Alexei Navalny, swiftly jailed upon returning to Russia after months of treatment in Germany for exposure to chemical weapons while he was in Siberia, released a report Tuesday accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of embezzling public funds to build his lavish estate on the Black Sea coast.
According to the report by Navalny’s investigative team, the “billion-dollar Putin palace” is an impressive two-story mansion, located near the village of Praskoveyevka and Gelendzhik Bay in southern Russia, and even larger than it appears thanks to extensive underground construction.
The property, described in the report as “39 times the size of Monaco,” allegedly includes its own casino, amphitheater, underground ice-skating rink, wine cellars, tennis courts, several movie theaters, a spa, a church, a tea house, helicopter pads, and an extensive network of underground tunnels.
The palace even boasts a windowless nightclub with a stripper pole, which Navalny sarcastically suggested might be a “training ground for firefighters” or an exceptionally large oven for roasting shawarma meat.
“There are impregnable fences, its own port, its own security, a church, its own permit system, a no-fly zone and even its own border checkpoint. It is absolutely a separate state within Russia,” Navalny said of the estate.
The report dwelled at length upon the extensive vineyard, as Navalny described wine-making as a “very expensive hobby” of Putin’s. He said the Russian president enjoys showing off his personal wine collection to allied world leaders. According to one eyewitness, the unique flavor of the wine is achieved by playing classical music to the grapes through a vast network of speakers.
The estate, which outwardly bears a strong resemblance to the palatial dwellings of old Russian royalty, has been on the radar screen of anti-corruption activists for over a decade. The BBC noted in 2012 that the sources of the enormous funding needed to build and maintain the estate were carefully-guarded secrets.
A disgruntled former Putin insider named Sergei Kolesnikov alleged in 2012 that the estate was designed to Putin’s specifications and financed with huge amounts of money skimmed from contracts to provide hospital equipment and laundered through offshore accounts. Kolesnikov said he fell out with Putin, and ultimately fled to Estonia, because he was disgusted so much money was being funneled into the so-called “Project South.”
“I hadn’t worked 15 hours a day for 10 years to build a palace,” he grumbled.
Navalny’s report echoed and expanded on those allegations, describing the palace as an elaborate kickback to Putin from the billionaire allies he put in charge of major state-owned industries and government projects.
“Putin’s friends, who received from him the right to steal whatever they wanted in Russia, thanked him a lot. But they also chipped in, collected 100 billion rubles and built a palace for their boss with this money,” Navalny said.
“They will keep on stealing more and more, until they bankrupt the entire country. Russia sells huge amounts of oil, gas, metals, fertilizer and timber, but people’s incomes keep falling and falling, because Putin has his palace,” he charged.
According to Agence France-Presse, the two-hour video expose about the palace, uploaded to YouTube and posted on Navalny’s website, gained three million views in the first two hours it was online. The video includes English subtitles and narrative sections recorded by Navalny after he recovered from his poisoning, which he once again charges Putin with orchestrating, among other “atrocities”:
The report includes purported blueprints of the estate, documentation about its financing, and rare photographs of its interior. Navalny said his models of the interior were constructed using information leaked by one of the contractors who worked on the palace, who also provided details of its incredibly expensive imported furnishings, including toilet paper holders that cost over a thousand dollars apiece.
Navalny described the report as the “biggest investigation yet” for his FBK anti-corruption foundation. His associates at the foundation said they hoped the video would stoke public outrage and inspire the public to take to the streets, as Navalny urged them to do when he returned to Russia. They also claimed some satisfaction in the notion that Putin, who is notoriously paranoid about his personal secrecy and security, might be afraid to return to the palace now that its secrets have been exposed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov disputed the accuracy of the report in remarks to CNN on Wednesday.
“They are repeating the old story. It was the year of 2017 or 2016, if I’m not mistaken, that the first time it was mentioned there should be the so-called palace of Putin in Gelendzhik. This is not true. There is no palace, he is not an owner of any palace,” Peskov insisted.
“Those are all rumors and there were some disputes between the owners of those premises but they really have no connection with President Putin,” he said.
For his part, Navalny is presently cooling his heels in far less luxurious accommodations, having been tossed into the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina prison, whose name means “Sailor’s Silence” in Russian. The prison, located in northeastern Moscow, is used for inmates the Russian government wishes to keep isolated from the outside world. Navalny was sent there on a 30-day pre-trial detention order and is currently held in isolation under a two-week coronavirus quarantine.
“It’s tough in the beginning. And not much easier after. You can be killed at any minute,” former high-profile inmate Mikhail Khodorkovsky helpfully told Navalny after visiting him at Matrosskaya Tishina on Monday night.
Undaunted, Navalny wrote a jocular statement from the prison where he compared his cell to the hospital room he occupied in Germany:
Hello everyone from the famous special block of Matrosskaya Tishina — Kremlin Central. I read about it in books and now I’m here myself — the Russian life. Basically, it’s very similar to the place where I woke up a few months ago. A small room [where] they don’t let you out. A window, an iron bed. Though this bed doesn’t have a grey remote that changes the position of your back and legs. But here they aren’t sticking needles with tubes in my body and aren’t connecting wires to me (at least not yet). And they also speak my native language. A big plus.
Navalny said he did not regret returning to Russia and facing arrest, declaring that he “could not have done otherwise.”
“It’s a completely rational choice. I refuse to put up with the lawlessness of the authorities [in] my country. I refuse to stay silent, listening to the shameless lies of Putin and his friends, mired in corruption,” he said.