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Russian Oligarchs Try Cultural Diplomacy In New York

The oligarchs behind L1 Energy, a new oil and gas concern, open an art exhibit at New York's Neue Galerie.

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NEW YORK — More than $20 billion worth of Russian money gathered under the high ceilings of New York’s Neue Galerie on Monday evening to open a new exhibit featuring the private collection of one of the country’s top bankers — and to promote the new oil company he has just taken part in founding.

The exhibit, which opens May 14, draws heavily from the private collection of Petr Aven, worth an estimated $5.2 billion according to Forbes. Along with Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia's richest men with an estimated fortune of $15.4 billion, Aven has made billions as part of Alfa-Bank and sits on the board of LetterOne, a new investment vehicle that includes L1 Energy, an oil and gas concern designed to look beyond Russia's troubled borders for investment.

“People are scared — sanctions and all that,” Fridman told BuzzFeed News, saying he felt increasing fear among Western investors regarding Russia. “For us, it’s sad,” he said. “As businesspeople, it’s doubly sad.” He called the exhibit a “way to keep communication open.”

Addressing the small crowd gathered Monday evening, Aven made no mention of the Kremlin or President Vladimir Putin, or the worsening relations between Washington and Moscow. Nor did he mention the strict sanctions regime that has closed the West to many of his fellow wealthy countrymen. “For my generation, to be part of the world ... was a deep existential idea,” he said.

The invitations for the gathering mentioned the “occasion of” the new exhibit, but presented the event as the launch of L1 Energy, a $10 billion oil and gas group launched by two Alfa colleagues, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan. The seed capital comes from Alfa’s sale of its stake in TNK-BP, which began as a joint venture between the Russian oligarchs and BP, but descended into a vicious shareholder battle that harmed Russia’s reputation as a site of stable investment. Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil giant, took over TNK-BP in 2013.

Since then, Russia’s economy has tumbled on sinking oil prices and the fallout from its war in Ukraine, which prompted the U.S. and Europe to put many of those oligarchs closest to Putin on sanctions lists.

Even those not on the sanctions list have been affected by the climate of risk that now surrounds Russian money. When L1 was looking to buy RWE Dea, the oil and gas arm of German company RWE, earlier this year, it faced stiff opposition from elements inside the U.K. government who feared the company’s ownership of North Sea gas fields could be in jeopardy if further sanctions were implemented. The deal eventually went through in March.

“We look forward to working all over the world,” Lord Browne, the former head of BP who oversaw the creation of TNK-BP in 2003 and now chairs L1 Energy, told the crowd. “We are going to build a company from scratch,” he said. “It’s the right time to do it.”

Miriam Elder is the world editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 5B5F EC17 C20B C11F 226D 3EBE 6205 F92F AC14 DCB1

Contact Miriam Elder at miriam.elder@buzzfeed.com.

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