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The villa owned by Katerina Tikhonnova’s family in Biarritz, France, has a view much like this.
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Lyudmila’s French villa and handsome Monsieur How Putin’s ex-wife ended up with a multimillion-dollar view of the Atlantic Coast. A report by Olesya Shmagun

Источник: Meduza
The villa owned by Katerina Tikhonnova’s family in Biarritz, France, has a view much like this.
The villa owned by Katerina Tikhonnova’s family in Biarritz, France, has a view much like this.
Photo: Olga Kravets for Meduza

Ever since Vladimir Putin announced his divorce, his ex-wife Lyudmila has appeared only very rarely in public. Last year, the newspaper Sobesednik reported that she now has a new husband: Arthur Ocheretny, who heads a nonprofit foundation to which she has close ties. Journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) recently discovered that Ocheretny owns a villa on the Atlantic coast in France worth more than 5 million euros — in roughly the same area where the family of Katerina Tikhonova, Putin’s alleged daughter, also owns real estate. Meduza shares OCCRP correspondent Olesya Shmagun’s investigation into this story.

On June 6, 2013, forty-two years after Lyudmila Shkrebneva attended a concert where she first met Vladimir Putin, her future husband, the president and his wife went to a performance of the ballet “La Esmeralda” at the State Kremlin Palace. The couple was walking out after the first act, when a correspondent from the television network Rossiya-24 asked the Putins what they thought about the show. Then the reporter suddenly asked about the state of their relationship: there were rumors going around, she said, that the spouses don’t live together anymore.

“It’s true,” Vladimir Putin confirmed unexpectedly. “All my work is entirely public. For some people this is fine, and for others it isn’t. There are some people who just can’t reconcile with this. Lyudmila Alexandrovna [Putina] has been at this for eight… already nine years. So this was a joint decision.” Standing beside him with an awkward smile, Lyudmila Putina echoed what her — now already ex — husband had just said. “Our marriage is over,” she added, faltering slightly.

Lyudmila Putin: “My marriage with Vladimir Putin is over.”
RT in Russian

Vladimir Putin became the first leader in the history of Russia to have a public divorce, though there continues to be no reliable information about his private life — unlike his ex-wife’s life. In January 2016, the newspaper Sobesednik discovered that an apartment the Putin family owned since 1995 was transferred in July 2015 to Lyudmila Alexandrovna Ocheretnaya — a woman with the same name, patronymic, birthday, and place of birth as Lyudmila Shkrebneva-Putina.

This is how the country first learned the name Arthur Ocheretny, Lyudmila Putina’s alleged new husband and the director of the “Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications.” According to Sobesednik, in January 2014, Putina made one of her rare public appearances after her divorce, attending a literary awards ceremony established by the center’s subsidiary publishing house.

On April 3, 2017, the magazine StarHit published photographs showing Putina and Ocheretny leaving the arrivals terminal at Heathrow Airport in London. According to the reader who shot the photographs, they’d flown to Britain together from Moscow.

OCCRP has discovered that millions of euros suddenly appeared when Lyudmila Putina started seeing Arthur Ocheretny, a man who, according to public information, has never in his life earned a large salary or achieved great success in business. The euros were used to purchase an Art Deco-style villa on the Atlantic Coast in France.

Director, drywaller, and fisherman

Arthur Ocheretny was born in Lyubertsy, just outside the city of Moscow, where he attended the Number Eight School — an ordinary local school, as he’s described it in Facebook posts. The same birthplace appears in documents obtained by OCCRP. Little is known about Ocheretny’s parents. His father Sergei was a co-owner of one of his companies. A woman’s name appears in the same documents: Lyudmila Ivanovna Ocheretnaya — most likely, Arthur's mother. Her name appears in documents for an apartment on Ptitsefabrika street in Lyubertsy — apparently, the same apartment where Ocheretny spent his youth. And Number Eight School is very nearby.

Ocheretny spent many years as a businessman, albeit without much success. Based on publicly available documents, not one of his companies — whether it was a construction business, an IT firm, or a fishery — ever turned a serious profit.

For example, his plastering company “KA-Building,” launched in 2007, declared bankruptcy in 2013, when its accounts totalled little more than 3,000 rubles (about $50), and the company couldn’t pay back its creditors. According to reports by its bankruptcy manager, the company hasn’t conducted any business at all since 2011.

Arthur Ocheretny
Photo: website for the Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications

Another company created by Ocheretny was a fish-trading business called “Expodom.” In 2007 (the last time the company ever provided a financial statement to Rosstat, Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service), Expodom’s net profits were 169,000 rubles ($3,000) with annual receipts amounting to 10.5 million rubles ($187,000). In 2013, Russia’s state tax service ordered the business liquidated. By that time, it had been inactive for two years.

In 2014, another company owned by Ocheretny — “Fountain-Express,” a computer-repair store — was closed for the same reasons. The latest accounting records from this business on file with Rosstat are dated in 1999.

Arthur Ocheretny enjoyed slightly greater success as a hired manager. From 2003 to 2008, he worked as the general director of the agency “Art Show Center,” which organizes holiday celebrations and events. The center’s clients include government agencies and companies, and its website says, for instance, that the business organized congresses and roundtables for United Russia (the country’s ruling political party) between 2010 and 2017, the “Dialogue, Trust, Action” forum by the All-Russia People's Front, and the All-Russian Forum of Social Workers. Among Art Show Center’s clients, you’ll also find Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development, Gazprom, and Sberbank.

Despite its large clients, the company never showed great profits: in 2007, when Ocheretny was the director of Art Show Center, it earned 527,000 rubles ($9,300), with total revenue at about 57 million rubles ($1 million). A year earlier, the profits were just 12,000 rubles ($200).

According to the service Superjob, the monthly salary for a general director at a company in this industry starts at 200,000 rubles ($3,500). When Art Show Center recently announced on hh.ru that it was looking for a new general director, however, it set the monthly salary at just 100,000 rubles ($1,750) — and this was ten years after Ocheretny worked there, by which time the company’s sales turnover had grown tenfold.

Ocheretny quit business for good in August 2010, leaving to head the Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications, a nonprofit foundation and one of the Art Show Center’s former clients. Officially, the organization isn’t connected to Lyudmila Putina in any way, but she’s been called the foundation’s unofficial patroness ever since it was created. Even the state media has repeated these claims.

Putina attends public events only very rarely, but she has repeatedly appeared at events organized by the Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications.

As a private citizen, Ocheretny is under no obligation to report his income, but when it comes to Lyudmila Putina (or Skrebneva or Ocheretnaya), we know just about everything. Until mid-2013, she was the wife of a state official, and she declared all her property and wages. In all of 2012, she earned 121,000 rubles ($2,100). The year before, she made slightly more: 424,000 rubles ($7,400). In 2009, she earned just 582 rubles ($10).

All the property held by the Putins — two apartments, a plot of land, a garage, and three cars — stayed with Vladimir Putin after the divorce (or at least they still appear on his tax returns as president). In Putin’s campaign declaration, documents show Lyudmila also had 8 million rubles ($139,800) in savings.

Despite his modest record as a businessman and manager, Lyudmila Putina’s alleged new partner, Arthur Ocheretny, managed to buy a villa in France on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in December 2013 — just six months after Putina divorced the president. The villa was worth more than 5 million euros.

The “Souzanna”

In a remote part of Anglet, in a quiet little area with the sweet-sounding name Chiberta, there’s an oceanfront Art Deco villa that the locals call “Souzanna.” A landmark, the building’s semi-circular perron — decorated with a bas-relief by the architects Jean and Joel Martel — is a recognized architectural monument.

The villa covers 450 square meters (4,843 square feet) and features four bedrooms, a living room, a dining room with a terrace, a music room, and a billiard room. “Souzanna” is surrounded by a large, 5,000-square-meter (1.2-acre) park with an outdoor pool, the windows look out on the Atlantic Ocean, and all around is a golf course.

This is a place where enormously affluent people spend their old age.

Photos from the Anglet municipality of the villa “Souzanna” before renovations
Photo: Olga Kravets for Meduza

In May 2013, the French magazine Le Figaro Proprietes, which covers only the most lavish real estate, published an announcement that the villa has been sold. The price paid for the property was listed as between 6 and 7 million euros. According to documents for the villa, its base value had been appraised at almost 5.4 million euros. The magazine article said the home retained many unique interior details, such as marble floors, moldings, and original chandeliers.

OCCRP obtained documents confirming that Arthur Ocheretny bought the villa in December 2013. In records about the owner of the property, only the surname is listed, but the vila’s renovations plans (OCCRP has a copy of these, as well) also reveal the first name, surname, and birthdate of the person who submitted the application to the city (because construction work in Anglet must first be approved by the local authorities). All data in these documents matches Ocheretny’s personal information, and the signature on the forms matches his signature as director of the Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications.

Ownership certificate for the villa

After buying “Souzanna,” the new owners decided to remodel it almost entirely, even giving it a new name. In the renovation plans, the villa already appears not as “Souzanna” but as “Reverie.” In February 2015, they filed a request with Anglet’s authorities to remodel the historic villa. According to locals, the construction work began in October 2016.

Today, the building is sitting there without hardly any walls, covered in scaffolding. Based on the remodeling plans, “Reverie” should be getting panoramic windows, a roof area with a small pool, and a completely renovated interior.

The project’s chief architect, Luc Vaichere, refused to reveal the total cost, calling it a commercial secret. “Architects, like doctors, don’t like to talk about their clients,” he said, adding that he’s never met this client in person. All negotiations, he said, were carried out with lawyers representing the customer.

Remodeling plans for the villa that Arthur Ocheretny submitted to local officials in Anglet
Photo: Olga Kravets for Meduza

According to locals, however, all work on the villa ceased about a month ago. When OCCRP’s correspondent visited the area, a construction crane was idle, and there were no workers around the house.

This is what the villa looked like in the spring of 2017
Photo: Olga Kravets for Meduza

Life after divorce

It’s not at all clear how Arthur Ocheretny, the director of a nonprofit foundation, could afford to buy this villa and then remodel it so lavishly. As a nonprofit organization, the foundation earns money in various spheres: for example, it conducts career-training seminars for librarians (charging 3,900 rubles, about $70, for a two-day event) and offers “psychological courses,” ranging from 500 to 2,000 rubles ($9 to $35) per session.

The center also receives money from the state. In 2015, the Moscow city government paid the organization 62 million rubles ($1.1 million) to “create conditions for effective communication and interaction in society.” At various times, different state corporations have also donated money to the foundation, like in 2012, when a subsidiary of Russian Railways wrote a check for 25 million rubles ($437,000).

Judging by accounting records, the foundation’s salary bank is substantial: 25 million rubles in 2012, and about 18 million rubles ($315,000) in 2013. Newer figures are unavailable, as is any information about the size of the organization’s workforce or the salary of its director.

Arthur Ocheretny did not respond to a letter from OCCRP asking him to comment about remarks that have appeared in online social media.

Lyudmila Putina on April 29, 2014, at the Gorky Literary Prize ceremony, established by the publishing house that is a subsidiary of the Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications.
Photo: Vyacheslav Prokofiev / TASS

As for Ocheretny’s alleged wife, Lyudmila Putina, she started acquiring various business assets soon after her divorce. In 2014, for instance, she became the owner of 99 percent of a real-estate company called “Meridian.”

This company’s earnings, it turns out, are closely tied to the Center for Development of Interpersonal Communications. Meridian owns the long-term lease to a large portion of the premises that belong to the center, located at the Volkonsky House historic mansion in Moscow. The company leases the space at market rates. Judging by the advertisements on the website Tsian, the cost of renting 1 square meter (11 square feet) is about 35,000 rubles ($612) a year. Renting this space alone, Meridian could earn almost 183 million rubles ($3.2 million) a year.

To date, nothing more is known about Meridian’s business activities.

In 2015, Lyudmila Putina also registered an apartment in her name. The apartment had previously been owned by her family, first registered in her mother’s name, and then under her sister’s name.

The young Monsieur

Locals in Anglet will happily tell you that real estate in the area is often bought up by wealthy retirees. “Just over there, there’s a house owned by a businessman who used to have a porcelain production factory,” says a local pensioner named Bernard, pointing to a villa not far from the “Souzanna.” “And over there, there’s a former big finance guy. We’re all retired now. Some people saved up for a fancy villa, and others, like me, inherited a house.”

Bernard also says he knows the Souzanna’s new owners.

“It’s Art Deco!” he says. “The villa was owned by some French family since time immemorial, but they hardly ever even visited the place, and a couple of years ago they sold it off. And the buyer is Putin’s ex-wife. Everyone here knows that. This is a little province. Everybody knows everything about each other.”

Anglet’s downtown wharf, spring 2017
Photo: Olga Kravets for Meduza

But Bernard has never even heard of Arthur Ocheretny, the man who officially owns the villa. He’s never laid eyes on him or Lyudmila Putina, though he says the local postman met her once: “She drove up in a car, he said. She was with some young Monsieur. He was handsome — a real ‘ooh-la-la’ type.”

Russians living in Biarritz know that President Putin’s family likes to spend time in the city. According to local lore, it was precisely here in 1999 that Boris Berezovsky persuaded Vladimir Putin to become Boris Yeltsin’s successor. Berezovsky used to repeat this story himself, saying that Putin and his family stayed in a “very modest condominium” at the time.

On June 6, 2013, speaking about his divorce, Putin also mentioned his daughters, clarifying that they “got their education in Russia and live permanently in Russia.”

And yet Putin’s ex-wife isn’t the only one in his family who seems to have laid down roots in Biarritz: Katerina Tikhonova, a woman identified in both the Russian and foreign media as Putin’s daughter, also has ties to the French city.

According to Reuters, Tikhonova’s husband is Kirill Shamalov, the son of Nikolai Shamalov, a co-owner of the bank Rossiya and one of Putin’s oldest friends. In November 2015, Reuters says Kirill Shamalov bought real estate in Biarritz worth $3.7 million. This property is located just a few miles from Ocheretny’s new villa.

The villa in Biarritz owned by Kirill Shamalov, Vladimir Putin’s alleged son-in-law, according to Reuters, spring 2017.
Photo: Olga Kravets for Meduza

Like Lyudmila Putina, Katerina Tikhonova is rarely spotted in Biarritz. “She comes here, but they arrive in black limousines with tinted windows, so we can’t see anything,” a woman who lives nearby told OCCRP’s correspondent. “Of course, I didn’t dare go knocking on their front door with a neighborly welcome cake.”

Working as a tour guide in Biarritz, another woman said that it’s entirely possible to see members of Putin’s family in town. “I once saw the mother with her daughter at the market,” she recalled. “Yes, there were walking around totally in the open. I don’t think anyone recognizes them here. After all, apart from being the president’s relatives, they don’t really stand out.”

Olesya Shmagun, Biarritz, Anglet, Moscow

Translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock