How did Vladimir Putin become so rich?
How much dosh has he got?
A lot, though it’s hard to be precise. The official Kremlin summary of Putin’s assets is laughably modest: a $140,000 income in 2020, plus three cars, a small apartment and a trailer. That should be taken with a shovelful of Siberian salt. Forbes describes Putin’s net worth as “the most elusive riddle in wealth hunting”. One estimate, in 2017, put it as high as $200bn, making him then the richest person in the world. Garry Kasparov, the Russian dissident and chess grandmaster, reckons the 69-year-old leader controls more money “than any individual in human history”. Whatever the true figure, Putin has built an incredibly unequal society. The top 0.001% of Russian adults now owns more wealth than the bottom 99.8% put together.
Where is all that wealth?
Hidden around the world in a labyrinthine system of slush funds and shell companies. Hundreds of billions of this “black cash” travels through London every year, says Catherine Belton in her book Putin’s People. The Russian president, and many of those he has enriched, are former KGB agents – back in the days of the Soviet Union, they would set up secret overseas funds to finance terrorist groups and communist parties in the West. They’ve evolved that practice into the modern obschak – Russian gangster slang for “kitty” – which is a common cash pot used for both business and pleasure by Putin and his cronies. The ambiguous ownership is key: cash and assets are generally “held” for Putin by others. “If the state says we need to give it up,” said oligarch Oleg Deripaska in 2007, about the aluminium giant Rusal he controlled, “we’ll give it up.”
What’s the money spent on?
Russians linked to the Kremlin or suspected of corruption have splashed out on more than £1.5bn in prime British property, according to the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. Many have donated generously to British politicians, particularly Conservatives. Russian influence in the capital has led to it being dubbed Londongrad, or Moskva-na-Thames (Moscow-on-Thames). Putin’s own spending habits are even more obscene: the $1.35bn “Putin’s Palace” on the Black Sea, still under construction, has an estate 39 times the size of Monaco and includes such necessities as an ice palace, greenhouse, church and strip club. Then there are 20 other presidential properties scattered around Russia, an almost $700,000 watch collection, 43 planes – one of which has a $75,000 gold toilet – and four yachts.
Where did Putin start out?
His mother was a factory worker and his father a conscript in the Soviet Navy. Putin joined the KGB after university; his first foreign posting was in Dresden in then East Germany, where he lived in a nondescript apartment building with his wife and two young daughters. Kremlin spin has it that Putin was a mere pen-pusher, but one of Belton’s sources claims he helped fund and organise the far-left Baader-Meinhof Group, which killed dozens of people in terror attacks in West Germany.
What about post-communism?
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Putin returned to his native St Petersburg. The Soviet Union then broke apart in 1991. In St Petersburg, Putin worked his way up in the mayor’s office, doing dodgy deals with the criminals who controlled the city’s port. It was here where Putin’s group of siloviki – “men of force” from the old Soviet security services – first established their power and influence. Eight of them, including Putin, built a cluster of dachas near the Finnish border and formed a cooperative named Ozero (lake). This Ozero group became a key part of Putin’s presidential inner circle.
How did Putin become president?
He moved to Moscow in 1996, where his administrative efficiency won him the trust of the then Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, who designated him his successor. When Putin took the top job in 1999, Russia had already been carved up by Yeltsin-allied, Western-leaning oligarchs – almost half of the country’s GDP was in the hands of just eight families. Putin and his siloviki gradually established control of Russia’s levers of power and began bringing these tycoons to heel. The tipping point came in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky – worth $3.7bn and in control of 17% of Russia’s oil production – was arrested. He was convicted of fraud and tax evasion and sent to a labour camp while his business empire was carved up by Putin’s cronies.
How did the new system work?
Russia’s valuable commodities like oil and gas were brought under the control of opaque, state-directed firms like Rosneft and Gazprom. They, in turn, did business with private companies owned, at least nominally, by Putin’s chums. Take Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire who plays ice hockey with him. Until 2014, Timchenko owned a large chunk of Gunvor, one of the world’s biggest crude oil traders, which was awarded huge contracts by Rosneft and Gazprom. “When Gunvor was created it was 100% Putin’s company,” one tycoon close to Putin tells Belton. “Timchenko is just the holder of a purse.” One of Belton’s sources also alleges that Putin personally directed Roman Abramovich to buy Chelsea Football Club as a way of bolstering Russia’s image in the West. Abramovich strongly denies this unsubstantiated claim and took Belton to court over it.
What does Putin say about his money?
In a 2008 press conference he dismissed all the rumours as “nonsense”, adding that his “greatest wealth” was the trust Russia put in him to lead. And that’s precisely why trying to pin down exact figures is useless, says Adam Taylor in The Washington Post. As the sole political power in Russia, he controls everything: currency reserves, the military, even the asphalt that paves the roads. “He has more power than money can buy.”