Over the weekend, cities across Russia were shaken by waves of protest. The immediate cause? An epic lifestyle exposé.
Having recovered from a poisoning widely believed to have been orchestrated by Russian authorities, opposition figure Alexei Navalny posted a lengthy YouTube video essay on January 19 calling for street protests against corruption. Exhibit A was the extravagance of what the film dubs “Putin’s palace,” the Russian president’s lavish, secret home on the Black Sea, which Navalny compared to the “new Versailles or new Winter Palace.”
“This is certainly not just a building. It is a symbol of the 20 years of Putin’s rule,” Navalny opines. He claims that it has been built at a cost of some 200 billion rubles, or about $2.65 billion, funneled to Putin from various oligarch cronies, making it the “world’s biggest bribe.”
On Monday, in the wake of the tense demonstrations, Putin took the unusual step of officially responding to Navalny, denying that he owns the sprawling complex. “None of what is listed there [is my] property, neither me, nor my close relatives. … Never!”
The video—which has thus far been seen 92 million times—begins by debunking the legends of Putin’s early life. It ends with a numbingly complex outline of the various shell companies connected to Putin’s various associates, family members, and mistresses, making the case that Putin is, in secret, effectively the world’s richest person.
But the meat of the nearly two-hour video relates to laying out, in exhaustive detail, the unthinkable luxury of Putin’s world.
“Today we will see what is considered impossible to see up close,” Navalny promises early on. “We will go where no one is allowed. We will pay Putin a visit and see with your own eyes that this man, in his racing for luxury and wealth, has gone completely mad.”
Word of the Putin’s estate is not totally new. What is new is the vividness with which Navalny sets out to illustrate it.
To make tangible the scope of the supposed secret complex, which is shielded from scrutiny by a no-fly zone and surrounded by a maritime buffer zone, the film shows Navalny’s assistants taking a raft into the waters offshore and launching a drone to capture aerial footage of the immense secret property. All told, the estate is nearly four times the size of nearby Gelendzhik, a resort town of 50,000 people.
The main residence shown in the video is more than 190,000 square feet, which makes it more palace than mansion. It sits on some 27 square miles of land—larger than the island of Manhattan.
Around it, the associated compound hosts a variety of other amenities: an arboretum with rare trees plus a greenhouse, said to be tended by some 40 gardeners; twin helicopter pads; a subterranean ice hockey rink; extensive vineyards that, Navalny claims, produce an exclusive wine served at Kremlin events; a 27,000-square-foot tea house for guests; and an outdoor amphitheater for concerts. A tunnel that accesses the beach doubles as a bunker. It also features special chamber cut into the mountainside that serves as a “tasting room” with a view of the sea.
The gate to Putin’s palace presents a gold eagle insignia which, Navalny notes, also featured on the gates of the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum.
“The fact that Putin put an exact replica of the Tsar’s eagle with a crown from the Winter Palace on the gate of his personal dacha tells us a lot about who he thinks he is.”
Navalny claims to have a copy of the architectural plans for the main building, obtained from a contractor.
“He was so stunned and enraged by the luxury of the decoration and the insane prices of furniture, that he sent us a detailed architectural plan of this object,” the longtime Putin critic explains.
According to these plans, the home features a cornucopia of amenities: a hookah bar with a retractable stripper pole; a personal casino (gambling is banned in most of Russia); a video game parlor; a special room to play with toy cars; an indoor swimming pool; a spa; a massage room; a beauty salon; saunas and hammams; plunge tubs and bathing pools; an “aqua-discoteque” with a swim-up bar; a cocktail lounge; a personal cinema; a wine-tasting room; a gym; a reading room; a music parlor; separate kitchens for meat and fish, vegetables, baked goods, and egg processing; and something called a “mud warehouse.”
The palace is designed by Italian architect Lanfranco Cirillo, who was given Russian citizen by Putin several years ago. The decor is what Peter York might call “dictator chic,” with lots of gold and velvet and simulations of aristocratic glamor. The furniture listed in the plans hails from bespoke Italian furniture companies Citterio, Pozzoli, and AB Italia, and Navalny has even managed to get prices for some of the decor.
These overstuffed chairs in his “room of entertaining games” cost the equivalent of $9,000 apiece.
This guest sofa is about $18,000.
These dressing tables come in at about $26,000 each, according to Navalny.
A leather sofa is worth the equivalent of $28,000.
An ornate table with a built-in bar costs over $49,000.
According to Navalny, even that large of an estate has proven insufficient for Putin, who has expanded his vineyard holdings to other nearby areas. A separate wine-making compound, dubbed “Old Provence,” located at the village of Krinitsa, features a building only slightly smaller than Putin’s palace, at 148,000 square feet.
Navalny claims to have obtained customs records for the décor at Old Provence, which include a tempered glass vase worth $36,000, a “gold moon” chandelier with a system of decorative leaves worth $36,000; a fabric sofa with 20 pillows, worth $42,000; and a coffee table with “melted metal finish,” worth $57,000.
Navalny notes that the bathrooms are decked out with Italian toilet brushes at $850 a pop and $1,200 toilet paper holders.
“Putin will not live here, he will sometimes drop in here, walk between the vineyards, praise the terroir and say ‘what a delight,’” Navalny opines.
“But in case something happens, a brush and paper holder [worth] 150 thousand rubles will be waiting for him in the toilet. The annual pension of the average Russian pensioner is in one of Putin’s latrines, which he may never enter.”