For many years, Italian architect Lanfranco Cirillo had a brilliant career in Russia — most notably, he designed the luxurious residence featured in Alexey Navalny’s “Putin’s Palace” investigation. But despite the president granting him Russian citizenship and the fact that he had many lucrative business projects in Russia, the 62-year-old left the country several years ago. For Meduza, journalists from the media project “Sector Four’’ spoke to Lanfranco Cirillo to find out more about how “Putin’s palace” was built and why he decided to leave his Russian career behind and return to his native Italy.
Please note. This article was originally published on February 3, 2021, and has been abridged for length and clarity. You can read the original text in Russian here.
“I have a winemaking [company]. And an apartment in Moscow. I’ll go and live. I have nothing else in Russia. No companies, no employees,” Lanfranco Cirillo tells Meduza.
Recently, the 62-year-old architect’s name has been making headlines once again following the release of an investigation by Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation into a massive, secretive residence supposedly built for Vladimir Putin outside of a resort town on the Black Sea. That said, most articles about Cirillo contain nothing new — the Italian’s role in the construction of the “palace” became known 10 years ago.
Cirillo readily agreed to an interview with Meduza, though he was concerned that his Russian might not be good enough. “I haven’t spoken [Russian] for a long time, I haven’t had any practice,” he worries. In his words, since he now has no “personal interest” or business in Russia, he can speak “absolutely calmly.” “But what can I tell you? I’m worried that it’s not very interesting,” Cirillo adds.
A young man with little knowledge
Referred to as “Putin’s architect” in both the Russian and the Western press, Cirillo’s relationship with Russia lasted for more than 20 years and only ended four years ago. That said, his most famous creation — the palace allegedly built for Putin on Cape Idokopas — has yet to be completed.
Little is known about Cirillo’s life before he arrived in Russia and he’s reluctant to talk about this period.
He was born in Venice in 1959 and studied at the city’s Ca’Foscari University. Though journalists have expressed doubts about him being a real architect (according to the Russian outlet The New Times, Cirillo isn’t registered with any Italian architects’ guilds), Cirillo rejects these claims. “All Italian and international publications call me an architect, no one even doubts it. I showed [them] my Italian diploma, everything is in order,” he assures Meduza.
Nevertheless, he declined to show Meduza his degree. “You seriously think that I would have been able to design and do what I did without an education?! That ridiculous,” he says, indignantly. Apparently, his Russian projects were done under the name of his studio, Lanfranco Cirillo Masterskaya, because his Italian diploma isn’t recognized in Russia. “I undersigned as a design studio. I think it’s absolutely legal,” he explains.
After finishing university, Cirillo “gained experience as a furniture and interior designer” in Italy. He then went on to work on “several projects” in Saudi Arabia, Hungary, and Uzbekistan. But he refrains from delving into his memories from this time period, since his “real career” began only in Russia.
Lanfranco Cirillo came to Russia in 1993. In a 2016 interview with the independent television network Dozhd, he said that he was simply “walking around Milan” when he got a phone call from Moscow: “My colleague called and said ‘There are Russians here who speak great German. Do you speak German?’ I said, ‘Listen, I know four words in German.’ ‘Well, that’s better than me, come over.’ And so I came over. There was a man who wanted to build a dacha outside of Moscow. As a traditional Italian adventurer, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll come and see.’ And so it began.”
Cirillo tells Meduza that his Russian first client “wasn’t a famous person.” He describes him as an “ordinary businessman, an Armenian,” who wanted to build a cottage in the prestigious Rublyovka suburb (he can’t remember the businessman’s last name, but says his first name was Rustam).
The architect was 34-years-old at the time — a self-described “young man with little knowledge.” In those days, he rode the subway and “lived in a shack,” he told the business magazine Milano Finanza International in 2015.
Through his first Russian client, Cirillo met Vagit Alekperov (who became president of the Russian oil and natural gas company Lukoil in 1993) and began working for major companies and their top managers. By 1995, he had opened an office on Novy Arbat in downtown Moscow. “In a year we made $15 million. Then [our annual turnover] stabilized around $30–40 million,” he recalled, in the interview with Milano Finanza International.
In subsequent years, Cirillo designed buildings for major Russian companies like Lukoil, Gazprom, and Novatek, as well as luxury houses, apartments, and entire villages of fancy cottages (all while fulfilling his clients’ exotic wishes like basement shooting ranges and statues of themselves for their properties). Most of these projects were located in Moscow’s ritzy Rublyovka suburb, Cirillo says, but he also worked in St. Petersburg and abroad. In addition, he worked as an interior designer on projects like a two-story penthouse in Moscow’s premium class Polyanka Plaza residential complex (he also designed interiors for boats and airplanes).
Over the next 20 years, the Italian architect developed a network of acquaintances and connections in business and real estate. According to the SPARK-Interfax database, in the early 2000s, Lanfranco Cirillo became the owner of an apartment in a residential building on Bolshoy Kozikhinsky Lane in Moscow (though he is listed as a board member of the company that manages the building, he himself claims to have no knowledge of this partnership). The neighboring apartments were owned by some of Lukoil’s top managers, such as Vagit Alekperov’s sister Nelli Alekperova, Fikret Aliyev, and Yaroslavl Petrashov.
Also in early aughts, Cirillo and Petrashov established Star Trading Engineering LLC — a company’s whose only activity, judging by SPARK-Interfax, consisted of buying and selling land. The company is registered in Ababurovo, a small village located about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Moscow.
In 2008–2009, several private homes that were built in Ababurovo (on land that used to belong to the Soviet Writers’ Union) were registered to Star Trading (Meduza is in possession of the corresponding records). On the collaborative mapping project Wikimapia, this area is called the “Lukoil cottage settlement.” Real estate websites with property listings from Ababurovo also underscore that the “Lukoil settlement” is located nearby.
‘Very beautiful, but not the most outstanding’
The luxurious residence that would cause a media storm in Russia in 2021 is a project that Lanfranco Cirillo started working on in the mid-2000s. He doesn’t deny his involvement in the venture, but he refuses to confirm the palace’s links to the Russian president (Cirillo has adhered to this position in the past, as well). And though he’s proud of his status as “Putin’s architect,” Cirillo underscores that “unfortunately, this isn’t true.”
The residence near Gelendzhik is, as he puts it, “very beautiful, but not the most outstanding.” Asked who exactly he designed the “palace” for, Cirillo replies: “For Stroygazconsulting. I was building a bunch [of things] for Stroygazconsulting, I was building a hell of a lot at that time. […] I did my job and got my money.” Cirillo didn’t specify what other buildings he designed for this particular company.
According to Cirillo, the design brief and the client’s other wishes were communicated to him by Stroygazconsulting’s then-president, Jordanian businessman Ziad Manasir. “I don’t know how or with whom he was connected. But at that time there were hundreds of companies working for him,” the architect recalls.
Ziad Manasir is the founder of not only Stroygazconsulting, but also of the Manaseer Group, which is based in Jordan. He’s indirectly connected to the Russian president through Stroygazconsulting shareholder Olga Grigorieva, the alleged daughter of former State Reserves Agency director and Putin associate Alexander Grigoriev. Manasir was also included on the groom’s guest list for the 2013 wedding of billionaire Kirill Shamalov and Putin’s alleged daughter Ekaterina Tikhonova. The Manaseer Group didn’t responded to Meduza’s request for comment.
Asked if he ever saw the Russian president, Cirillo replies that he “never met with Putin in Gelendzhik,” but ignores clarifying questions on this topic. He also ignores questions about his acquaintance with other high-ranking Russian officials and top managers of state-owned companies.
Is Putin’s ‘palace’ inspired by Berlusconi’s Sardinian mansion?
In 2014, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that “Putin’s dacha” on the Black Sea “was supposed to compete with [former Italian prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia.” The Russian investigative outlet The Insider draws similar comparisons between the two properties, noting that work on the luxury residence on Cape Idokopas began a few years after Putin paid a visit to Berlusconi’s Sardinian mansion.
Cirillo, on the other hand, denies this connection: “They are different in size and style. [Berlusconi’s] Villa Certosa is French-Mediterranean and the palace in Gelendzhik is neoclassical. The Certosa is a thousand square meters [10,765 square feet], the property is around 80 hectares [198 acres], everything is different…”
That said, Villa Certosa’s architectural style does resemble a chateau in the nearby town of Divnomorskoye, which was built during Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure as president (this residence is informally known as “Dima’s dacha”).
In 2014, The New Times published a transcript of an alleged conversation between Lanfranco Cirillo, Oleg Kuznetsov (the head of Secret Service (FSO) unit Number 1437, which acted as the client that ordered the construction of the “palace”), and businessman Nikolai Shamalov (whose son Kirill would later marry and then divorce one of Putin’s daughters). This leaked conversation, in which the Black Sea palace is referred to as the “Praskoveyevka pensionat,” reveals that apparently Lanfranco not only “drew up” the plans but also participated in implementing the construction project.
“Everything is already ready for these 30 million [euros], then, of course it’s nine million for the engineering, then there’s still the grunt work, then the putty, the plaster on all the facades, [and] the installation,” Cirillo is quoted as saying. When asked how to transfer the money for “the installation, delivery, and so on,” the architect allegedly said, “in a suitcase.”
Asked about this episode in conversation with Meduza, Cirillo replies “I don’t remember that.” There’s a lot of “speculation and news” around the project “for no good reason,” he adds. “It seems to me that in Russia many journalists just write what they want.”
Cirillo also denies having any connection to the Washington-based company Medea Investment, which, according to Reuters, supplied Italian building materials for the “palace.” “Medea isn’t mine. I think it was a bridge company for transferring money to Italy [to buy furniture], it’s all absolutely legal,” he insists.
According to The Bell, in the late 2000s, Cirillo became the owner of a 172-square-meter (1,850-square-foot) apartment in one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country — the Federation Tower skyscraper complex, located in Moscow-City (unfurnished apartments that size sell for nearly 78 million rubles, about $1.05 million, according the real estate website Cian.ru). The architect bought two more apartments in the City of Capitals complex, also located in Moscow-City — according to The Bell, one unit is 185 square meters (1,990 square feet) and the other 222 square meters (2,390 square feet).
At around the same time, he became a part-owner of Stroygazkomplekt LLC, which would go on to become the legal entity behind his architectural studio. The company is associated with the aforementioned holding company, Stroygazconsulting — according to SPARK-Interfax, Stroygazconsulting’s top managers, including Ziad Manasir, are among Stroygazkomplekt’s original founders.
The Lanfranco Cirillo Masterskaja, Star Trading Engineering, and Stroygazkomplekt are also mentioned on the resume of Italian architect Paolo Vinciguerra — who, according to his LinkedIn profile, from 2010 to 2012 worked as a senior architect and project manager on a residence in Gelendzhik that looks unmistakably like “Putin’s palace.” Vinciguerra didn’t respond to questions from Meduza.
‘I earned money, took it home, and kept quiet’
“In the spring of 2012, an Italian by the name of Lanfranco, who pronounced Russian words with a funny [accent], appealed to the Finn-class yacht association in Moscow,” begins an article about Lanfranco Cirillo published in the association’s magazine (Meduza is in possession of a copy of this particular issue).
In a bid to maintain his long-held passion for sailing while living in Russia, Cirillo had reached out to the association to find out if he could “somehow practice” there. Moscow’s Finn-class sailing enthusiasts would later find out that the Italian led a professional team in his homeland, called Fantastica.
The article goes on to describe Cirillo as a “unique foreigner, who does more for our country than many Russians.” It also claims that Cirillo received Russian citizenship thanks to a petition from the association (among other things). On the other hand, Cirillo has said that he wrote a letter to the Federal Migration Service and the Kremlin asking for Russian citizenship. Either way, Putin signed an order granting Lanfranco Cirillo Russian citizenship in August 2014 (you can even read it on the government’s website).
A few months later, Cirillo became a shareholder in Bank Soyuzny — a Russian lending institution with a complicated reputation (in 2013, the bank was raided in connection with a criminal case on illegal banking activity). According to Cirillo, he was originally just a client of the bank; when it’s business took a turn for the worse, Bank Soyuzny was unable to service his accounts and therefore offered him a package of shares instead. “Becoming a [Bank Soyuzny] shareholder was the worst idea of my life,” Cirillo tells Meduza. The bank’s license was revoked due to “dubious operations” in 2018 and when it declared bankruptcy in 2020, Cirillo lost money.
At the same time, the Italian architect’s business was growing, despite the fact that his studio was operating without a website, advertising, or even a sign on its office, which — according to The New Times — you couldn’t get into “off the street.” “In those years, I was definitely the most fashionable architect in Russia,” Cirillo says today, while adding that he doesn’t like being in the public eye. “I’ve always tried to keep a low profile: I earned money, took it home, and kept quiet.”
While Cirillo said that in 2012 more than 100 people were working for his company, in conversation with La Repubblica in 2014, he claimed to have “a thousand employees and hundreds of millions in annual turnover.” His office on the Frunzenskaya Embankment in central Moscow had its own small gym and portraits of Putin on the walls, La Repubblica wrote.
“Like 92–93 percent of Russia’s population, I love our president and I think he is the right man in the right place in the current world situation,” Lanfranco explained in a 2016 interview. “I like [Putin] because he made Russia a great country again. He has an interesting intuition in foreign policy. He’s a man who loves Russia and the people, I respect that,” Cirillo tells Meduza, when asked how he feels about the Russian president.
In the spring of 2015, Cirillo became the owner of a house on the waterfront in Gelendzhik — one of the four buildings that Alexey Navalny shows in his investigation (Navalny described them as a “small bonus, so you understand how profitable it is to guard Putin’s secrets”). According to records from Russia’s property registry (Rosreestr) obtained by Meduza, the property’s previous owner was Roman Zolotov, the son of the Russian National Guard’s current director, Viktor Zolotov.
“I bought and built it. There’s nothing secret about it. I have the right to do this,” Cirillo said about the house in an interview with RFE/RL in 2015. Now, however, Cirillo says that he just designed these “beautiful, slightly Italian” buildings and claims that he never owned any of them. “These are private homes three kilometers [less than 2 miles] from the city center, not far from the airport, it’s not the most beautiful place,” Cirillo said in January 2021. “To be honest, if I had to choose between a vacation in Porto Cervo [Sardinia] or on the Black Sea, I’d prefer Porto Cervo a hundred times over.”
Asked why he previously claimed to own a house on the Black Sea, Cirillo’s reply is vague: he says it’s because he had a “place in Gelendzhik — an apartment in the city center.” “But not that house that’s mentioned in the video,” the architect emphasizes (despite the fact that according to property records obtained by Meduza, Cirillo owned that very house from March 2015 to May 2017).
In May 2015, the Lanfranco Cirillo Masterskaja was a finalist in the Parliamentary Center design competition — this was the Italian architect’s first public project. His studio proposed a complex that combined the State Duma and Federation Council buildings, to be located on the Mnevnikovskaya floodplain in Moscow. However, that June, Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matvienko declared the three finalists’ designs “unsuitable” and “in need of serious revision.” The Parliamentary Center project was later scrapped altogether.
“There was a lot of will, but little money. They wanted a new parliament, then they calculated how much it [would] cost and said: no, the old one is better,” Cirillo recalls with a laugh.
Cirillo adds that he worked “like hell” on the design proposal, but was never paid a cent. “Of course I wanted [to become the architect for the project]. I’m not a fool, I’m an ordinary person. It’s better to go down in history as the architect of the Parliamentary Center than as an architect [who built] a dacha.”
At the start of 2016, Lanfranco Cirillo took up winemaking, becoming the co-owner of the Anapa-based business Shumrinka LLC. The other half of the company is owned by businessman Alexander Kislitsyn, the former director of Lukoil-Inform LLC. According to RBC, Shumrinka dreamed of producing “the best wine in Russia” and wanted to name it “Fantastica.” Cirillo also had plans to develop agrotourism in Gaikodzor, where the winemaking company is located; he wanted to build a “small Tuscan village” there.
That same year, the company Proyachting named Cirillo Lanfranco as its “Patron of the Year” for helping Russia’s Olympic sailing team, and the Russian Sailing Federation announced that he was involved in “preparing a project for the global development and creation of a sailing center in Gelendzhik.”
Then, Cirillo’s relationship with Russia came to an unfortunate end.
‘I lived a crazy life’
Of the two dozen Stroygazkomplekt and Shumrinka employees Meduza found on social networks, only two replied to our requests for comment. Architect Maria Tomilina, who worked for Lanfranco Cirillo’s studio 12 years ago, said that she never communicated with him directly for work or personal reasons — though she sometimes encountered Cirillo around the office and at corporate parties.
Roman Logunov, a winemaking expert at Cirillo’s company in Gaikodzor, said that he’s only seen the Italian once, many years ago. This was confirmed by the company directly. “An Italian?” an employee asked Meduza’s correspondent. “That was in the past. For the most part he’s not here. To be honest, we’ve forgotten about him altogether.” The employee went on to explain that the entire winemaking process — from the planting of the grapes to the development of labels for the bottles — is run by Alexander Kislitsyn. “He’s the soul of this company,” she said.
In conversation with Meduza, Lanfranco Cirillo confirmed that he severed nearly all of his ties with Russia and returned to Italy in 2016. In his words, he went back to “nurse” his daughter Elisabetta Cirillo, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. Elisabetta passed away in October 2019. “I lived a crazy life, I flew on my own plane and hardly slept. And then one day you come home and find your daughter with metastases everywhere. They tried to keep me. ‘No, you can’t,’ they said...I said: ‘Guys, if you don’t understand what family is, I’m no longer interested in working with you,” Cirillo recalled in an interview with La Repubblica.
In that same interview, Cirillo named the “Kremlin’s chief of security” among those who tried to persuade him to stay in Russia. But in conversation with Meduza, he wouldn’t explain this comment. “Many people contacted me…” he said, evasively.
In 2016, Cirillo set about liquidating Stroygazkomplekt. This decision was later cancelled, but, according to SPARK-Interfax, Russia’s Federal Tax Service suspended operations on the company’s accounts in 2020. “Stroygazkomplekt hasn’t been in operation for a long time. As far as I know, it’s being liquidated or has been liquidated. My lawyers were doing this,” Cirillo says.
Stroygazkomplekt’s lands in the industrial zone in Odintsovo are now registered to a Cyprian off-shore company called Ablorento Investment Ltd (according to records at Meduza’s disposal). According to The Bell, this company is affiliated with Lanfranco Cirillo (though he himself denies this). This same organization acquired the Italian’s properties in the Moscow-City skyscrapers. Judging by records available to Meduza, Cirillo also sold his house in Gelendzhik in 2017.
That same year, the property in the village of Ababurovo owned by Cirillo’s company Star Trading Engineering (which is currently undergoing liquidation) was handed over to the Russian Federation following a court ruling. Now, Rosreestr’s Moscow department is seeking to have the buildings on the property recognized as unauthorized constructions so it can demolish them; the next court hearing in this case is set to take place in February 2021.
This “absurd story,” Cirillo says, is yet another reason why he left Russia. “I bought the land from the Odintsovo administration and built the townhouses on it to sell. Twelve years later they tell me: the administration wasn’t the owner of the land, so all of this isn’t yours anymore.” The Italian calls what’s happening “craziness”: “It’s just unbelievable, you buy land from the government and then the government takes it away from you under some pretense and no one is responsible for this.”
Russian officials also offended Lanfranco Cirillo by cutting him out of the inauguration of the new Sailing Center in Gelendzhik. “I had nothing to do with it. And to be honest, I’m very upset,” Cirillo tells Meduza.“ I wanted to invest $200,000, build an Olympic sailing center, and donate it to the city. I spoke to the governor, everyone told me: yes, yes yes…And then they said no.” Nevertheless, the architect claims that he still sponsors up-and-coming Olympic sailors from Russia.
Cirillo is still a co-owner of the Shumrinka winery on the outskirts of Anapa and the company appears to be doing well. It reportedly produces around 200,000 bottles of wine a year — they’re also expanding production and building a new warehouse. That said, Shumrinka has yet to produce a wine called “Fantastica,” like Cirillo wanted.
Today, Lanfranco Cirillo lives in Dubai, but he often travels around the world for various charitable projects — and polar expeditions. He says that after his daughter’s illness and death, he decided that he needed “to do something for future generations.”
“I’m retired, what else should I be doing?” Cirillo says. “Sitting in Italy is boring. The weather is bad and everything is closed [due to the pandemic].” However, he still maintains connections to his homeland: in 2019, his family financed the restoration of Venice’s Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli after its dome was damaged during a hurricane. This was a gesture in memory of his daughter — Elisabetta Cirillo was married in this church a few months before her death.
As for the latest reports about the luxurious residence in Gelendzhik, Cirillo says they contain nothing new: “All of this was published a long time ago” (indeed, investigations into the mansion were also released by The New Times and Reuters in 2014). However, he calls some of the objects shown in “Putin’s Palace” investigation — for example, the stripper pole — “nonsense and the inventions of Mr. Navalny.”
Cirillo has a “philosophical” attitude towards the fact that this investigation and Navalny’s arrest led to major protests in Russia: “Have you seen what happened in Washington? These were much more colossal things. Now is a difficult time for everyone. If you want, come to Italy, see how many people there are here without work.”
The way he sees it, the focus should be on the restoration of the Russian economy in the aftermath of sanctions and the pandemic, and assistance for small and medium-sized businesses — not on “Putin’s Palace” and the recent protests.
Cirillo claims that he’s returned to Russia “three times” in the past year, but not on business. He’s now a member of billionaire Frederik Paulsen’s foundation, which studies climate change in the Arctic and Antarctica, as well as the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean. “I come and talk about these matters, and that’s all,” Cirillo says of his recent visits to Russia.
Cirillo spoke to Meduza from West Africa — he was in Guinea with another organization, which he didn’t name. In his words, this one is “close to the Vatican” and doing work in Guinea to counter the negative impact of deforestation. “[We ask] people not to cut down trees to make fires,” Cirillo says, describing the foundation’s mission in Guinea. “And we provide lighting, we install solar panels in villages.”
To conclude, Lanfranco Cirillo tells Meduza that he never looks back and has no regrets: “I don’t know what I did badly. I’m proud that architects from my school continue to work in Moscow. I loved this country. Why am I reading that I’m the latest gangster in Russia, dammit?”
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart