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According to pictures leaked online in January 2021, this is the home of Vladimir Putin, a sprawling pleasure palace that has slowly taken shape amid great secrecy on a peninsular jutting out into the Black Sea coast. Bigger than Buckingham Palace, grander than Versailles, it dwarfs in scale the comparable home of any other global leader.
But in its extravagance, it mirrors the terrifying rise of President Putin who, in little more than three decades, transformed himself from impecunious KGB officer to become – reputedly – one of the richest and most hated men in the world with billions to his name. It’s unclear how big a hit Putin’s finances have taken since sanctions were imposed on Russia and its president, but it’s likely he is still living a lavish lifestyle.
Just how he has enriched himself and on what he has lavished his money – from the palace’s den and casino to a vast underground bunker containing an ice hockey rink – is the reason why these photographs have been disclosed. They were released, along with an extraordinary 90-minute investigation into Putin’s wealth posted on YouTube last year, by supporters of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and Putin’s nemesis, who continues to taunt the Kremlin. The online dossier came with floor plans and stunning three-dimensional visualizations of what its sumptuous interiors might look like, along with actual photos of many of the fixtures and fittings. In many cases, they were able to match up the plans with photographs of the finished look. Pictured: A theater fitted with red curtains and a golden ceiling.
At the time, Navalny’s team said they produced their 3D images from blueprints provided by disgruntled contractors. They show palatial interiors of gold, marble and bespoke furniture of elaborate detail. According to Navalny, the construction costs had in 2021, already reached a staggering $1.3 billion – and all of it, he alleged, was financed with illicit funds provided by Mr Putin’s cronies and inner circle.
He said of his investigation: ‘It tells how, right now, and for the past 15 years, the biggest bribe in history is being given and the most expensive palace in the world is being built.’ Palace, in fact, barely does this giant complex justice. ‘It is an entire city, or rather, a kingdom,’ Navalny declares in his video. ‘It has impregnable fences, its own port, its own security, a church, a no-fly zone and even its own border checkpoint.’ Rather, he says, ‘it is like a separate state inside Russia’. And in this state there is a single and unchanging ruler, or as he puts it more bluntly, ‘Tsar Putin’. Pictured: A artists’ impression of a luxurious bathroom in Putin’s palace.
From the basement spas through to the upper floor imperial boudoir, no expense was spared for the simple reason, according to Navalny, that Putin wasn’t paying. He maintains the money was looted in the Klondike days that followed the fall of the Soviet empire and when Putin began his climb to power. For the famously athletic president, the palace boasts a gym – complete with a judo mat – an indoor swimming pool with Corinthian-style columns, Turkish baths, beauty and massage rooms and a hairdresser. Nearby is the cocktail lounge and scores of preparation areas for meat and vegetables, a bakery and even an ‘egg-processing’ area. There are suites for doctors and waiters, managers and other staff too. There is even what is described as a ‘dirt warehouse’ – a 200-sq-ft trash room.
The ground floor opens on to huge entertaining spaces. These include a casino, an electric car-racing track, arcade machines, the theater and stage that wouldn’t look out of place in the West End, and a darkened space called a hookah room. There is also a library and a ‘musical living room’. Alighting on the first floor, visitors would find the guest bedrooms and an enormous master bedroom with its huge canopied four-poster bed and an adjoining bathroom of marbled splendor. ‘You can’t call it a bedroom,’ says the dossier. ‘Here, everything is like in the most aristocratic houses in Europe.’ One colossal room leads to another.
Then, there is the decoration – stucco, gold leaf gilding and inlaid marquetry everywhere as well as the ornate Italian furniture. According to Navalny’s dossier, the furnishings include a £200,000 ($273,679) leather sofa – more than the average price of a two-bedroom flat in Russia. ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) turned out to be a great lover of sofas,’ said Navalny. ‘There are 47 of them in his palace. I wonder if he sits on them all or just on the most expensive ones?’
Sergei Kolesnikov, initially a collaborator on the project but then a whistle-blower after fleeing to the West, said what had started as a single house had become 20 buildings and a budget that had long passed the billion-dollar mark. The opulence, he said, was reminiscent of the last days of the Tsars.
Photographs show that on the estate’s grounds is a hanger-shaped hump sunk into the ground and covered with vegetation. On closer inspection, this was revealed to hold a 180-ft long ice hockey rink. Another futuristic building was identified as a greenhouse that is approximately 26,000 sq ft in size. A tunnel was also cut into the hilltop to allow access to the sea and it holds an immense viewing area, which doubles up as a panic room – should anyone be foolish enough to wish the dear leader harm despite the continuous presence of troops from the FSB, Russia’s state security service. Anyone wishing to fish offshore has to apply for a permit from the presidential security service. Beyond the palace perimeter lurk other Putin properties, including a dacha, a vineyard and wine-making facility and a Byzantine-style church that was imported from Greece. The Kremlin denies that President Putin owns any palaces at all. However, Putin’s former businessman friend Mr Kolesnikov insists the funds for the palace were raised by a combination of ‘corruption, bribery and theft’.