“Vladimir Putin doesn’t own palaces,” the Kremlin boomed this week, in response to a feature-length viral video that appeared to show, in extensive detail, one of Vladimir Putin’s palaces. To be fair, that’s not technically a lie. The house in activist Alexei Navalny’s new film is not so much a palace as it is a private kingdom—an MTV Cribs: Oligarch Edition monstrosity of an estate that encompasses an area more than 35 times the size of Monaco.
Sprawled on a densely forested outcrop on the edge of the Black Sea, Putin’s party palazzo allegedly features a private port, a border checkpoint, a small army of staff, and its very own no-fly zone. There are vineyards, an oyster farm, an underground ice-hockey rink, an Orthodox church, a private casino, a nightclub (featuring a “dancing pole”), a theater, and a secret cliff-face tunnel leading down to a private beach. (The dacha also reportedly encompasses an “egg processing” workshop, a “mud warehouse,” and an “aqua discoteque.” Putin is said to be particularly fond of his arcade and dedicated electric-car-racing room. Probably best to let him win.
An MTV Cribs: Oligarch Edition monstrosity of an estate that encompasses an area more than 35 times the size of Monaco.
Needless to say, you’ll require a special invitation to enjoy the labyrinthine spa facilities or the souk-grade hookah lounge. The 190,000-square-foot palace, tucked away beyond the sleepy resort town of Gelendzhik, is encircled by an “impregnable” security fence, while the fishing waters off its coast come under the special jurisdiction of the F.S.B., Putin’s secret service. (Even official guests are kept at arm’s length in a grand “Tea House” residence, separated from the main house by a deep gully and a 262-foot bridge.) This is Area 51 with added banyas. But that didn’t stop the colleagues of Alexei Navalny—anti-corruption campaigner and photogenic Novichok dodger—from popping over with an inflatable dinghy and a drone to have a nose about the place.
The resulting footage is a fever-dream mash-up of Versailles, Disneyland, and the splashier reaches of Trump Tower. The drone hovers over an Italianate clifftop mansion decked out with galleries and porticoes and gold-leaf gates before swooping up a boulevard lined with an arboretum of rare trees toward a heliport, a “gladiatorial” amphitheater, and a small village of staff quarters. These are unusually plush fixtures for a patch of nondescript coastal land designated, according to official papers, to nothing more than “research and educational” purposes. But with an alleged construction cost of some 100 billion rubles (the house has been stripped and rebuilt several times, apparently due to “sloppiness and mold”), perhaps Putin would rather his hungry subjects didn’t know too much about this little weekend bolt-hole. There’s a distinct “Let them eat borscht” stench to the place. The film claims that the house, perhaps the most expensive residence in the world, was acquired via Putin’s ravenous kleptocracy and a spider diagram of dead-eyed oligarchs. “The president of Russia is mentally ill,” the film concludes. “He is obsessed with wealth and luxury.”
There are vineyards, an oyster farm, an underground ice-hockey rink, an Orthodox church, a private casino, and a nightclub (featuring a “dancing pole”).
The viral sting caps off one hell of a year for Alexei Navalny. In August 2020, on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, the anti-corruption activist was poisoned with a deadly nerve agent and evacuated to Berlin, where he was placed in an induced coma until early September. (The Kremlin denies any involvement with the attack.)
Lesser dissidents would have called it a day. But on Sunday, Navalny flew back to Moscow in order to be near the action when his film was released. “Alexei didn’t want this investigation’s main character, Vladimir Putin, to think that we are afraid of him,” said a spokesman from the activist group FBK. Navalny was detained the moment he landed on Russian soil, apparently in connection to the violation of a suspended sentence from 2014—a move he called a “mockery of justice.” In many ways, though, the arrest plays directly into his hands—it has drawn yet more attention to his cause and to his cinematic investigation, which has already been viewed more than 61 million times.
The film ends with a punchy call to arms. “If 10 percent of those who are disaffected take to the street, the government will not dare falsify elections.” For the average Russian, there’s a lot to feel disaffected by. Navalny unearths some exquisite details. At one point, he discovers a leather sofa worth some 20 million rubles—far more than the average price of a two-bedroom apartment in Russia. (“There are 47 of them in his palace,” he says deadpan to the camera, like Jimmy Kimmel in a stab vest. “I wonder if he sits on them all, or just on the most expensive ones?”)
At another, he alights on a set of imported Italian toilet brushes, bought at a cost of $850 apiece. “That’s the annual pension of the average Russian pensioner,” Navalny reminds us. “This is not just a palace. It’s a symbol of 20 years of Putin’s rule.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL