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Bad News for Russian Oil Firm May Mean Bad Times for Philanthropy

The effects of the Kremlin’s crackdown on the oil giant Yukos are dripping down to Russia’s Jews.

Russian Jewish philanthropist Leonid Nevzlin, who has ties to the embattled oil giant Yukos, will cut funding to his central Jewish project in Russia, Nevzlin’s aide told JTA.

A former president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Nevzlin will make the decision as a protest against government pressure on him and the company, Mikhail Yastrubitsky said.

The move would be the latest fallout from the Kremlin crackdown on Yukos and its former director, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky, Russia’s wealthiest man, was arrested Oct. 25 and is being held in a Moscow prison awaiting trial on a number of counts, including tax evasion and mass theft of state property in privatization schemes.

Nevzlin, who had been Khodorkovsky’s deputy, left Russia for Israel in early September amid mounting pressure on the company’s leadership. He became and Israeli citizen in early November.

Before he left for Israel, Nevzlin, 44, had emerged as one of the largest domestic sponsors of Jewish life in Russia.

A former member of the upper house of Russia’s Parliament, Nevzlin abandoned his business and political careers earlier this year and invested significant sums in various Jewish projects. Among them were the creation of centers for academic research on Russian Jewry in Moscow and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He may now cut all or most of his funding for the Moscow-based International Center for Russian and East European Jewish Studies, as well as for other Russia-based Jewish programs, Yastrubitsky said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv last Friday.

The Moscow-based center was launched with Nevzlin’s funds less than three months ago.

“He doesn’t find it necessary to cooperate with the authorities whose policy he is not supporting,” Yastrubitsky said. “In the next two to three weeks he will make his decision as to what and how he is going to fund in the future.”

Nevzlin’s contribution to Jewish projects in Russia and Israel is estimated at $2 million to $2.5 million per year.

Yastrubitsky said Nevzlin is likely to continue at least part of his contributions to several Russian projects, including his annual donation to a Moscow JCC of which Nevzlin is chairman of the board.

Russian Jewish academics say they understand Nevzlin’s motivation but regret his decision.

“In the few months since it was started, Nevzlin’s center was able to create a big difference for those doing Jewish research in Russia,” said Viktoria Mochalova, director of the Sefer Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization, a Moscow-based umbrella organization for Jewish studies programs at universities across the former Soviet Union.

Oleg Budnitsky, academic director of the International Center for Russian and East European Jewish Studies, said his organization gave $100,000 in grants to Jewish studies scholars and university students.

“It is obvious that the scope of our activities will not be the same as it was originally planned,” he said.

He said he hoped the center would be able to follow through on its earlier obligations to grantees, but that he doesn’t believe the center will be able to develop new programs in the near future.

At least two of the events Nevzlin has promised to fund until the end of the year still will take place: a conference on the 90th anniversary of a famous ritual murder trial, slated for next week in Moscow, and an international forum for Jewish studies in December, also to be held in the Russian capital.

Also this week, Nevzlin resigned from his post as rector at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He said Monday that the Russian government exerted pressure on the school board to dismiss him and threatened to reorganize the school if the board failed to get rid of him.

The school was the first in the Soviet Union to open a full-time academic Jewish studies program back in 1991.

The program, launched in cooperation with the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is still among Russia’s leading programs of Jewish studies, offering master’s degrees in Jewish and biblical studies.

At the same time, Nevzlin will continue supporting his Israel-based projects focused around Hebrew University. The money withdrawn from Russia most likely will be spent to support Jewish causes in other countries, including a possible new Jewish studies center to be started next year in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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