Alexei Navalny, the man who leaked images of Vladimir Putin’s palatial homes, is suffering severe stomach pains due to a suspected poisoning. An ambulance was recently called to attend to the Russian opposition leader on Friday 8 April, who is serving an 11-and-a-half-year prison sentence at a maximum security penal colony 155 miles east of Moscow. “His situation is critical, we are all very concerned,” a friend told The Guardian.
The 46-year-old lawyer has long been a thorn in Putin’s side, receiving multiple prison sentences for protesting against the Russian leader and the alleged corruption of the ruling elite. Widely seen as Russia’s major opposition figure, Navalny was poisoned by novichok, a Soviet-made nerve agent, in 2020. He accused the state of the attack, which it denied. Shortly after his recovery in January 2021, the dissident was arrested and imprisoned on charges that human rights groups believe to be fabricated. He has remained in prison ever since.
Two days after he was detained, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) published a report accusing the Russian president of using fraudulently obtained funds to build himself a vast palace costing £1 billion ($1.3 billion) paid for with what Navalny describes in a video filmed before his arrest as “the largest bribe in history”. Perched near the resort town of Gelendzhik on Russia’s Black Sea Coast, the enormous estate is said to be 39 times the size of Monaco and is protected by impregnable fences, a no-fly zone and even its own border checkpoint.
Putin’s critics believe he has stayed in power for over two decades because he rewards his allies with the running of state-owned companies, letting them keep their cash as long as they stay out of politics. “That is why we call it the biggest bribe in the world,” Navalny activists wrote in 2021. “Putin’s friends, who received from him the right to steal whatever they want in Russia, thanked him in many ways… collecting 100 billion roubles and building a palace for their boss with this money.”
The vast Italianate palace exudes an imposing grandeur. Sprawling over 190,000 square feet, the mega-mansion was designed by Lanfranco Cirillo, the favoured architect of Russia’s elite, and is three times bigger than the White House. However, its vast scale and lavish décor are unlikely to have impressed ordinary Russians. The video released by Navalny has been viewed almost 127 million times and an opinion poll at the time revealed that 26% of Russians had seen it, with 17% saying it changed their opinion of Putin for the worse.
The opulence inside more than lives up to the magnificence of the exterior. The reading room boasts double-height ceilings, adorned with frescos and intricate mouldings covered in gold leaf. However, the interior has been vastly stripped back since this image was taken, due largely to a mould infestation that has reportedly affected the “whole building,” with walls and ceilings covered in green and black mould.
A glimpse of the master bedroom reveals yet more gold accents, which cover the Rococo-style ceiling and a large four-poster bed shrouded in swathes of silk and tassels. The suite opens out into a living room, walk-in wardrobe and enormous bathroom complete with a marble columned spa bath. It’s a far cry from the conditions Navalny is being kept in. According to The Guardian, the opposition leader is frequently placed in a shtrafnoy izolyator (shizo), or punishment cell, often without any reason given. The cells make it hard to sleep, read or write and he has less access to food.
As well as the more obvious luxury additions, such as a marble swimming pool decorated with busts of Greek gods and a large gilded theatre, the home features some surprising extras such as an extraordinary hookah lounge complete with a pole. Exotic wooden wall carvings and an abundance of velvet and silk floor pillows would have ensured Putin and his guests could watch the entertainment in comfort.
Perhaps surprisingly for a man who may have had a private pole-dancing room built in his home, Putin’s rumoured estate has a Russian Orthodox church newly built in the Byzantine style. But religion clearly takes second place to hedonism here – there’s also an underground ice hockey rink, ‘aqua-disco’, several helipads, a vineyard and winery, a restaurant and an entertainment complex. While critics such as Navalny claim Putin’s vast compound was funded by corruption, Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg has claimed that he is the real owner and, far from being a private residence, it’s actually being turned into an aparthotel.
One of the many details uncovered by Navalny and FBK regards the toilet brushes used in the Gelendzhik palace, which were said to have cost £685 ($850) a piece. After the revelations were made public in 2021, ordinary Russian took to the streets in support of Navalny and to protest against Putin’s alleged corruption, some of them brandishing lavatory brushes as a reference to the obscene wealth of the country’s ruling class. That year, the average monthly salary in Russia was 57,200 roubles (£565/$702), less than the price of a single luxury loo brush.
Not content with just one vast home, the investigations of Navalny and his allies revealed yet another incredible estate, this time nestled among pine trees on Lake Valdai in north-western Russia. The estate spreads over almost 618 acres and is said by campaigners to be owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, the billionaire moneyman known as “Putin’s personal banker”. It’s alleged that a total of 2.7 billion roubles (£27m/$33m) has been paid by the Russian government between 2011 and 2021 to lease the vast space.
In April 2021, Navalny’s organisation released a new video revealing Putin’s secret forest sanctuary. This was followed up in February 2023, when journalists from independent news site Proekt published a fresh exposé on the property, including previously unseen interior images of the retreat. Thanks to them, we’re able to marvel at the elaborate interior, such as this gilded dining room – something the Russian president is reportedly furious about.
If you’ve spied a resemblance between the luxe interior of Putin’s forest dwelling and that of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, it’s no coincidence. Initially starkly modern, the space was redecorated on the dictator’s insistence and contains sumptuous décor in every room. The silver living room – as dubbed by Proekt – boasts a reproduction Louis XVI three-piece suite, heavy brocade curtains and a large crystal chandelier.
Builders working on the huge home dubbed this extraordinary room the “night cellar”, according to Proekt. With gilded chairs set around a round glass table, the lavish space feels intimate and looks remarkably like the set of a Bond movie. It may have been an area for special guests to take part in vodka tastings or games of poker – they were even allowed to peel gold leaf petals from the chandelier to keep as a souvenir of their stay.
Not content with a swimming pool, hammam and hot tub in the main house, the autocrat has also built a separate spa complex on the estate. Softly illuminated, the underground space is full of expensive specialist equipment, including a four-poster massage daybed, a Thai massage platform and a German treatment bed that costs a whopping £8,900 ($11k). A saltwater float pool, cryotherapy chamber, mud therapy room, lymphatic pressure room, fully equipped dental surgery, solarium, cosmetologist room and supersized aquarium make up the rest of the extraordinary space.
The acreage is peppered with more bespoke outbuildings. Built in 2007, this charming Chinese-style pagoda overlooks its very own secluded bay. Complete with guardian lions, decorative window screens, a hip-and-gable roof and carved stone pillars, no detail has been overlooked. Inside, the main room is dominated by an enormous round table surrounded by carved hardwood chairs, which suggests the building is used as a dining and entertaining space.
Elsewhere on the compound lies an indoor ice rink, mini casino and a playground allegedly built for Putin’s children. However, not the two adult daughters he had with his first wife Lyudmila, but the “several” children the 70-year-old is reported to have fathered with former gymnast Alina Kabaeva, 39. They are said to live in a large wooden mansion on the estate, about half a mile from the main house.
Despite earning a relatively modest £113,000 ($140k) a year as the president of Russia, Swedish economist Anders Aslund estimates Putin’s net worth is between £80 billion ($100bn) and £129 billion ($160bn). If true, this would make him one of the richest men in the world, coming in third behind Elon Musk and Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), the world’s largest luxury goods company.
According to Proekt, a secret railway line is located near Putin’s rumoured Valdai pad. They claim the station is part of a larger network that connects a number of Putin’s alleged residences to a private terminal at Moscow-Kalanchevskaya station. The news outlet says that the covert train line allows the autocrat to travel safely between his properties via an armoured train.
As if two palatial pads weren’t enough, an almost 800-acre estate on the Black Sea is also said by FBK to belong to Putin. A contractor working there called it “Dima’s Dacha”, implying the complex is or has been owned by former Russian PM and president Dmitry Medvedev. Meanwhile, Open Media believes it belongs to Putin’s close friends Gennady Timchenko and Vladimir Kolbin. Putin is said to be obsessed with growing grapes and making fine wine, so it makes sense that he could be the ultimate owner.
The magnificent vineyard boasts a cutting-edge subterranean winery. The roomy cellar is equipped with modern, mostly Italian, equipment, according to wine website Meiningers International. “We are currently working with 11 commercial grape varieties and harvest 200 tons of grapes a year,” one of the estate winemakers told the reporter, Anton Moiseenko. Moiseenko noted surprisingly tight security on the vineyard. “Not only do the guards check everybody’s IDs and put visitors through metal detectors, but well in advance of the scheduled visit, visitors are obliged to provide the model of their mobile phone and details of their current employment.”
Moiseenko reported that they weren’t allowed to point cameras towards the shore, “despite the fact that almost nothing could be seen. Google images, however, reveal a couple of buildings or manor houses there,” he revealed. These buildings are likely to have been the estate’s two mega-mansions, which were also revealed by Navalny activists. The main château has multiple terraces, landscaped gardens, an artificial lake and a circular pool – the perfect spot to sip a chilled glass of Russia’s finest wine. The same wine, in fact, that was served by Putin to President Xi Jinping in March 2023, when the Chinese premiere attended a supper at the Kremlin designed to win his support in the war against Ukraine.
The revelations made by Navalny, FBK and Proekt must have severely embarrassed Putin at home and abroad. Not only have they allegedly exposed his vast wealth, which it appears he has gone to great lengths to conceal, but they have also highlighted seemingly shocking weaknesses in his personal security. Navalny and his allies have also reportedly embarrassed Putin’s associates, such as head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. His prized dacha, located on the same Black Sea stretch at Putin’s other alleged properties, is pictured here.
Rumoured to be a billionaire himself, ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ reportedly owns a collection of prime real estate, a superyacht and a fleet of luxury cars, according to a Proekt investigation. Not bad for a man of the cloth. The magnificent dacha took seven years to build and is said to be the Patriarch’s holiday home. Understandably, it appears he has been very careful to conceal the costs associated with the residence and has bent over backwards to stop photos from being released. Nevertheless, activists were able to get these images of the villa, although no pictures of the interior have come to light yet.
Rumours continue to circulate about Vladimir Putin’s own state of health. A puffy face and what may be a scar on his neck have been cited as evidence of treatment for cancer. In addition to this, the Russian president’s internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine continues to prove problematic. Conscription and Russian troop deaths have made the war less popular in the eyes of ordinary Russians. In March 2023, metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska told an investment conference in Siberia that due to sanctions imposed by the West, Russia will run out of money next year, unless foreign investors can be found. It’s a perilous time for Putin. One expert recently claimed that if Putin loses the war with Ukraine “he is unlikely to survive.”
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