibitions of its holdings, which have been shown at universities, museums, and other institutions. In 2010, the archive held an exhibition at the Moscow Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which later traveled to other Russian museums in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

In 2011, the archive mounted one at the 92nd Street Y, in New York, and there are plans for more exhibits in the future, said Chervinsky.

$17.8 Billion Fortune

Blavatnik, who is 61 and whose net worth Forbes pegs at around $17.8 billion, declined to talk to the Chronicle.

Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, Blavatnik earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Moscow State University in 1978 before emigrating with his family that year to the United States. He went on to earn a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia University in 1981 and an MBA from Harvard in 1989. He became a U.S. Citizen in 1984 and currently holds dual U.S. and British citizenship.

In 1986, he founded Access Industries, an investment company with holdings in media and telecommunications, natural resources and chemicals, and real estate. He kept ties in his homeland, and through Access he made his early fortune buying up aluminum companies and other businesses in the 1990s as post-Soviet Russia was privatizing its corporations. Through Access, he now owns Warner Music Group and other blue-chip companies.

 

Amount Institution Purpose Year
$200 million Harvard Medical School (Boston) For medical research 2018
$2 million U. of Pennsylvania, Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine (Philadelphia) To establish the Blavatnik Family Fellowship in Biomedical Research in the Penn Biomedical Graduate Studies program. 2018
$10 million Stanford U. School of Medicine (Calif.) To endow Ph.D. fellowships for graduate-level research in the biomedical sciences 2018
$10 million Mount Sinai Health System (New York) To create the Blavatnik Family Women’s Health Research Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Blavatnik Family — Chelsea Medical Center 2018
$15 million Yale U. (New Haven, Conn.) To endow the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation 2018
$10 million Columbia U. (New York) For collaborative research on health and engineering at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science 2018
$10 million Yale U. (New Haven, Conn.) For scientific entrepreneurship programs and research 2016
$25 million Carnegie Hall (New York) For artistic, educational, and digital programs 2016
$20 million Tel Aviv U. (Israel) To establish the Blavatnik Initiative, a multiyear program focused on interdisciplinary scientific research, student film production, and faculty recruitment 2014
$30 million New York Academy of Sciences To create the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists 2013
$50 million Harvard U. (Cambridge, Mass.) For early-stage medical research and to create a fellowship that will enable graduate business students to pursue entrepreneurial projects in the life sciences 2013
$117.2 million U. of Oxford (England) To establish the Blavatnik School of Government. 2010

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