Politics

Founder of Putin-Tied Russian Tech Firm Hosts Fundraiser for Maine Democrat

Vladimir Putin visits the office of Yandex / Getty Images

A recent fundraiser for Maine Democrat Sara Gideon was cohosted by the founder and chairman of Russian tech giant Yandex, a search engine closely tied to associates of Vladimir Putin that allows itself to be controlled by the Kremlin.

The invitation for the February 12 fundraiser for Gideon, the Democratic establishment's choice in Maine's closely watched U.S. Senate election, shows it was hosted by John Boynton, an American who built a fortune off founding companies in Russia. Among Boynton's companies is Yandex, which has been branded the "Google of Russia" and is the country's largest internet company. Boynton and his wife were each required to contribute the maximum $5,600 to Gideon to be listed as hosts of the fundraiser.

Boynton founded Yandex in 1997 alongside Russian billionaire Arkady Volozh, who was included on the U.S. Treasury Department's "Putin List" of 210 prominent Russian oligarchs and politicians. The tech giant's board is comprised of individuals with ties to the highest echelons of power in the country, which could prove troublesome for Gideon as many of her fellow Democrats warn of Russia's attempts to influence American politics through the internet.

In addition to Boynton and Volozh, Yandex's board of directors includes Alexander Voloshin and Herman Gref, two of Putin's earliest advisers who are now among the most powerful people in the country. Voloshin was formerly Putin's chief of staff and has been credited with advancing Putin to his position of power. A Los Angeles Times profile described him as "the iron man at the heart of Putin's administration." When Voloshin was Putin's chief of staff, Gref was Putin's economy minister. Gref now runs Russian state-owned financial giant Sberbank and was recently labeled the "most powerful executive in Russia" by Forbes.

Yandex currently reports annual revenues of more than $2 billion, making it the largest tech company in Russia. In November 2019, it underwent a corporate restructuring designed to give the Kremlin increased oversight over the company, the Guardian reported. The decision came just two years after Putin toured the company's headquarters in September 2017.

The new structure received personal approval from Putin, according to Reuters. When the decision was made, Boynton said the company needed to adjust to an "evolving regulatory environment."

Boynton is a tech entrepreneur who runs Firehouse Capital, Inc., a Massachusetts-based venture capital and private equity firm. Boynton has said his "career was shaped" by a high school trip to the Soviet Union. The trip inspired him to "direct his entrepreneurial spirit towards Russia" after he graduated from Harvard in 1988. Boynton cofounded the incubator that developed Yandex in the 1990s.

In addition to Yandex, Boynton cofounded Comptek, a Russia-based telecommunications company, and InfiNet Wireless, one of the largest privately owned broadband wireless access companies in the world. Last January Boynton was invited to speak at Russia's official residence in Davos, Switzerland, for an event called "Russia: DNA of the New Entrepreneur."

Boynton on his website says he tries to take an active role in companies he's involved in.

"I am not just a financial investor: in many of the companies I am involved in I have played an active role in establishing robust governance systems and practices, which I have seen time and again make important contributions to creating sustainable value," he says on Firehouse Capital's website.

Gideon's campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the fundraiser. Boynton's assistant said the investor was unavailable to comment for this story.

Boynton has made several large contributions to Democratic candidates in the past, but his contribution to Gideon appears to be his first real foray into the 2020 election cycle. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, his only previous contributions this cycle were $250 each to Democratic presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar.

Gideon is the Democratic establishment's choice in the Senate primary, scheduled for June, to face Republican senator Susan Collins this November. The race is expected to be among the most expensive in the country.