“I have worked like a galley slave throughout these eight years, morning till night.” Vladimir Putin summing up his first two terms as president to Russian and foreign Press. Feb. 2008.
It’s a nice image for voters at election time.
But below decks on the Sirius, a 54-meter yacht, Russia’s president is not chained to an oar. Instead, he can enjoy the designer interior, listening to a cascading waterfall, chill out in a spa pool, and enjoy a rare vintage from onboard wine cellar.
The Sirius is one of four yachts and part of an explosion of perks that now underpin President Putin’s extravagant lifestyle, according to a new opposition pamphlet, “Life of A Galley Slave.”
Even if you are part of the 97.5 percent of the world’s population that does not speak Russian, click this link, and go on a full color tour of the palaces, yachts, watches and automobiles of Russia’s 21st Century Czar. If you want to read the captions, use Google Translate.
According to “Galley Slave,” the palaces include 20 presidential residences – 10 more than when he came to power in 2000. The neo-classical styles of some stand as gold leaf echoes of the Czarist palaces that young Vladimir must have admired (coveted?) during his hard scrabble youth in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
One, an alpine ski lodge in the Caucasus, nestles on a plateau just one mountain away from the site of the downhill ski races of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
As for timepieces, it appears that Russia’s president takes to heart the commercial appeal: Judge a man by his watch.
By studying hundreds of photos of Russia’s president, opposition researchers came up with a Putin collection of 11 luxury watches. The total worth of the collection is six times his annual declared income of $112,000.
For air travel, there is a fleet of 43 airplanes and 15 helicopters. The centerpiece is an Ilyushin presidential jet with a gold inlay interior created by artisans from Sergiyev Posad, a religious center.
The cars include a stretch Mercedes limousine with a 14-foot, gold trim interior.
By contrast, Russia’s President lists on his official statement of personal assets three vehicles, all antique Soviet cars, and a trailer hitch inherited from his father.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s long-serving press secretary, has dismissed the allegations of wealth, charging that “attempts at pseudo-revelations are associated with oppositionism here.” He said that all the palaces, cars and yachts belong to the Presidential Administration, the modern name for the Kremlin.
But many Russians fear their nation is stuck in the 18th century, where the richest man in a European country was, inevitably, the King.
Louis XIV was the French king who famously blurred the state with himself, saying: “L’etat, c’est moi” – or “The State, it is I.”
Few Russians think their country needs the kind of bicycle riding leader seen in neighboring Scandinavian democracies.
But a sizable portion of Russians think their president has gone way too far. They say he is surrounded by sycophants and favor seekers, men who shower baubles on the Czar, hoping to win lucrative business concessions.
“His lifestyle can be compared to that of a Persian Gulf monarch or a flamboyant oligarch,” write the authors of “Life of a Galley Slave,” Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynuk. Annual upkeep on the Sirius, they write is “the equivalent of the average annual pensions for 1,200 Russian retirees.”
Understandably, few Russian printers will touch the 32-page pamphlet.
After a limited print run of 5,000, the authors, both leaders of the Solidarity movement, have resorted to distribution by the internet. At last count, 2,778 people had clicked the Facebook “like” button on the pamphlet. That click of the mouse probably earned each Russian his or her very own intelligence service file.
Not only is the “Galley Slave” report racing around Russia’s internet, but it is racing around the world at a speed not seen since the Kremlin helped to make “Pussy Riot” a global brand. A quick Google check of the phrase “Putin galley slave” demolishes the Kremlin’s myth that only the Western press is skeptical of Mr. Putin.
A selection of newspapers that ran reports on Russia’s rich and famous leader: Indian Express, Dawn (Pakistan), Gulf Today (Arab Emirates), Malaysian Times, Chosun Ilbo (South Korea) and Shanghai Daily. And that is just a search of English language news media.
Yes, Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” was the longest reigning king in Europe’s history – 72 years.
No, there was no Facebook in the 17th century.
It will be interesting to see how long Russians keep doffing their caps for the passing Putin parade.