Putin’s Imperial Palaces Are a Manchild’s Dream
Ever since his accession, Westerners have been fascinated by the macho image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shirtless, horseback-riding, karate-chopping leader became a meme. So did the ideas about his power that went with it: a Machiavellian leader and brilliant strategist, always one step ahead.
That idea was always a myth. But recent efforts by Russian dissidents have further busted it open. Behind closed doors, Putin isn’t a bear-wrestling genius. He’s a corrupt manchild. Those revelations have sparked rage from Putin himself, including more rounds of arrests and persecutions. But they also show the rot deep at the heart of the regime more clearly than any fantasy of an omnipotent and macho foe.
On Jan. 17, after recovering from a nearly fatal poisoning at the hands of his own government, Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny returned home. He was instantly arrested by the same state apparatus that had nearly claimed his life. But Navalny, one step ahead of his foes, had already finished production of his next anti-corruption expose, A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe, detailing and revealing the history of a colossal palace and estate on the Black Sea coast near the resort town of Gelendzhik, Russia. Its release—and Navalny’s arrest—sparked protests across Russia. Navalny’s colleagues at the Anti-Corruption Foundation (which Navalny founded in 2011) have continued their struggle without him, even as they staunchly advocate for his immediate release
On April 15, they released The Secret of Putin’s Valdai Dacha (a Russian term that roughly means “vacation home”), which details an official but closely guarded and previously unseen lakeside residence in the Valdai Hills, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin’s state apparatus reacted on April 27 by labeling the foundation an illegal extremist group.
It is not difficult to see why Putin is enraged by Navalny and his colleagues’ work: Both pieces are a deep dive into his appalling defects as both a leader and a human being.
As A Palace for Putin begins, Navalny explicitly declares it to be a “a psychological portrait” of Putin, whom he writes off as a “madman obsessed with wealth and luxury.” He parallels Putin’s almost 20-year rule over Russia with the slapdash management of the facility itself, snuffing out Putin’s carefully crafted image at home as a competent technocrat and abroad as a fearsome mastermind. Beneath this facade, both A Palace for Putin and the dacha exposé reveal not a charismatic leader but a reasonably devious, thoroughly thuggish, and incredibly lucky criminal far out over his skis.
Various details regarding the Black Sea palace and nearby Putin-owned properties have made Russia’s dictator the subject of laughter. Some guffawed at an $850 toilet brush and a nearly $1,300 toilet paper holder. Others mocked the presence of a prized aqua discotheque (a fountain-like device that pours water to produce a selected tune, located in one of the palace’s bars), now the subject of a satirical rap by Russian performer TMNV, who pleads “Vova, take me out to the aqua discotheque … Put some shit in the hookah …We’re going to bug [Navalny].” (“Vova” is an informal Russian shortening of “Vladimir,” akin to an English-speaker calling a William “Bubba.”)
The hookah, as it happens, is real. In addition to three dedicated bars and two wine-tasting rooms, Putin’s palace apparently possesses a specialized hookah lounge equipped with ample seating, at the center of which lies a stage with a dancing pole.
Nor is the Valdai dacha without absurd features, such as a “Vladimirskaya” church named after its eponymous owner, a miniature casino, and a massive spa complex. The complex is especially risible, containing just about every cosmetic facility short of plastic surgery, including a dental office. Most amusing of these is a full-body cryogenic chamber, a pseudoscientific fantasy used by individuals with more money than sense to (supposedly) rejuvenate their skin by subjecting it to temperatures far below freezing. Presumably, Putin finds actually going shirtless outside in hypothermic temperatures to be insufficiently chic.