It’s good to be the president Meduza spoke to contractors who helped build Vladimir Putin’s alleged seaside palace. Also, new blueprints reveal a subterranean fortress, multiple ‘aqua-discos,’ and more.
Earlier this month, Alexey Navalny and his team of anti-corruption researchers published an investigative report about a lavish seaside palace supposedly built as a private retreat for Vladimir Putin. Despite expressing “zero interest” in Navalny’s allegations, the Kremlin has spent much of the past two weeks repeatedly and energetically trying to refute the “palace” story. Navalny’s two-hour documentary film (which has now been viewed more than 101 million times on YouTube) features drone footage of a grandiose residence on Cape Idokopas — a private construction project known formally on paperwork as “the Praskoveyevka Pensionat.” According to Navalny’s calculations, more than 100 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) has been spent to build the retreat. The money supposedly came from the president’s friends and various affiliated firms. To learn more about Vladimir Putin’s supposed sanctuary, Meduza tracked down multiple people who spent years working at the construction site in Praskoveyevka, and we studied documents related to the project.
This is an abridged translation of an article Meduza originally published in Russian on January 29, 2021.
Summarizing Meduza’s findings
Vladimir Putin rarely visits the residence at Cape Idokopas
Meduza found evidence that the president has visited the property at least four times. Before Putin arrives, maintenance crews race to prepare the site, mobilizing in the middle of the night to execute beautification feats like rolling out fresh grass. When the president is actually present at the estate, strolling about the grounds and enjoying himself, no construction workers are permitted at the site. Even the heads of the contracting companies hired to build the residence are kept away.
The palace includes a massive subterranean complex built into Cape Idokopas
Beneath the residence, there is an underground complex that stretches down 16 stories, cutting straight to the floor of Cape Idokopas. The elevator lobby that leads to the lower stories is located a few dozen yards from the main house, in case of evacuation. There are three different lobbies leading inside the cape, including a staff entrance located at the Molokan Gap (a corner of the coastline).
The mineshaft was excavated between 2007 and 2011 for roughly 3 billion rubles ($39.9 million). The Praskoveyevka residence was supposed to have two of these bunkers, but the second contractor abandoned the project after the 2008 financial crisis.
A pair of Kremlin-connected companies built the site’s infamous “aqua-discos,” including one that possibly glimmers for Dmitry Medvedev
Often hired by the Kremlin’s Administrative Directorate for various contracts, the firms “Borond” and “Aquastroi” built the Praskoveyevka residence’s aqua-discos — water fountains illuminated by lasers and apparently choreographed to French chanson and songs by Kylie Minogue.
It turns out that there are actually two of these fountains: a second one was erected in another part of the residence, at the chateau in the neighboring town of Divnomorskoye. Journalists and researchers haven’t yet identified the chateau’s owner, but the site is known informally as “Dima’s dacha,” and it was built during Dmitry Medvedev’s brief presidency.
Several contractors have unintentionally linked the residence to the president and disclosed the project’s parameters
For years, multiple companies involved in the residence’s construction published reports on their websites about their involvement in a prestigious “government contract.” Meduza identified eight different firms that reported their work in Praskoveyevka and often referred to the residence as “the ‘Pensionat’ site in the town of Gelendzhik.” Thanks to data released online by the “ABL Engineering Group,” we know that the residence’s entire complex encompasses 40,000 square meters (430,555 square feet). One contractor even shared photographs of its work site at the residence, showing elevator shafts and tunnels under construction.
Meduza connected another former executive manager to Putin’s family
Alexey Navalny’s investigation identified Ivan Serditov as a lawyer who represented the offshore company that at one time managed the residence in Praskoveyevka. Serditov had previously worked for Nikolai Egorov (the man who got Putin his job with Anatoly Sobchak in St. Petersburg) and later found a job working directly for the Kremlin. Meduza learned that Serditov also provided counsel to Putin’s former sister-in-law before serving as a legal proxy in Praskoveyevka. According to records in Russia’s Uniform State Register of Legal Entities, Serditov managed the company “Stroimetall,” which is registered to Olga Tsomayeva, the sister of the president’s ex-wife.
Putin’s Secret Service fully supervises the construction site
Four sources who helped build the residence told Meduza that the Federal Protective Service oversees everything at the site in Praskoveyevka. Agents in Russia’s Secret Service (FSO) are reportedly responsible for discipline at the facility, leading the president through the grounds during his rare visits and transmitting customer orders to contractors. Blueprints shared with Meduza show the names of several FSO agents, including one officer named O.S. Kuznetsov. According to an article published by The New Times in April 2012, an FSO colonel named Oleg Kuznetsov was involved in the residence’s construction while also leading the same FSO unit that reportedly ordered the palace’s construction in the first place.
Here comes you-know-who
In the spring of 2014, Mikhail, an employee at the palace at Praskoveyevka, was awoken one night by a phone call. “The maintenance crew needs to get to work ASAP,” his boss said, clearly alarmed. “He’s coming in two days.”
The residence’s entire maintenance team, made up of around 80 people, got to work immediately, not even waiting for the morning. “We spent the following two days ripping the shit out of the pathway [leading to the main building],” Mikhail told Meduza. “Even though we’d watered the grass, it had yellowed a bit at the tips because of the heat. It was a roll-up lawn, so we rolled it up. We ripped out the trees. Then, out of nowhere, 20 vans arrived with new grass — they rolled it up and stuck in some new trees. They said to take the old stuff and dump it in front of Janhot [a nearby village].” According to Mikhail, the young trees and nearly-fresh grass were taken home by Janhot residents.
In the end, though, all the panic was for naught — Vladimir Putin didn’t make it to the residence at all in spring 2014. He did, however, go there on at least four other occasions.
According to one of the contractors who worked on the residence, Putin came to Cape Idokopas at least three times between 2007 and 2014. The head of another company, who arrived in 2008, only managed to catch two of the president’s visits.
Mikhail, who worked at the palace for all of the mid-2010s, claimed that Putin visited twice between 2013 and 2016. According to another source, however, nobody ever saw the president when he visited.
“Life was fine for the workers there — but they had to be taken away, every single one of them, when the president came. Even the heads of top-level construction companies weren’t allowed there [near Putin],” said one engineer.
Another engineer said that Putin once came to Cape Idokopas on a yacht. “All of us were given the day off and moved out of the area,” he said.
While none of the workers Meduza spoke with had ever met Putin personally, many of them feel a strong connection to the residence’s construction, and, as a result, have been scrutinizing Alexey Navalny’s investigation and noting any inaccuracies.
“There’s no gold there — that’s a fairy tale,” said one foreman. “There are some pastel-colored rooms. Yes, there’s marble; yes, there’s something like onyx. But not gold!”
Mikhail, one of the maintenance workers, described some of the personal gifts Putin keeps in the residence. “[Former Kazakhstani President Nursultan] Nazarbayev gave him a massive gazebo made of logs,” said Mikhail. “And the local Krasnodar bugs ate it in one year.” (According to public data, Putin has only received two gifts from Kazakhstan over the course of his presidency: nails tied in a knot by a local strongman, and a whip for horseback riding.)
“It’s like Navalny’s film has been reduced to the cost of toilet brushes and sofas,” said another builder who worked on the palace.
“Toilet brushes for $90,000? That’s nothing,” added one of the residence’s lead engineers. According to him, the biggest expenditures were made on the complicated construction and engineering work. “There’re the walls that hold up the mountains along the roads, there’re the foundations of the fences — these are expensive structures! The film didn’t mention the reservoir park where water is stored — both freshwater and saltwater — specifically for the pool. And then there’s the filtration field down in the Molokan gap — we can’t just dump out the sewage, so special treatment facilities were built there.”
A 16-story dungeon
Viktor, a mining engineer who worked on the residence, can still describe the property’s 16-level underground complex in detail. “Under the building, there’s a whole anthill inside the cliff,” he said. “You just go into the vestibule, like every day in the metro, and start going down. The 14th and 15th levels are the top part of the technical facilities. The eighth level is the wine collection. At the very bottom, on the first floor, are more technical facilities — and a 100-meter [328-foot] tunnel that opens onto the beach. It’s the main VIP exit to the beach area — when we built it, there was supposed to be a moving sidewalk, like at Sheremetyevo [airport].”
Even now, Victor’s fascinated by the engineering aspect of the complex. In fact, he only decided to speak to Meduza because he considers his former project a national treasure — not a private residence that should be hidden away.
“You’re a citizen just like me, and we have the right to know what’s being built with our tax money,” he told Meduza’s correspondent. “The way mine passages are connected with one another, the joining of the different blocks! The evacuation tunnel, the vertical well with an elevator shaft — it’s an unprecedented underground structure. There’s simply nothing comparable in terms of complexity and density in Russia. Maybe in the world, but not in Russia.”
There are three vestibules that can be used to enter Cape Idokopas: one by the main building, another on the harbor, and a third that goes through the entire rock and reaches the Molokan Gap. Victor says the underground complex serves additionally as an emergency evacuation route. “There’s also an entrance from the gap side,” he explains, “but that’s not a VIP zone — it’s just a service area. We can’t let staff go through the VIP zone, can we?”
He compared the cost of each mineshaft to the cost of a subway station. "One shaft cost about three billion rubles in the late 2000s — and since then, inflation has doubled the cost of construction.”
At the start of the building process, the engineers were asked to provide a quick pathway down to the sea. The underground complex that exists now was far from their first suggestion. “Initially, we thought about making an elevator shaft out of metal — the most cost-effective solution: an outside elevator,” Victor recalled. “But we were told this was ‘out of the question’: we had a coastal zone, border controls, a border with NATO countries, and it was imperative that the project not be detectable visually.”
The solution they came up with — an underground pathway from the palace to the beach — cost an extra 3 billion rubles ($40 million). Originally, there were going to be two such pathways. “We were supposed to build the second shaft about 100 meters (328 feet) from the main building — near the medical building,” Viktor says. “But in 2008, the economic crisis hit, and the client made clear that that was it.”
A children’s camp with no children
According to Ilya Yeremenko, the creator of a website about Praskoveyevka, residents in nearby villages knew the identity of the palace’s owner long before the first news reports, but they tried not to use Putin’s name. “We would just say, ‘he’s building over there,’” recalls Yeremenko.
There’s a belief among the locals that the palace was built as the result of a devastating “typhoon” that hit in 2002. When the area flooded, tourists lived for days in a tent camp in the Molokan Gap, where one of the entrances to the presidential bunker is now located. When a mudslide descended on them, the only escape route was cut off. The emergency workers who came to rescue the tourists didn’t know the area, so the locals showed them the way.
“When the first responders showed up, they were like, ‘Wow, what a place!’ And one older guy — a real grandpa, he might not even be with us anymore — complained later that ‘I personally showed them the way. On one hand, people were saved, but on the other hand, something’s probably going to happen now.’ And the following year, they stopped letting tourists here and built a fence around a non-existent children’s camp,” says Yeremenko. Ever since, the locals have believed this is how the president learned about Praskoveyevka.
Yeremenko has spent his vacations in Praskoveyevka for almost 30 years. “I’ve climbed all the mountains and the coast. Hares would run along the road, wild boars would walk past while you were climbing the mountain,” he recalls. “I didn’t stop going there until they started building the palace. In 2006, they put up a fence — just some posts and a net. And some guy — without a uniform, like he was just a regular person — started constantly patrolling the area in a rowboat. One day, I woke up at five in the morning, in order to get to Krinitsa before it got too hot, and he started paddling towards me — at five in the morning! After that, it all became clear.”
Yeremenko took a number of photos in the early years of construction. In one image, you can see the first checkpoint at the exit from Praskoveyevka toward the Molokan Gap: a simple booth and a barrier that’s always raised. Then there’s just forest, divided by a barbed-wire fence. “That’s supposedly the entrance to the Dagomys children’s camp,” said Yeremenko. “And the camp’s fence, which leads straight into the mountains. There’ve never been children there — I checked.”
Finally, there’s a photo from September 2007 that shows a single construction crane hanging out over a cliff. If you look closely, you can already see a bald spot at the top of the cliff where the forest has been cleared for construction. “Later on, I was able to get through the mountains to the spot where the helipad was being built. They’d already cleared everything. Rows of trucks — brand new trucks — came to blow up the mountains. It was clear they were building something enormous,” said Yeremenko.
One of the builders was struck most of all by the amount of attention being paid on the Internet to minor details, like the “aqua-discos” and the mud warehouse.
“Yeah, the fountain is really called an aqua-disco,” he said. “And it’s really just a fountain with a backlight, literally beaming light into the water. I’ve seen a much cooler one in Kislovodsk.”
“Backlighting fountain streams is pretty standard. It’s used in city fountains, and pretty much in people’s backyards. It’s simple and not very expensive,” said the former design engineer for “Borond,” the company that developed the fountain at Praskoveyevka.
Two companies, Borond and Aquastroi, designed and built the water facilities in the residence together, but Borond later had to go to court to seek its part of the payment from Aquastroi.
A second aqua-disco, also built by Borond, is located on the territory of the chateau at the winery in Divnomorskoye, another village that falls in the domain of the presidential residence. The area of the chateau, according to these documents, is almost two and a half thousand square meters (27 thousand square feet); the sprawling spa complex is even larger.
“The client had money, no question about it,” said Ruslan, an engineer and surveyor who worked on the property from 2009 to 2011. The builders never spoke about the owner of the project — not even amongst themselves. “We only knew it was ‘a client from the FSO,” Ruslan said.
He thought about the client again in 2016, when he tried to take a boat ride past his former worksite. “They wouldn’t let us near — they said, ‘the border patrol put a ban in place,’” said Ruslan.
Judging by blueprints obtained by Meduza, the chateau should look like a low fort, fortified with two crenelated towers. In addition to the aqua-disco, the estate includes a Jacuzzi that looks onto an artificial waterfall, a fireplace room, a wine cellar, a patio, and several tasting rooms. On the second floor, there’s a wine museum and a security room. The third floor has an office-library and three terraces, and the fourth floor is an observation deck.
A tsar should have a palace
“If you want to hear nasty stuff about Putin, you won’t hear it from me. A tsar should have a palace!” said one former construction worker. “Is a president supposed to live in a rented apartment? If a person likes beauty, what’s the harm? Have you watched The Magnificent Century [a series about the reign of the tenth Ottoman sultan]? Why should the Turks and Arabs have such nice stuff, and our compatriot should have only shit?”
Many of the contract workers have remained loyal to their client, whose name has never even been mentioned to them at work. One of the engineers saw no problem with the cost of the palace. “When you’re the president, you can do anything,” he said. “We live in Russia!”
Ivan Serditov, manager of the Praskoveevsk residence, had some prior experience with the Putin family: according to data from Russia’s Federal Taxation Service, Serditov headed Stroymetal, a company registered under Olga Tomayeva, the sister of Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, Putin’s former wife. He now works in the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin denies having any connection to the ongoing construction project. “Nothing of what is shown there as my property belongs, or has ever belonged, to me, my friends, or relatives,” the president said on January 25, when he was asked about the investigation.
But the most convincing evidence of the president’s connection to the complex at Cape Idokopas is how closely the territory is guarded by Russian special services. “Businessmen’s homes don’t get no fly-zones, nor are they built and guarded by Federal Protective Service [FSO] agents. The sea isn’t closed off to all boats, including fishing boats, in front of businessmen’s homes,” Navalny’s report emphasized.
According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the no-fly zone is the result of “an increase in the intelligence activity of neighboring states,” and the FSO claims not to be guarding anything in the area.
But four contractors and construction engineers who spoke with Meduza say the FSO is in complete control of the construction site. It’s FSO employees who are responsible for maintaining order and disciplining workers, communicating their client’s instructions to the contractors, and attending to the president on his rare visits.
The FSO didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
Drop in, have some fun, and leave
In the last three years, all of the residence’s white marble statues have disappeared, not because the president stopped liking neoclassicism, but because the statues started turning green. “It’s covered in something green, from the salt and the dampness,” said a former operations officer for the property.
According to construction workers, things at the estate are constantly changing and being redone. Many of them have the impression that the project has no coherent theme, and that no one person is behind the decisions.
“They always grumble about things in the meetings, but specific solutions are never voiced — they come later in the form of separate, disjointed assignments. There’s no aesthetics, no meaning, no guiding hand,” said a builder. “I’d understand it if [the president] came here, walked around, and said, ‘change this ‘shit!’” But he’s never there — and the changes still happen, seemingly all by themselves.”
Other contractors believe there are reasons for the constant changes. “The client always has something on his wishlist: if it’s not the ice palace, it’s something else,” said one engineer. “A huge number of utility rooms that aren’t used — everything falls into disrepair, everything’s constantly being redone; tiles fall off, then they’re relaid.”
“It’s not comfortable, I’ll say that much!” said another contractor. “For coming with a big group of friends for a day or two, having a good time and then leaving — sure. But for living? No!” said a builder.
According to the builders, the palace’s owner has left a fairly clear imprint. “I don’t want to offend anybody, but I wouldn’t want to spend time in a place with an interior like this,” said Victor, a veteran worker of the property. “But I think of it as a public good! It’s like if I went to the Hermitage. It’s nice to look at the historical interior, at the rich decorations — but to live there? Not possible. The Romanovs once lived like that, but now, thank God, it’s a national treasure and everyone has access.”
“And I hope this place can become the people’s property, too,” he continued. “They were right, at the end of Navalny’s investigation, when they said this will never end. It’s true — they won’t stop. From 2007 to 2011, when we were building this facility, the situation in the country was a little different! People were able to do business, they experienced career growth — you could feel that people had money. Against that backdrop, there wasn’t such an aversion to the construction. But today’s situation is totally different. The unbridled opulence now looks completely different. It stands in sharp contrast to the poverty of the people.”
If given the chance to live permanently at the residence on Cape Idokopas, not a single construction worker who spoke to Meduza said he would take it.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale and Kevin Rothrock