Navalny’s film about Putin’s palatial monument to bad taste has now been seen by 100 million people – Hollywood, eat your heart out.
None of the Russian viewers gasped with incredulity. That sort of thing is par for the entire course of Russian history. In the West, rich men become politicians; in Russia, politicians become rich men. Everyone knows that.
Still, knowing it and seeing it are two different things. In a country where over 20 per cent of the population have no indoor plumbing, the room-by-room virtual tour of Putin’s palace came close to causing a scandal, and it was certainly a factor in mass protests.
Within hours of the film being uploaded, Putin’s spokesman Peskov told journalists Putin isn’t the proud owner. Who is then? Peskov clearly wanted to say “He hasn’t been appointed yet.” Instead, he said “I haven’t a clue”.
Now, even in Russia the circle of people who could afford such a monstrosity is rather narrow. And if we look at those who could have it guarded by a company of FSB thugs, protected by a cocoon of a no-fly zone and insulated by a 2km exclusion zone for sea traffic, then the circle narrows down even more.
Yet Peskov didn’t even venture a guess, and the inquisitive pundits left the press conference dissatisfied. Their frustration quickly worked its way into an outburst of mockery, mostly vented in foreign media. Rather than fearing Vlad, the world began to laugh at him. His attempts at pathos were becoming pathetic.
Something had to be done. Simply denying Putin’s ownership was no longer enough. A stand-in owner absolutely had to be named for verisimilitude, which caused a bit of a scramble in the Kremlin.
Urgent phone calls went out to the Abramovich types around the world, but none was eager to carry the can at first. “Really, Vlad,” they must have been saying. “Who on earth could believe such a thing?”
“I don’t give a monkey’s what they could believe!” Vlad must have objected. “It’s what they could prove that matters. And I’ll make it worth your while.”
It says a lot about the grotesque unreality of the situation that it took Vlad all of 10 days to find a stand-in owner. But find one he did.
His childhood friend and judo partner Arkady Rotenberg finally agreed to go before the press. “It won’t remain a secret any longer,” he announced.
“I’m the owner. The project was complicated, there were many investors involved, but I managed to take over. It’s quite a find: the location is terrific.”
For a cozy retreat? No, for the apartment hotel that the palace will become. “I like this hotel business a lot,” said Rotenberg. “Especially since it can become tourist business.”
According to him, he bought the estate several years ago. Then why did he keep his ownership secret and, once the news broke, have to wait 10 days before acknowledging it?
“Because of the purely human factor,” explained Putin’s pal, one of the Russian gangsters under sanctions in the West. “Insinuations are being written.”
That’s where he lost me. I would have thought that precisely for that reason Rotenberg should have come forward within minutes of the film’s first run. Why wait 10 days while his best friend and benefactor was dragged over the coals of worldwide ridicule?
After all, but for Putin, Rotenberg would still be an obscure judo trainer in Petersburg, with perhaps a side line in some small-scale crime. It was Vlad who picked him and his brother out of obscurity and made them billionaires within a couple of years.
It was Vlad who gave him 30 per cent of the vodka business (Russia’s sole growth industry), a bank with 100 branches all over Russia, a construction company with an inside track to the juiciest state contracts and God only knows what else.
So why leave his friend and godfather so exposed for so long? The answer is, Rotenberg didn’t. It simply took Vlad and Peskov a while first to come up with this transparent lie and then to appoint the right figurehead.
My heart bleeds for Vlad. For even he won’t be able to get away with keeping the palace for himself now. He’ll actually have to give his retirement bolthole to Rotenberg, who’ll then have to convert it to an apartment hotel.
Considering the existing layout, that would probably mean gutting the palace and redesigning it from scratch. But hey, what’s a billion or two among friends? There’s always more where that came from – the impoverished, browbeaten, tyrannised Russian people.