A Palace for Putin: Navalny’s most daring move yet?7 min read
A Palace for Putin, Alexei Navalny’s latest anti-corruption video, has taken the internet by storm, much to the grievance of Vladimir Putin. On January 19, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) shared a link to the exposé on Twitter, captioned: ‘And you know what we have?! An investigation into Vladimir Putin!’. Kiera Yarmush, Navalny’s press secretary, later tweeted that the documentary had received 6 million views in just four hours.
The video was released two days after Navalny left Germany for Moscow; detained immediately upon his arrival at Sheremetyevo airport. Charged with missing parole hearings, he was held at one of Moscow’s most infamous jails, Matrosskaya Tishina, or Sailor’s Silence, until February 2, when he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.
Navalny was poisoned in August last year while flying back to Moscow from Tomsk, Siberia where he had been meeting with local supporters in preparation for regional elections. The plane made an emergency landing when Navalny began writhing in pain. On touch down, he was taken to a hospital in Omsk, which was ill-equipped to treat him. Despite much resistance from doctors, Navalny was eventually permitted to leave Russia for Germany where he would receive the necessary treatment. According to Kira Yarmush, doctors had been instructed by the Kremlin to obstruct Navalny’s departure, to stall for time and wait until the poison in his body could no longer be traced. However, doctors in a Berlin clinic were able to confirm poisoning with Novichok, the same KGB-era nerve agent used against the Skripals in Salisbury, 2018 and which killed Dawn Sturgess. Navalny however, was able to make a full recovery, and in an act of defiance characteristic of his ongoing campaign against Putin, he filmed Putin’s Palace while in Germany.
“Putin has such complexes”
The nearly two-hour-long epic starts in the former German Democratic Republic in Dresden, where Putin served as a KGB operative until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Symbolic of his journey from communal living to Tsar-like status, ‘Putin’s Palace’ takes its viewers on a journey from the President’s humble beginnings to his extravagant fortress, located on the Black Sea coast and spanning 68 hectares. On their fourth attempt, the FBK’s team successfully flew a drone over this restricted area from a small boat. Their footage uncovers the long-hidden and secretive residence of the President, and also reveals that after more than a decade, the site still appears to be under construction. According to Navalny, poor building work is to blame, further demonstrating that Putin has no qualms about spending billions of rubles on repairs, with a seemingly never-ending flow of cash being pumped into the project.
The full territory is protected by a no-fly zone and includes a vineyard, a chateau (not to be confused with the palace next door), and an underground hockey complex to name a few features. The Russian president’s 7,000 hectares dwarfs the home of former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, whose notoriously excessive residence with its private zoo complex and tennis court, was appropriated by the Ukrainian state after he fled in 2014. It is impossible to conceptualise the real magnitude of Putin’s residence’ (if we can call it that?) without comparison, and I had never even heard of a hectare before. As it turns out, 7,000 hectares is equal to an immense 70km, meaning Putin’s palace with all its amenities, is just shy of the equivalent to 10 Red Squares laid out in a row. Navalny makes a conservative estimate that the total money spent on Putin’s palace amounts to 100 billion rubles, or £958,087,300.
Several times during the documentary, Navalny alludes to Putin’s inferiority complex, as a potential driving force behind the president’s decision to build himself such a grandiose residence. Catherine Belton also takes note of this characteristic in her book, ‘Putin’s People’. Her conversation with a former Kremlin official, once close to Putin, reveals that the president’s tendency to view dealings through a zero-sum lens is not exclusive to foreign policy, but also marks his personal policy towards colleagues. When the new president and his chief of administration, Igor Sechin, both received their official apartments from Pavel Borodin in 2000, Putin was horrified to discover his apartment was 31 square metres smaller than Sechin’s. “Putin has such complexes”, the former Kremlin official told Belton. Like a petulant child, the president then gave Sechin the silent treatment for several weeks. Such an incident serves as both prophetic and revealing. With the privilege of hindsight, this event may have been a precursor to the palace, as an embodiment of the chip that continues to sit so uneasily on Putin’s shoulder, even after 20 years in office.
Among the most telling of choices in the palace décor, is a replica of the two-headed eagle that sits atop the Winter Palace gates in St Petersburg, also finding its way to the gates of Putin’s dacha. The two-headed eagle is an historical symbol of the Russian imperial family, reminiscent of the Romanovs in all their glory. More than a pretty ornament, it may further demonstrate Putin’s resolve to return Russia to her former status as a great power. However, more importantly, it may also indicate his personal aspirations toward attaining Tsarist status.
In his response to the documentary, Putin seems at least partly bemused, but also strongly in denial. He first denies even having watched the film, claiming he simply lacks the free time. However, I am sure I cannot be the only one to conjure up a cartoon-like image in my head of an irate villain, sitting in the shadows of his private theatre in his secret palace, vehemently drinking wine brought in by his own personal waiters, from his own personal vineyard. The Russian president asserts that nothing shown in the video belongs to him, calling the documentary a “montage”, “simply a compilation”. Navalny’s unscrupulous investigation and seemingly watertight evidence, however, makes this claim very difficult to believe.
At the end of Putin’s Palace’, Navalny tells his viewers that no amount of money will ever be enough, that Putin and his friends will continue to engage in high-level bribery, steal from the state, and ever embellish their luxurious lifestyles. As though comparing the Putin network to a small bureaucracy of its own: out of control and ever-expanding, Navalny pleads with those who feel apathetic towards the situation to “stop waiting”. The vicious cycle will continue as Putin’s children grow up, and their children grow up, not to mention the “Millers, Rothenbergs, Kovalchuks and Timchenkos”, and their children and so on.
In September 2020, and despite the Kremlin’s efforts against Navalny’s growing influence, Putin’s United Russia party lost its majority in the Tomsk city council, where the opposition leader had been speaking with supporters before he was poisoned. Perhaps foreshadowing the downward spiral that would follow, these elections revealed that Putin’s fervent grip on power was already beginning to strain. The FBK’s documentary was yet another blow to the Putin administration, one that appears to be slowly sinking beneath the weight of Navalny’s unremitting criticism, as well as the pandemic.
The Kremlin’s methods of silencing dissenters are often reminiscent of the KGB’s operations and look to be taken straight from the Cold War playbook. A playbook, which may be becoming obsolete and incongruent with the present day. Putin’s Russia as well as the rest of the world has witnessed increased accountability through social media, meaning toxic tea, a shooting in the dead of night, and secret poisonings receive increasingly uncontrollable attention, both domestically and internationally. ‘Putin’s Palace’ was perhaps Navalny’s most daring move yet, meaning the Russian President, now under intense global observation and scrutiny, may be forced to make his next move more carefully.