Meet Putin’s new ‘son-in-law’ The Russian president’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova is in a relationship with a ballet star named Zelensky
Russian ballet master Igor Zelensky may share a last name with Ukraine’s current president — but he’s actually the father of Vladimir Putin’s granddaughter. A joint investigation by Meduza, Current Time TV, and the Dossier Center has revealed that Zelensky has been in a years-long relationship with Putin’s purported second daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. Until recently, Zelensky was based in Munich, where he worked as the director of the Bavarian State Ballet. And Tikhonova, who heads the Moscow-based nonprofit “Innopraktika,” divided her time between Russia and Germany. Zelensky resigned from his position in Munich in early April, reportedly in connection with his refusal to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, there’s speculation that Zelensky will take on a leadership role at a new state theater the Russian authorities are constructing in Crimea — a project announced by Putin himself in 2018.
Please note. This investigation was originally published in Russian on May 19, 2022. The following translation has been edited and abridged.
A Family Man
In early April 2022, the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich unexpectedly announced that its director, Igor Zelensky, was stepping down for “private family reasons.” The press release made no mention of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
“Running a ballet company demands absolute concentration and authority,” the press release quoted Zelensky as saying. “At present, however, private family circumstances require my full attention and time, and it is impossible for me to reconcile these circumstances with running a ballet company.”
Igor Zelensky’s biography
The youngest son in a military family, Igor Zelensky was born in Labinsk, a city in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai, in 1969. His childhood was spent in Georgia, where he attended the Tbilisi Choreographic School and trained under the famous Georgian ballet dancer Vakhtang Chabukiani. At 17, he went on to train at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg. He became a Mariinsky Theater soloist before the age of 20.
Zelensky’s international career took off in 1990, when, at 21 years old, he was awarded the Grand prix at the International Ballet Competition in Paris. In 1992, he became a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. During his career, Zelensky performed as a soloist with the Deutsche Oper (Berlin), London’s Royal Ballet, La Scala (Milan), and the Bavarian State Opera and Ballet Theater, among many others.
Zelensky met his wife, ballerina Yana Serebryakova, when she was a dancer at the Mariinsky Theater. Zelensky said in a 2013 interview that he and Serebryakova have two daughters and a son.
Igor Zelensky and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky share a last name, but their families are not related in any way, the dancer’s brother, St. Petersburg entrepreneur Oleg Zelensky, told Meduza.
Be that as it may, Zelensky’s wife — former Mariinsky Ballet dancer Yana Serebryakova — continues to work as a dance coach at the Bavarian State Ballet, the theater’s press service confirmed.
The Munich theater declined to answer questions about Zelensky’s resignation. However, in May, pro-Kremlin pranksters Vovan and Lexus tricked the theater’s general director Serge Dorny into shedding some light on the matter. Posing as “Ukraine’s Culture Minister” during a phone call, they asked Dorny if Zelensky was forced out for refusing to “publicly condemn Russia.”
“We spoke with him several times,” Dorny told Vovan and Lexus. “I suggested that he should leave. [...] He didn’t make this decision independently.”
Gisela Sonnenburg, founder of the German magazine Ballett-Journal, is convinced that Zelensky’s departure was linked to the “hostile attitude towards Russians” that developed following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We in Germany are trying to support Ukraine within the limits set by our democratically elected leaders,” said Wiebke Hüster, a dance critic for the influential German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “I think the state shouldn’t pay money to someone who doesn’t publicly distance himself from the Russian regime and the war it unleashed. I don’t know why Igor Zelensky didn’t do this.”
Bavarian radio reported that Zelensky did, in fact, speak out against the war in front of his ensemble, but refrained from doing so publicly. The Munich theater’s press service only confirmed that Zelensky never made an official statement condemning Russia’s war: “[Bavarian radio’s] claim refers to private conversations. We cannot cite specific wording in this regard.”
Two of Zelensky’s acquaintances said that he may return to Russia in the near future. Apparently, his current partner — who is not his wife — is insisting on it.
‘A famous man’s daughter’
Igor Zelensky became close to Katerina Tikhonova when he worked as the ballet director at Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater, a position he held from 2011 to 2016.
An employee at the theater and a source close to its ballet company said that Tikhonova began attending performances after Zelensky got the job. “They were seen together after performances,” added the source close to the company.
Ahead of Tikhonova’s visits, Zelensky would warn his entire ensemble that a “famous man’s daughter is coming.” Tikhonova came to the theater alone, without any security, and tried not to attract any attention. “Zelensky escorted her to her seat,” the theater employee recalled. “She walked quietly along the corridor with Igor Anatolyevich once everyone was already seated in the auditorium, and that’s it.”
The close relationship between Katerina Tikhonova and Igor Zelensky was the talk of the Moscow ballet world. According to a member of the Guild of Ballet Critics, for example, when Nikolay Tsiskaridze — the current rector of the Academy of Russian Ballet — was angling for the job of general director of the Bolshoi Theater in 2017, “he shouted from the rooftops that he would discuss it Zelensky, because he was Putin’s daughter’s lover.” (Tsisikaridze declined to answer questions on the subject.)
The Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater, where Zelensky had an overlapping appointment as ballet director from 2011 to 2015, didn’t attract such high-profile guests. “Neither Putin himself, nor anyone close to him” visited the theater, according to one employee.
However, this person recalled that members of the company described Zelensky as “the main figure in ballet and culture under Putin” and someone who made “important decisions” in the industry. “[He] was presented as an important person, but he didn’t have a car with flashing lights. Igor Anatolyevich is a person with convictions, who doesn’t boast, wear swanky things, or live in mansions,” the theater employee said.
According to Russia’s property registry, Zelensky owns two apartments: a 34-square-meter (366-square-foot) apartment in downtown St. Petersburg and a 169-square-meter (1,819-square-foot) apartment in Novosibirsk.
Tikhonova and Zelensky stayed in touch, even after she married billionaire Kirill Shamalov in February 2013. In fact, after the couple reportedly divorced in January 2018, Shamalov kept in contact with his ex-wife’s relatives and friends, including Igor Zelensky.
Information about these interrelationships was uncovered in a leaked archive of corporate emails from Kirill Shamalov’s company Ladoga Management.
According to the emails, Zelensky is also acquainted with Shamalov’s longtime assistant, Viktor Snakin, who has handled the billionaire’s finances since at least 2016. In 2021, for example, Snakin deposited at least seven payments from Zelensky into Shamalov’s accounts.
The leaked emails also show that near the end of his marriage with Tikhonova, Shamalov was periodically in contact with Zelensky’s wife, Yana Serebryakova. In 2017, the two had several phone conversations that coincided with calls from Shamalov to Tikhonova. What’s more, on each occasion, Tikhonova and Serebryakova were in the same place — Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or St. Petersburg.
Shamalov’s last known phone conversation with Serebryakova occurred late at night on April 17, 2017. At the time, she was in Germany. An hour later, Shamalov called Tikhonova in Moscow. The following week, from April 25–27, Shamalov finalized several deals for the sale of a 17 percent stake in the petrochemical giant Sibur — shares he had purchased from billionaire Gennady Timchenko, a longtime friend of Vladimir Putin, roughly a year after he married Tikhonova.
Seven and half months later, Tikhonova gave birth to her and Zelensky’s daughter, according to a source with access to Russia’s vital records database. Bloomberg broke the story of Shamalov and Tikhonova’s divorce in January 2018.
Viktor Snakin, Yana Serebryakova, Igor Zelensky, and Katerina Tikhonova didn’t respond to Meduza’s inquiries. Kirill Shamalov couldn’t be reached for comment.
‘He kept Sevastopol in his back pocket’
In March 2018, the Russian Consulate in Munich posted a photo of Igor Zelensky casting his ballot in the presidential election. The vote had been postponed by a week so it would coincide with the anniversary of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea (celebrated in Russia as a day of “reunification”). At the Munich polling station where Zelensky voted, Putin won just shy of 77 percent of the vote — the same as the nationwide result. During the previous elections in 2012, Zelensky was an official face of Putin’s campaign.
Just a few days before the 2018 presidential vote, the civil registration office in Moscow’s Tverskoy district registered the parentage of Putin’s new granddaughter. Her parents are listed on the birth certificate as “Igor Anatolyevich Zelensky” and “Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova,” according to the source with access to the vital records database. The birth certificate was issued three months after the child was born. And since her parents are not married, they signed a joint declaration of parentage.
Around the same time, Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Sevastopol, where he promised to build a cultural complex complete with a theater and training facilities for musicians and ballet dancers. Plans to construct this complex, along with three others, were made official in a presidential decree, which Putin signed on the day of his fourth inauguration, May 7.
To realize these projects, Putin created a foundation called National Cultural Heritage. Its supervisory board included the heads of the Bolshoi Theater, Mariinsky Theater, Tretyakov Gallery, and Hermitage Museum, as well as government officials, and — unexpectedly and without explanation — Igor Zelensky.
Natalya Volynskaya, who headed the National Cultural Heritage foundation until December 2021, didn’t know who nominated Zelensky to the supervisory board. However, she did say that he oversaw the Sevastopol project while working in Europe, and that he didn’t receive any money for this work.
The Sevastopol State Opera and Ballet Theater, which was designed by the Austrian architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, is set to open in 2023. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, the firm’s co-founder Wolf D. Prix recalled meeting Putin when he visited Sevastopol to present the design to the city: “All of a sudden, they said Putin wanted to meet me. So, I briefly showed him the model of the opera house. He was extremely polite and well informed. And he compared the shape of the building with a seagull.”
People close to Zelensky have already been given jobs in Sevastopol. His protégé, dancer Sergei Polunin, has been made the director of the Sevastopol State Opera and Ballet Theater and acting rector of the city’s Academy of Dance. In 2020, Andrey Uvarov — who worked with Zelensky at Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater — was named the Sevastopol theater’s deputy director.
Notably, the Sevastopol theater’s website lists Uvarov but not Polunin, whose appointment as director was officially announced. Speaking to Meduza, Natalya Volynskaya said that the role of director is still vacant — as did another source close to the National Cultural Heritage foundation. Polunin and Uvarov did not respond to requests for comment.
It would appear that a place is being prepared for Igor Zelensky in Sevastopol. Indeed, four sources said that following his departure from the Bavarian State Ballet, Zelensky would be taking up a post there.
“Zelensky was promised Sevastopol, where an opera and ballet theater is being built, which he is eventually supposed to head,” said a source at the Bolshoi Theater. “He’s counting on Sevastopol, that’s true,” added the source at the Guild of Ballet Critics. A source at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater said that Zelensky has long “kept Sevastopol in his back pocket.”
Vladimir Yurovsky, the Bavarian Opera and Ballet Theater’s musical director, said that Zelensky had Sevastopol on the brain even while working in Germany. “I remember in January 2020, Igor actively tried to talk me into taking my orchestra — at the time I headed the Svetlanov State Orchestra in Russia — to this new Sevastopol theater. And for me to take the position of musical director.”
According to Yurovsky, Zelensky “was going to be something like a director” at the Sevastopol theater.
In early May, the Munich theater appointed a new ballet director: French master Laurent Hilaire. A former étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, Hilaire replaced Igor Zelensky at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in 2017 and worked there for almost five years. He resigned in late February, leaving Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I am departing with a heavy heart, but the context no longer allows me to work with peace of mind,” Hilaire told journalists at the time.
Zelensky, according to his acquaintances, “plans to live in Munich as a private individual” for the time being. “He was in Munich, yes,” Oleg Zelensky said when asked about his brother’s whereabouts. That said, sources underscored that “Zelensky’s main creative activity will be in Russia.”