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New branches of the Bolshoi Theater and Tretyakov Gallery being constructed on Oktyabrsky Island in Kaliningrad. February 25, 2020.
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Putin's pet project to build four new museums is costing Russians millions of dollars. The money comes from stashed-away oil and gas revenues.

Source: Meduza
New branches of the Bolshoi Theater and Tretyakov Gallery being constructed on Oktyabrsky Island in Kaliningrad. February 25, 2020.
New branches of the Bolshoi Theater and Tretyakov Gallery being constructed on Oktyabrsky Island in Kaliningrad. February 25, 2020.
Vitaly Nevar / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Over the past two years, the Russian government has spent 9.8 billion rubles ($130.5 million) on the construction of four cultural-educational complexes in Vladivostok, Sevastopol, Kaliningrad, and Kemerovo. The project is the brainchild of President Vladimir Putin, who is personally overseeing its development.

The National Cultural Heritage Fund, based in Moscow and specially created for this initiative, is responsible for building these complexes. The fund’s founding entities are the Mariinsky Theater, the Hermitage Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery, and the Bolshoi Theater. Once completed, the facilities will in part become satellite branches of these four institutions. In early April 2020, information about the fund’s 2019 expenditures was published on the Justice Ministry's website.

Meduza compared the new spending report to records available for the initiative's budget in 2018, when Putin first proposed a large-scale project to build subsidiary branches of major Russian museums and theaters in Russia's less central regions. The president indicated that Mariinsky Theater director Valery Gergiev and Hermitage Museum head Mikhail Piotrovsky inspired the idea.

In early 2019, Andrey Belousov, then a presidential adviser, estimated that construction of the four cultural-educational complexes would cost 120 billion rubles (now about $1.6 billion). The federal government is sourcing these funds from the highly secretive state-owned company “Rosneftgaz,” which has not operated openly or published financial records since 2014. Vladimir Putin has described Rosneftgaz as “[Russia's] oil and gas revenues, stowed away in a separate pot.” In January 2019, the Finance Ministry estimated that it will cost 12-14 billion rubles (roughly $179 million) annually in direct federal spending to maintain the four complexes.

In Dmitry Medvedev's government cabinet, Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets supervised the project. During this time, Hamit Mavliyarov — a former deputy construction minister and former vice president of the “Olympstroy” state-owned corporation, which built facilities for the 2014 Sochi Olympics — served as president of the National Cultural Heritage Fund and directed construction work on the four sites. In mid-January 2020, Golodets resigned with Medvedev and her supervisory role in the project passed to Dmitry Chernishenko, a new deputy prime minister. Meanwhile, Mavliyarov's job as president of the National Cultural Heritage Fund went to Natalia Volynskaya, a former director of the Culture Ministry's North-Western Directorate for Construction, Reconstruction, and Restoration.

The first company hired to develop the new complexes was “Stroygazmontazh,” a business owned by billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, a close friend of the president and 41st on Forbes’ list of the richest people in Russia. Last fall, however, Stroygazmontazh lost the contract to competitor “Stroytransgaz,” which belongs to an even wealthier Putin ally, Gennady Timchenko (fifth on the Forbes list).

This March, hundreds of construction workers at the museum-complex worksite in Vladivostok went on strike, citing unpaid wages owed to them by the subcontractor “Stroytransgaz-Vostok.” After traveling to Vladivostok to address the situation, Natalia Volynskaya (the new president of the National Cultural Heritage Fund) dismissed the workers' claims and said they were only unhappy about the size of their bonuses. After her visit, the strike reportedly ended.

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Text by Farida Rustamova

Translation by Rob Viano

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