Putin’s Imperial Palaces Are a Manchild’s Dream
The Russian leader isn’t the macho genius of Western fantasy.
By Konstantin McKenna, a writer in Tennessee.
JUNE 1, 2021,
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.
After freezing himself in a vain quest for eternal youth, he has the option to visit a “Thai massage” parlor, whose full-canopy bed suggests massages may be merely one of the services offered. Once he is satiated from that particular leisure, there are two spacious restaurant buildings to provide his supper, one of which is devoted entirely to beer.
The titanic palace comes off as a split-the-baby compromise between the opulence of the tsars’ palaces and the raunchiness of a gangster paradise. These crassly hedonistic facilities coexist alongside a stage theater with a two-story auditorium, a reading room (though no library), and vast gardens.
These are token offerings to the persistent Russian notion that leaders, however brutal their origins, have to be cultured. Nekulturny (“uncultured”) cuts in Russian in a way that has little equivalent in English; not only does Russian respect for the arts run deep, but so does the fear of being seen by others as a peasant. Soviet leaders were fierce autodidacts. Putin, however, although born into an upper-middle-class Soviet family, appears to have none of the aspirations for learning and the taste of a spoiled, rich teenager.
The architecture and decorations produce a textbook example of what writer Peter York terms “dictator chic,” a style characterized by “ludicrously overscaled” dimensions; extremely excessive use of gold, glass, and marble; ubiquitous rococo furniture; and frequent depictions of “macho creatures,” whether lions, eagles, or wolves. Golden two-headed eagles of dubious craftsmanship festoon much of the interior, and an inferior knockoff of the gold eagle atop the iconic and elaborate Winter Palace gate adorns the far less elaborate (but similarly massive) front gate of the structure. Gold, glass, and marble adorn nearly every room, as does furniture from Italian firms whose products are both flamboyant and outrageously expensive. A single couch and its dressing table together cost more than $54,000.
The Valdai dacha places most of the dictator chic in a single gaudy location: a Chinese-styled pavilion constructed out of marble with a golden roof. Its crudely and excessively gilded interior is outfitted with a circular table ideal for social drinking; the chairs, with comically oversized seats and comparatively undersized backs, are caricatures of Ming dynasty design.
Although previous royal palaces have often been centers of culture and politics, at which members of the elite mingled, Putin’s reclusive palace is a massively oversized playground for one. The colossal estate it sits on is guarded closely by the Federal Security Service. Boats must maintain a 2-mile distance from the shore, and a large no-fly zone exists above the abode. Its location on the Black Sea coast is far from the seat of government in Moscow, making this imitation of the Winter Palace and Versailles remarkably unsuited for holding court. Although the Romanovs and Bourbons used their palaces for vast festivities where much of the ruling class was invited, Putin’s similarly colossal edifice is only to be enjoyed by himself and a few close associates.
Nor does this location serve well for Putin’s family gatherings. Despite having two known grandchildren (both under the age of 10) and being suspected of having recently fathered two more children out of wedlock, no quarters or entertainment facilities for children have been identified within the palace. Located between a casino and a game room equipped with (among other attractions) several slot machines is a room dedicated to a set of electric toy cars and a track to race them, but the toys are displayed far above the floor in protective cabinets and the track is on a table too high for young children to use. Putin, it seems, is less Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars and more Rick Moranis in Spaceballs.
The Valdai dacha, at least, has a massively oversized playground, albeit one that oddly coexists with facilities for gambling, drinking, and “massage therapy.” Both the palace and the dacha, furthermore, have extensive sports facilities, including an underground ice hockey rink apiece. If Putin’s recent match against some of Russia’s top hockey players is any guide, his guests are expected to play as incompetently as necessary to let him win.
The purpose of the palace, however, is much clearer than that of the dacha: Far from governmental duties, removed from the responsibilities of family, and loaded with at least six distinct places to get wasted, this is not the abode of a confident ruler but the lair of an overgrown manchild. In a house with more than three times the floor area of the White House and on a vast estate more than 86 times the area of Camp David, Putin is free to indulge his heart’s desires as his country crumbles around him, impoverished by the sheer rapaciousness and incompetence of its president and his accomplices.
Konstantin McKenna is a writer in Tennessee.