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‘What shall we do with Kabaeva?’ Putin’s proxy scheme for lavishing wealth on the former Olympic gymnast
The former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva never made public claims of being in a relationship with Vladimir Putin. And yet, in 2008, their forthcoming “wedding of the century” was announced by the Moscow Correspondent — a tabloid that was instantly rebuked by Putin personally, and completely shuttered all of 10 days after the offending publication. All the same, for the next 15 years, Kabaeva has been receiving ample gifts and all kinds of costly support from the president’s inner circle. The relationship is, of course, widely believed to be real. Earlier, the Wall Street Journal cited sources claiming that Kabaeva has “at least three” children by Putin. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kabaeva came under Western sanctions, for the same reason of being generally believed to be Putin’s, well, consort. Now, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investigative project Dossier has a lot more to say about Kabaeva’s curious biography, her astonishing rise, and the generosity lavished on Kabaeva by Putin’s closest associates — or rather, by proxy, Putin himself.
That Kabaeva and her family received real estate from Putin’s friends is something that was reported time and again by the media. Putin’s childhood friend Peter Kolbin gave Kabaeva’s grandmother Anna Zatsepilina not one, but two apartments on Moscow’s legendary Arbat Street. Gennady Timchenko (who knows Putin since the 1990s and is considered to be one of his human “wallets”) gave her an apartment in St. Petersburg. Grigory Bayevsky (“realtor to Putin’s friends” and partner to Arkady Rotenberg) gave her a plot on the highly sought-after Rublevka tract, and an apartment in Moscow. Dossier explains that all of these real estate deals were gifts from Putin himself, delivered by different proxies.
Citing official Rosreestr data, Dossier shows that Kabaeva, her grandmother, her mother, and her sister own a total of ten apartments in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as land and cottages in the Moscow region and Sochi. Dossier calculates that the total combined market value of this real estate reaches 2.5 billion rubles — that is, more than $39 million.
A mansion in Switzerland — and the Scheherazade
Kabaeva also has access to assets that formally belong to other people. Last April, for example, The Wall Street Journal wrote, citing both US and EU officials, that the former athlete spent long stretches of time in a helipad-outfitted villa in the Cologny municipality on Lake Geneva. The area’s historic mansions have a typical value of $70–80 million — but the helipad is the only one across all of Cologny. Its location is close to the grand house owned by Gennady Timchenko, on the historic property called Villa Hauterive. Part of Villa Hauterive was up for sale in the spring of 2022 — for $75.5 million.
When contacted by Dossier, the realtor who handled the sale confirmed that the property does have a helipad. According to the flight-tracking service ADS-B Exchange, five private helicopters have landed at or near the site since 2016. Four of them were associated with Swift Copters — a company servicing clients from Russia. A source who knows Kabaeva personally told the publication that the ex-athlete takes a helicopter “literally to the doorstep of Timchenko’s house.”
In addition to Timchenko’s Swiss villa, Kabaeva has probably used the Scheherazade — the yacht given to Putin by a group of Russian businessmen once again led by Timchenko. According to another Dossier investigation, at the end of 2020, Kabaeva came to Milan — at the same time with members of the Federal Guard Service, who, according to Alexey Navalny’s investigative team, were part of the Scheherazade’s crew. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the luxury yacht was impounded by the Italian government.
A 12-billion-ruble loan to buy a TV channel
Since 2014, Kabaeva has chaired the board of directors of the National Media Group (NMG) holding. The NMG owns stakes in Channel One, the Russian version of Discovery, as well as the REN TV channel and the Izvestia newspaper. In 2018, the NMG, together with the VTB bank, bought the STS TV channel for 18 billion rubles (or close to $282 million). Later the bank sold its share of the channel to the media holding.
Dossier notes that neither VTB nor NMG were spending their own money in that deal: both of them were using loans. One of the lenders was the STS itself; the other was an individual, a certain “V. Kolbin.” The day before the purchase-and-sale agreement was signed, that Kolbin gave the VTB and the National Media Group a loan of 12.3 billion rubles, at 16 percent annual interest. The lender is none other than Vladimir Petrovich Kolbin, the son of Putin’s old friend Peter Kolbin, who was in turn the nominal owner of a number of the president’s private assets. When Peter Kolbin died in early 2018, his “business” was inherited by his son. Until then, Kolbin, Jr., had worked in law enforcement and security.
In 2018, Vladimir Kolbin acted as a proxy in a transaction with shares of Sogaz — Russia’s largest insurance company. He first bought the securities from the firm owned by Timchenko’s daughter, for 23 billion rubles. Then, he sold them to Sogaz itself, for 55 billion rubles. Shortly thereafter, Kolbin Jr. gave the National Media Group a 12.3 billion-ruble loan to buy the STS.
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Bonus: How Kabaeva became a media executive
A source close to the Russian President’s Office told Dossier that the question of “what to do with Kabaeva” came up sometime around 2007. This led to the creation of the National Media Group in 2008 — with Kabaeva instantly appointed to the advisory board. At the time, Kabaeva also had a seat in the State Duma — but in her seven years of service, she only put her hand to five bills. In 2014, she left the Duma to be come the head of the NMG’s board of directors. (The group’s ownership structure has not been officially reported. Some sources have claimed that, before the war, the NMG’s largest shareholders included Sogaz, the businessman Alexey Mordashov, and Surgutneftegaz.)
But Kabaeva rarely comments on the holding’s work. A trusted source told Dossier that she doesn’t participate in its current activities, either. Clearly, the post is simply “a sinecure that provides a solid income and leaves plenty of time for her to devote to charity, sports, and the children.” In 2018, the former athlete’s official income at NMG was 785 million rubles — or $12.3 million.
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