stories

The man with the golden shoes The key figure in Alexey Navalny’s ‘RussiaGate’ investigation is Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko. Just who is he?

Meduza
Dmitry Astakhov / Russian Government Press Service / TASS / Vida Press

On February 8, politician Alexey Navalny published his latest bombshell report, revealing that billionaire Oleg Deripaska hosted Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko, along with several “escort girls,” aboard his yacht in August 2016, off the shores of Norway. Navalny is accusing Prikhodko of corruption and calling for an investigation. He says the oligarch and the state official discussed Victoria Nuland (Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs) and possibly plotted Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One of Russia’s least public high-ranking state officials, Sergey Prikhodko spent many years managing the Kremlin’s foreign policy, before taking over as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s chief of staff. Meduza special correspondent Taisiya Bakbulatova takes a closer look at Prikhodko’s career and his possible trajectory following the scandal unearthed by Navalny.

A very nice diplomat

After graduating from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1980, Sergey Prikhodko started his career in socialist Czechoslovakia as a diplomat in the Soviet embassy. Fluent in Czech, French, and English, he arrived as a simple personal assistant, but by 1991 he’d become the Soviet embassy’s first secretary in Czechoslovakia. When he finally returned to Moscow, Prikhodko continued working in diplomacy for the Russian Federation, heading the Foreign Ministry’s Baltic Department. In this position, he fought for visa-free transit through Lithuania for Russian citizens traveling to Kaliningrad, and he made it Moscow’s policy to stand up for ethnic Russians in Latvia. By 1997, Prikhodko was acting deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s second European Department.

In the spring of 1997, Prikhodko’s career suddenly took a sharp turn: in April, he was appointed to serve as an advisor on foreign affairs to President Boris Yeltsin. Then Kremlin spokesman Sergey Yastrzhembsky lobbied for the appointment. He knew Prikhodko from their days in Czechoslovakia, where he worked for the magazine “Problems of Peace and Socialism,” which was published in Prague. According to some reports, Prikhodko and Yastrzhembsky were brothers-in-law, having married sisters.

Georgy Satarov, another former Yeltsin advisor who was responsible for the Kremlin’s contacts with the parliament and various political organizations, confirms that it was Yastrzhembsky who brought Prikhodko onto Yeltsin’s team. “That’s right. First, he was an assistant to the president, and he was effective,” Satarov says, recalling that “ineffective officials didn’t last long in the Kremlin.” He says Prikhodko was tasked with helping the president with various international issues, “and he did it quite successfully.” “I can say for certain that he didn’t advocate conquering Crimea, back then,” Satarov says.

Prikhodko immediately started accompanying the president on trips abroad and during visits from foreign dignitaries, particularly to help resolve problems with Ukraine and Belarus. The work involved a lot of boring paperwork, but it also included a blessing from the Pope and dinner parties where they served herring and mushroom salad. According to Satarov, “this was a time when a presidential advisor was a significant figure.” “I won’t say who was ‘more important’ relative to the Foreign Ministry, but it’s beyond question that advisors had more influence on some final decisions,” Satarov says, describing Prikhodko as a “very nice person who never lost his sense of humor.”

By June 1997, Alexander Livshits (a deputy in the Yeltsin administration) was also praising Prikhodko, saying, “The new international affairs assistant makes a very good impression.” In a personnel shakeup the following May, First Deputy Chief of Staff Viktoriya Mitina lost her job to Vladimir Putin, but Prikhodko was one of three advisors to keep his post. Sergey Yastrzhembsky said at the time that the Kremlin’s personnel changes had “reached their logical conclusion.” This observation turned out to be a bit premature.

Faith in tomorrow

In September 1998, it was Yastrzhembsky’s turn to be fired. “His ouster was the final step in presidential chief of staff Valentin Yumashev’s fight for a monopoly on the information the president receives. Now Boris Yeltsin will know even less about what’s happening in the country,” wrote Kommersant journalist Natalya Timakova (Dmitry Medvedev’s future spokesperson). “Yumashev spent all of yesterday explaining the main reason for the press secretary’s departure, saying, ‘I can’t manage the situation if Sergey stays.’ I dare say there’s no better way to explain why Yastrzhembsky was fired. After all, for Yumashev to do what he loves most — ‘problem solve’ — he only needs to manage a single person: Yeltsin. And it’s a lot easier to manage him when he doesn’t really know what’s happening in the country.”

Yastrzhembsky lost his place as deputy head of Yeltsin’s administration to a man he once recruited for the Kremlin: Sergey Prikhodko. “Yumashev personally asked him not to leave with the press secretary, telling him to stay on the staff,” wrote Timakova. By the end of the year, however, Yumashev found himself on the outside looking in, losing his job to former Security Council Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha.

From left to right: Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Prikhodko, meeting at the Kremlin, August 23, 1999
From left to right: Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Prikhodko, meeting at the Kremlin, August 23, 1999
Alexander Chumichev / TASS

In his new position, Prikhodko continued to oversee foreign policy issues, gaining more and more influence in the Yeltsin administration. In 1999, Prikhodko was one of the only Kremlin officials who saw a complete advanced copy of the president’s state of the nation speech, which was prepared that year in great secrecy. In February that year, he was simultaneously made head of the administration’s foreign policy, traveling with Yeltsin to the presidential residence at “Gorki-9” outside Moscow, where he reported on preparations for top-level negotiations. In mid-1999, when asked by Kommersant what he considered to be the “symbol of success in life,” Prikhodko answered: “Work, which I enjoy. And also the wellbeing of my children — their peace of mind and faith in tomorrow.” Prikhodko had two young daughters at the time.

In July 1999, rumors started circulating that Prikhodko’s time had finally come, claiming that he’d let slip to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov certain information that was supposed to remain behind the Kremlin’s walls. But the other shoe never dropped, even when there were reports that Prikhodko might replace Alexander Voloshin as chief of staff. In the end, even after Vladimir Putin became president, both officials remained at the Kremlin in exactly the same jobs.

Earlier that year in May, Putin received from Yeltsin “the final regalia of the head of state: the presidential Ilyushin Il-96 aircraft,” which he used to fly to Tashkent. Sergey Prikhodko was also on the flight. The trip would inspire a story that later appeared in a book titled “Tales of a Kremlin Digger” by journalist Elena Tregubova, who wrote: “As usual, I approached Prikhodko for a comment. But the answer I got was decidedly unusual for a high-ranking state official. He said, ‘You know, Lena, I’d gladly speak to you as a woman, but among journalists I’ve got far more interesting people to talk to than correspondents from Berezovsky’s newspaper.’ At that moment, I noticed that standing near Prikhodko was one of these more interesting individuals: a correspondent from the state news agency Interfax. It took a monstrous effort to keep myself from slapping Prikhodko across the face. ‘It would be inappropriate,’ I thought. ‘It’s a presidential residence, after all — even if it’s the Uzbek presidential residence.’ Without saying another word to him, I turned around and left.”

After this, Tregubova, as she admits in her book, wrote an article where she suggesting that Prikhodko’s outster could be imminent. “Members of the Kremlin’s team have recently been talking more and more about the need to replace Prikhodko with a ‘more energetic and colorful politician.’ ‘You see, Mr. Putin has his own unconventional approach to maintaining international contacts. This man isn’t Yeltsin, who finds it hard to get beyond Moscow’s city limits more than once every six months. Acting in the traditions of the Foreign Ministry with its outdated approaches, Prikhodko simply can’t keep up with Putin,’ one informed Kremlin insider told Kommersant’s correspondent. It’s most likely the case that Putin was staging a little test run for [his new aide] Yastrzhembsky,” Tregubova wrote, hinting that the former press secretary (who had recently returned to the president’s administration) might take Prikhodko’s spot as the Kremlin’s head of foreign policy. In her book, Tregubova claims that Prikhodko started bending over backwards for her, after the article, but she offers no proof of this.

In the end, Tregubova’s wishes came to naught. Prikhodko not only kept his post, but in December 2001 he collected Putin’s “Person of the Year” award from the Russian Biographical Institute on the president’s behalf. At that time, the presidential administration determined Russia’s foreign policy, just as it had under Yeltsin, but the tendency became even more entrenched after Putin came to power. The Foreign Ministry played only a secondary role in international relations. “As a rule, ordinary people speak ill of diplomats, and their colleagues speak of them diplomatically. It’s nice that your work as a diplomat didn’t rob you of a personality or even dilute your basic humanity,” Alexey Volin, then serving as the prime minister’s deputy chief of staff, told Prikhodko in a birthday toast in 2002. “Russian diplomacy with Prikhodko’s human face, in my opinion, looks pretty good, and it’s also quite formidable and significant.”

In October 2003, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made headlines when he accused Prikhodko of obstructing further Russian-Belarusian integration, claiming that Alexander Voloshin (then Putin’s chief of staff) was orchestrating the opposition. In response, Moscow summoned the Belarusian ambassador and formally complained about Lukashenko’s unfriendly statements. The Belarusian “bombshell” didn’t hurt Prikhodko’s career, but it was dangerous for him to be tossed in with Voloshin’s clan, which at the time was fighting the rising influence of the siloviki (Russia’s security agencies). In the end, Prikhodko survived the scandal and continued working in the presidential administration, even after Dmitry Medvedev replaced Voloshin. Admittedly, Prikhodko lost some authority in 2004, when the administration drastically cut the number of deputy staff positions and he was demoted back to presidential advisor. A few months later, however, he was back in the Kremlin’s good graces, and Putin appointed him to serve as secretary of a commission on international military-technical cooperation with Russia. Putin himself chaired the commission.

Despite the Kremlin’s personnel shakeup, the actual roles within the administration were left largely unchanged, when it came to setting foreign policy. As before, Prikhodko was key, even though this job was supposed to have fallen to Putin’s new head of foreign policy, Alexander Manzhosin, one of Prikhodko’s old classmates and former subordinates.

In 2005, Putin entrusted Prikhodko with preparing Russia for the 32nd G8 confidence, which took place the following year in St. Petersburg. It would have been logical to assign this task to economic advisor Andrey Illarionov, but he showed disloyalty after Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest in October 2003, repeatedly making harsh statements to the media. In the end, Illarionov lost his status as a presidential representative to the G7. Prikhodko, on the other hand, never even flirted with disloyalty. “Mr. Prikhodko is first and foremost a true professional in international relations,” said Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin in 2005, wishing Prikhodko well and telling him to stay “internally flexible and principled.” “If nothing else, he is the only well-known international specialist in the presidential administration. He is absolutely vital in his position because his professionalism — though it doesn’t guarantee complete success — reliably ensures that there won’t be any needless mistakes or serious and unnecessary problems.”

Lavrov’s rival

In November 2005, Sergey Sobyanin became Putin’s new chief of staff. “When he was certain that Mr. Sobyanin was really one of the administration’s key members, Mr. Prikhodko started counting on one hand: ‘Valentin Yumashev, Nikolai Bordyuzha, Dmitry Medvedev… and now Sergey Sobyanin? What region is he from? Tyumen? Then he must be a decent man,’ Mr. Prikhodko concluded, having perfectly understood the situation,” wrote Andrey Kolesnikov in Kommersant. Prikhodko kept his job under Sobyanin. And then he kept it under Sergey Naryshkin. And under Sergey Ivanov.

As the president’s advisor on foreign policy, Prikhodko reportedly developed a troubled relationship with Sergey Lavrov, the head of Russia’s Foreign Ministry since 2004. “He always had a bit of a rivalry with Lavrov,” a source who knows the deputy prime minister told Meduza. “Prikhodko wasn’t the most successful Soviet-Russian diplomat — he made his dizzying career in the Kremlin. Lavrov made a dizzying career in the Foreign Ministry, where he was far more successful in foreign-service terms. In the real world, though, Prikhodko was closer to Russia’s three presidents.” There was always some “mutual nastiness” between the two, and one would dump on the other “whenever there was a fuckup,” says Meduza’s source. If you forget their “struggle for access to the president,” however, “they were always more like allies, both coming from the foreign service in the face of competition from the Foreign Intelligence Service.” “There was tension, but I wouldn’t exaggerate the animosity,” the source says, adding that Prikhodko’s best relationships were with Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, and his head of protocol, Marina Yentaltseva.

From left to right: Sergey Prikhodko (then serving as a presidential advisor), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a UN Security Council conference in New York on September 24, 2009
From left to right: Sergey Prikhodko (then serving as a presidential advisor), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a UN Security Council conference in New York on September 24, 2009
Dmitry Astakhov / TASS

A source who joined Prikhodko on several foreign trips told Meduza that the other members of any delegation could always come to Prikhodko’s room for a “magical hangover cure.” “If they came to the hotel in the morning with a hangover, they’d go to Prikhodko first and 30 minutes later they’d have sobered up. I saw it myself,” the source says, adding that this generation of Russian foreign service officials is particularly fond of strong drinks. “Drinking a lot is an old foreign service tradition,” another source confirmed to Meduza.

In October 2017, by which point Prikhodko had moved to the prime minister’s cabinet, he told Lavrov that he’d buy him a stun gun to keep away uppity journalists. A correspondent who covers international affairs assured Meduza that this was only a joke, saying that Prikhodko is “super personable” with reporters, “corresponding in emojis and always being polite.” “I’ve never once heard him use an obscenity,” another journalist told Meduza. “You can meet him in his office and talk one-on-one.”

Top chef

Sergey Prikhodko’s career took another turn in 2012, when he left the Kremlin with Dmitry Medvedev, who gave him the number two spot in his cabinet, under Vladislav Surkov. In his new position, he managed roughly the same affairs as before: he was entrusted with control over the government’s foreign economic policymaking.

In 2013, Surkov stepped down. Rumors circulated that he would be replaced by a major official like Central Federal District Presidential Envoy Alexander Beglov, deputy Kremlin chief of staff Anton Vaino, or Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich. But the job went to Prikhodko, a figure who suited not only Medvedev, but also Putin. In the end, Prikhodko was named to two simultaneous posts, like with Surkov: deputy prime minister and chief of staff. As Natalya Timakova said at the time: “The Prime Minister has no doubt that Prikhodko can fulfill his duties completely.” The new position endowed Prikhodko with a wide range of powers: from organizing legislative activities and drafting government decisions to more familiar issues involving state policy in international relations.

“Prikhodko is a very experienced and flexible operator. He can work under anyone on any agenda,” says Alexander Gabuyev, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Russia in the Asian-Pacific Program. “He started his career in the Kremlin back in Yeltsin’s day, and then he served two terms with Putin. From 2008 to 2012, he worked loyally for Medvedev. During that time, Putin found himself Yuri Ushakov, whom he took from the government back to the Kremlin. Since Medvedev had few of his own people, and because he needed to take a heavyweight to his cabinet as prime minister, he took Prikhodko.”

“Prikhodko is an old, very careful cabinet wolf. He’s cautious,” a source close to Medvedev’s team told Meduza, adding that Prikhodko is “negotiable” and willing to listen to opposing viewpoints. Meduza’s source says Prikhodko wields enormous weight in Medvedev’s government — more than any of the other deputy prime ministers. “They listen to what he says, and informally he’s their superior. The whole kitchen is his, and everything goes through him.” According to another source, the other deputy prime ministers often bring documents to Prikhodko before they ever show them to Medvedev, because it dramatically speeds up the approval process.

Two sources who spoke to Meduza cautiously speculated that Prikhodko’s position and authority have created ample lobbying opportunities. As a presidential advisor, Prikhodko approved “lists of business delegations for state visits and agreements signed by top officials,” says one source, meaning that he “had the opportunity to control access to the president through the foreign-policy agenda.”

Another source observed that Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet is responsible for regulating the water levels of Lake Baikal, which matters to Oleg Deripaska, whose company En+ owns the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Station. The power plant’s activities have caused fluctuations in the lake’s water levels, and environmentalist groups have repeatedly warned that these variations “have a negative impact on Baikal and its stock of fish.” Meduza’s sources say they are aware of no evidence that Prikhodko has ever violated any laws when it comes to the regulation of Lake Baikal.

After leaving the Kremlin with Dmitry Medvedev, Prikhodko first drew the attention of Alexey Navalny, who published an investigative report in late 2013 claiming that Prikhodko owns real estate he couldn’t possibly afford on a government salary. Responding to the allegations, Oleg Plokhoi, the head of the Kremlin’s anti-corruption department, explained that Prikhodko bought the land seven years earlier, when the value was significantly lower, financing the purchase with his income, his wife’s income, and a mortgage.

From left to right: Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and President Vladimir Putin at an end-of-the-year cabinet meeting, December 26, 2017
From left to right: Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and President Vladimir Putin at an end-of-the-year cabinet meeting, December 26, 2017
Alexander Astafiev / Russian Government Press Service / TASS / Vida Press

Despite his high office, Prikhodko is one of Russia’s least visible state officials. His career features so few memorable moments that one of his best-known quotes is his reaction to former Tver Governor Dmitry Zelenin sharing a photograph of a worm in his salad at a Kremlin banquet in October 2010. “Fortunately, I deal with foreign policy,” Prikhodko said at the time. “But I should probably advise our lawyers to add an article to the gubernatorial review process on ‘dismissal for mental disability.’ I won’t even say anything about irresponsibility or stupidity.”

Prikhodko has attracted the news media’s attention only rarely. In 2011, a BMW 7 series with special presidential administration plates reportedly crashed into the oncoming lane. According to the activist group “Blue Buckets,” presidential advisor Sergey Prikhodko used a car with the same license plates. The activists said the vehicle “had been spotted repeatedly violating traffic laws.”

In 2015, journalists learned that Natalya Prikhodko, Sergey’s wife, earned more the previous year than any other Kremlin or cabinet official’s spouse: 119 million rubles ($2.2 million, according to today’s exchange rate). Prikhodko’s declared earnings were almost 12 times less in 2014. Forbes magazine says Natalia Prikhodko owns 90 percent of an exclusive yacht club called “Farwater,” located in outside Moscow in Mytishchi. In 2009, Prikhodko told the newspaper Vedomosti that his wife’s yacht club was a “nonprofit organization” she acquired so their friends and family would have a place to relax and play sports. (As Vedomosti pointed out, however, Farwater’s own website said the yacht club was a commercial enterprise engaged in “foreign economic activity,” among other things.)

Little is known about Prikhodko’s personal life. Sources told Meduza that until recently you could find him on Sundays at Moscow’s “John Donne” bar on Nikitsky Boulevard, where he liked to watch soccer. “There’s a portrait of his daughter, showing her on the water, hanging prominently in his office. He collected the badges from different forums. With sports, the only thing I ever saw him do was swimming,” says a source used to work with Prikhodko. “Personally, I’ll always remember him in his golden sneakers — in Hawaii, at the 2011 APEC summit. He’s not an idiot — he understood that the post-Soviet space is slipping away. He’s about as sharp as the next guy. But his wristwatch was expensive and his sneakers were golden.”

According to a source close to Medvedev’s cabinet, Prikhodko “is tired” and has planned to retire for at least the last year. The deputy prime minister is supposedly “grooming” Medvedev’s deputy chief of staff, Maxim Akimov, as a successor. Meduza’s source believes that Prikhodko plans to control him even after his resignation.

Prikhodko took more than 24 hours to respond to Navalny’s allegations. When he finally spoke to reporters, the deputy prime minister called Navalny “a political loser,” saying the “escort-girl investigation” is “just his latest attempt to stage a provocation and promote himself, indiscriminately confusing everything possible and impossible.” “By and large, we ought to settle this like men,” Prikhodko added, implying that he would like to beat up Navalny, “but we’ll leave this within legal bounds,” he said.

Another source with ties to Medvedev’s cabinet told Meduza that the story about Deripaska and the escort girls fueled some of the most excited backstage gossip ever to sweep the government. Prikhodko’s colleagues apparently agree that “even if [the escort girl] invented the whole thing, it will be impossible to sweep this under the rug quickly, and now the story will haunt Mr. Prikhodko.”

Story by Taisiya Bekbulatova, translation by Kevin Rothrock