How Russian anti-corruption investigators revealed a $1.3 billion mansion allegedly linked to Vladimir Putin
Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation used drones and a rubber dinghy to bypass strict security
Despite strict security measures, a team of investigators from Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) were able to reveal a $1.3 billion US (100 billion rubles) mansion they say belongs to Russian president Vladimir Putin using, in part, a rubber dinghy.
The video investigation, which was released online late last month, has ignited some of the biggest demonstrations in Russia's history.
Navalny was detained on Jan. 17 after returning from Germany where he was being treated for poisoning by a nerve agent, which he blames on the Russian government. On Feb. 2, he was sentenced by a Moscow court to 3½ years in prison for violating the terms of his probation.
Several of Navalny's colleagues at FBK have now been detained. But one of the lead investigators, Maria Pevchikh, is in London.
Reporter Madeline Roache recently spoke to Pevchikh about how the team uncovered the opulent property and wrote about it for Time. Roache shared the story with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Here is part of that conversation.
Before we get into the investigation itself, tell me about this property. What does a $1.3 billion palace look like?
It is morbidly luxurious. I mean, it covers more than 17,000 square metres. It's hard to picture how big that is, but if you imagine about 325 large mansions in L.A., you'd get the property. And its features include a vineyard, a casino, a greenhouse, an underground ice hockey rink. So pretty much anything you can imagine it has.
Then some of the smaller details, it has toilet brushes worth $800.
So how was Navalny's investigative team able to get such detailed information about the interior of this building?
This property started being constructed [in] 2005. People have known about it for the past 10 years, but the exact details, and what it looked like, was always sort of shrouded in mystery.
Over the past few years, Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation had been receiving an increasing number of leaked documents, and it turns out they are allegedly from construction workers at the palace. The palace has thousands of workers just renovating and maintaining the palace, so it seems it got to a point where they could not control the information even though phones were actually banned on site.
So the corruption team, they essentially were given floor plans, descriptions of what was in the property, the furniture, and they also tracked down the brands of furniture. They then called the manufacturers and asked for descriptions of the kind of furniture and the cost of it. And from all that information, they constructed the interior visuals of how the palace looked.
Navalny envisioned this video and the investigation from his hospital room in Berlin. But the video has released incredible drone footage of the palace, and that was a difficult piece of footage to get. How did the investigators manage it?
It essentially involved a cover-up operation. So it's difficult for members of the team to travel to this region, in particular in Krasnodar. There's a lot of hostility towards Navalny and his work, and often they say that they're being tracked.
So two members of the team, they travelled to the neighbouring town, Gelendzhik — but another member of the team replaced their phones with burners, then took those phones to a different city. So anyone who might be following them would be directed 240 km away to Sochi where the phones were.
That, they say, helped keep them safe. And because the palace is covered with high security, especially on land, they opted to go by a motor-powered rubber dinghy boat, so that's where they launched that drone from — from this boat bobbing in the sea.
And Russian authorities forbid them from coming within one mile of the shoreline, correct?
That's right, and they didn't give any reason.
And according to Navalny, it was only a requirement for this area. Nowhere else in Russia do you have to get permission.
Were they worried that the drone might get shot out, or that they may have been shot out of the water?
They were. And that fear didn't stop them trying four times to get the footage, and they honestly don't know how they did it. They think it might have just been luck, someone wasn't paying much attention that day. But they're very grateful.
That aerial footage certainly gives you an idea of the scale of the project. Putin has predictably denied any ties to this property. How does Navalny's organization link him to it?
So the company that owns the palace is linked to a company owned by Putin's first cousin once removed. So Putin's mother is this person's great aunt — this is Mikhail Shelomov — and they said that connection to Putin's own flesh and blood was significant.
It's also worth noting that Shelomov owns a 0.2 per cent share of Gazprom, the Russian oil giant, which would make him one of the richest people in Russia, yet he lives a relatively modest life. He lives in a townhouse in St. Petersburg, and he kept his day job.
So Navalny's team says that he's really just a nominee for this wealth that actually belongs to Putin, and he's just [a] nominee owner for the palace that is owned by Putin.
Many of the protesters that we've seen in the streets of Russia over the last three weeks have been seen carrying toilet brushes. How pivotal do you think this video was in galvanizing the demonstrations that we've been watching?
The protesters I've spoken to say [the video] was absolutely shocking, and many don't doubt the conclusions that Navalny makes. And the fact that he called for protests and released this video — and tens of thousands of people turned out in more than one hundred cities and towns across Russia — it makes the most widespread protests in the past 30 years in Russia, according to analysts who monitor this.
Usually protests are concentrated in Moscow, but the fact that this has spread across the country I think suggests it was very powerful.
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Annie Bender. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.