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Anatoly Chubais Helps Fund New Russian Studies Center at Tel Aviv University

One of the donors funding a new center for Russian studies at Tel Aviv University is a former top government official under President Vladimir Putin. Anatoly Chubais left Russia shortly after the start of the Ukraine war in 2022 and has been in Israel ever since. Sources at the university say of his involvement that faculty will conduct all academic activity at the center but refuse to reveal the extent of Chubais' contribution or discuss the identities of other donors.

The university has an active center for Russian and Eastern European studies. According to the person in charge of the new center, the existing one mainly focuses on Russian history, whereas the new one will "try to understand Russia's future."

Chubais held senior positions in the administration of Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and then under Putin. In the 1990s, he served as Russia's finance minister, deputy prime minister, and Yeltsin's chief of staff.

Reports that Chubais was in contact with universities in Israel about establishing a center for Russian studies began to emerge a few months after he left Russia. At the end of last week, the Telegram channel Agentstvo, which posts investigations opposed to Putin's regime, reported that Chubais had joined up with "one of the universities in Tel Aviv" and would establish a center engaging with "the question of how the liberals made what is happening in Russia possible." It also claimed that Chubais had held conversations on the subject with two prominent American historians who study Russia, Yuri Slezkine and Stephen Kotkin.

Chubais is associated with the far-reaching economic reforms led by Yeltsin's administration in the 1990s. These culminated in an economic crisis that hurt large parts of Russian society and left many without any money or a social safety net.

During Putin's first term as president, Chubais served as head of Russia's power company and led changes that included the privatization of parts of the electricity sector. After that, he headed a government corporation for developing nanotechnology. His last official position was as Putin's special envoy for ties with international organizations, from which he resigned in March of 2022, about a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine – when he also left Russia entirely.

At no stage has he spoken out against Putin or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In September, Putin scoffed at his departure from Russia, alluding to his Judaism, saying: "Why is Anatoly Borisovich hiding there? They showed an internet picture in which he is no longer Anatoly Borisovich, but it's rather Moshe Yisraelovich who lives there. Why has he done this? Why has he fled and and gotten himself illegal status even in Israel?"

According to sources, Chubais has based himself in Israel since he left Russia. Last year, a picture appeared online of him and his wife, Russian film director Dunya Smirnova, at a branch of Israel's Population and Immigration Authority. At the time, Chubais refused to respond to a request for comment from Haaretz about this and when he had received Israeli citizenship. This Tuesday, he told Haaretz that he couldn't comment on his involvement in the establishment of the new center for Russian studies until the university announced it officially.

The website of the Cummings Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies at Tel Aviv University states that it "is the University's main framework for research, study, documentation, publication and other academic activity relating to the history and current affairs of Russia, the former Soviet republics and the countries of Eastern Europe." According to a source at the university, the faculty at the Cummings Center has dwindled considerably in recent years.

Prof. Itai Sened, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, is slated to head the new center. He says it plans to use innovative tools, including artificial intelligence and systems analysis, to forecast Russia's future and not study its past, as is being done at the existing center.

"There is nothing improper here," he says when asked if he sees any problems with someone who served in a series of top governmental roles over two decades funding a center researching that country. "[Chubais] has no influence on Russia's future, nor does he want to have influence. He is seeking to recruit resources to try to understand the future of Russia.

"What is written in the press about what he did or didn't do – I won't go into that," Sened adds. "Chubais came [to us] with the idea and has helped us raise some of the funding. We are working with highly respected academic bodies, and no one tells academic bodies what to do. We had an interesting idea and the ability to enlist resources, and we are happy to get resources to study what interests us."

Sened also says the center will cooperate with international research institutions, including the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, Stanford University, and the European University Institute. Each will deal with different subject areas, but all will aim to forecast Russia's future, he says.

"We will mainly use new tools in the field of sociology and anthropology, and we want to build five scenarios for the future," says Sened. "This isn't being done in other places. There aren't so many experts in this subject in Israel, and that's why there is the international collaboration. [It will be] an attempt to use innovative tools to understand the future and not the past, for a change."

Tel Aviv University said in response to a request for comment: "Currently, a new center for research into Russia is being launched, like similar centers that operate on campus for the study of the United States, China, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and more.

"The research center … will focus on the study of Russia's past and future, integrating geopolitical, economic, sociological, and cultural aspects, and more," the statement continued. "In the framework of the research center, studies and position papers will be issued and workshops and international conferences will be held. Operation of the center will be enabled thanks to a donation received from a group of donors, among them Anatoly Chubais."

Liza Rozovsky