A YouTube video uploaded by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) claiming to reveal details about Russian President Vladimir Putin's secret luxury villa has garnered 40 million views in just two days. According to the video — A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe — the edifice has 18,000 square meters (195,000 square feet) of living space and cost 100 billion rubles (€1.12 billion/$1.4 billion) to build.
Rumors of a presidential palace first surfaced in 2010, when the Russian businessman Sergei Kolesnikov leaked financial documents, contracts and other papers related to the real estate project. Kolesnikov said the undertaking was run by businessman Nikolai Shamalov, acting on Putin's behalf. The revelation sparked considerable media interest at the time. Several months later, Shamalov sold the property to businessman Alexander Ponomarenko, who said he wanted to convert it into a hotel.
Environmental activists have monitored the site for years, with some managing to enter and take pictures of the villa. Dmitry Shevchenko, who heads Russia's Civic Initiative Against Environmental Crime (CIAEC), a non-profit, is one of them.
DW: Mr. Shevchenko, did you learn anything new from Navalny's investigative video?
Dmitry Shevchenko: Yes — I was not aware they had built an underground ice rink. Aside from that, the investigation did not reveal many new insights. But it was a first attempt to systematically collate all information surrounding this construction project. The colleagues deserve praise for shining a light on overlapping money trails and shell companies.
You visited the construction site in 2011. Tell us about your experience.
We have been monitoring the project since 2004 or 2005, when plans to build at Cape Idokopas became public. We were angry because there are pristine Pitsunda pine forests in this area, which are protected in Russia. It was clear the forest would be cut down. When Kolesnikov's 2010 leak showed that the edifice under construction would not become a children's home but a residence for Russian President Putin, we began investigating further.
Why did you head out to the construction site?
In 2011, my colleague Suren Gazaryan and myself, along with activist Ekaterina Solovyova and journalist Rimma Achmirova of Russian newspaper Sobesednik, set out to find out more about the site. I must add that the site was not well-protected during the construction phase. We headed down the road leading out of Praskoveevka and passed the checkpoint. We did not have to hide, the gate was open. So we headed for the main building, almost to the large entrance adorned with a doubled headed eagle, which is shown in Alexei Navalny's film.
At first, nobody paid any attention to us. Construction workers were walking around but didn't ask us any questions. But when Federal Protective Service (FSO) agents spotted us, there was a big commotion. They made us stop filming. Luckily, I had hidden one memory card full of pictures in my boot. They are the only pictures of the site in existence today that were not taken by construction workers.
They did not know what to do with us. Two FSO agents, who clearly identified themselves as employees of the agency, came running toward us. They called the police and for some reason also border agents. A large number of private security contractors also showed up. They brazenly seized our private possessions as police looked on. They searched our car and then took all of our things over to the palace, that gray building.
What did you see at the site?
We saw the entire central building complex including the main entrance to the palace; we walked around it and to the side that faces the sea. I noticed then that the forest had been cut down by the main entrance, with a neat park in its place. The seaside forest had been left untouched. The idea is that you cannot see the main building from the water. Afterwards, I headed up into a room that is referred to as an "Aqua Disco" in Navalny's film. It's comprised of a kind of fountain, connected to a pool. We also peeked into the courtyard. The gate was locked, but we could see inside.
Did you know for whom this residence was being built when you went there?
We knew exactly where we were. But we were still surprised that FSO agents approached us. Officially, the palace is private property. We asked what FSO agents were doing there but got no answer.
We were also surprised by the number of foreign construction managers on site. When we were confronted by FSO agents, one man came over, telling us we had trespassed and were forbidden from filming. He spoke Russian with an Italian accent. Then the private security contractors started taking our possessions. The whole operation was run by a man from the Balkans, as we later learned.
What happened afterwards? Were there any consequences?
People at the site were relaxed and had not expected to see visitors. They had no idea what to do with us. But they decided to seize our camera footage, simply by taking all our possessions. Then police took us to the Divnomorskoye station. There, we gave written testimony that our possessions had been stolen. The next morning a police officer from the village called and said our possessions and documents had been found in the forest. Of course they did not return our memory cards. The entire affair was covered up.
But it did have consequences for us. Later, when Suren Gazaryan drove to the place and tried looking at the beach section, he ran into trouble with security guards. He faced a trial that forced him to leave the country at the time.
Did you return to the location after 2011?
We did not enter the site. But we observed what was happening nearby. An entire beach section has been blocked off to the public, which has sparked anger. I have seen border guards run people off the beach. They had to remove their tents and show their passports. Their personal data was documented. I later learned from media reports that Putin's yacht, Olympia, had been located just off the coast. Apparently, he was vacationing in the area at the time.
This interview was conducted by Natalia Smolentseva and Elena Barysheva
This article was translated from German by Benjamin Restle