A trigger-happy warmonger who basks in public adoration at home and shrugs off the anger of the West, that Russia’s macho president is arguably the world’s most powerful man is no surprise.
That Vladimir Putin may also secretly be, by far, the world’s richest man will come as a shock to many. Russia’s feared autocrat is well and truly a law unto himself and uses his unfettered power almost as he pleases.
This has never been clearer than in the sinister case of Russian spy, Alexander¬ Litvinenko, whose murder in London in 2006, Sir Robert Owen’s inquiry concluded last week was probably sanctioned by Putin. The Kremlin is, of course, threatening¬ to sue the British government¬ over the claim.
Sixteen years after he was first elected, 63-year-old Putin’s position as Russian president is stronger than ever. But another picture is slowly emerging from the murk – of a man not only obsessed with vast power, but also, with obtaining unimaginable wealth. Almost 100 years since the Russian Revolution, it is almost as if country has a new Tsar.
While Putin describes himself as a modest man, with a 2014 income of a mere 7.65 million roubles – £83,000, property which consists of two not over-large apartments and a share in a car parking garage, some claim in reality he has a staggering fortune. Estimates range from £28billion to £140billion.
A gigantic sum, that, if true, would make him the wealthiest man in the world. The £140billion, claimed by Putin critic and hedge fund manager Bill Browder, is more than twice the fortune of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Nobody denies the extent of corruption¬ in Russia. All Russians say: “The fish rots from the head down.”
But in the gangster state that is Putin’s Russia, rumour has it he has turned colossal corruption into an art form.
For years, critics have whispered of his shady “mafia-style” labyrinth of personal connections and deals – an inner circle designed to unscrupulously rake in the big bucks.
And this week, the US Treasury joined them, for the first time openly accusing Putin of corruption and embezzling state funds to amass a huge personal wealth. This is said to include a billion dollar palace, and a £25million yacht, Olympia, claimed to have been given to Putin by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, one of many super-rich friends it is said the president back scratches in return for the same.
“We’re seen him enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalising those who he doesn’t view as friends, using state assets. Whether that’s Russia’s energy wealth, whether it’s other state contracts, he directs those to whom he believes will serve him and excludes those who don’t,” US Treasury official Adam Szubin alleges, when speaking to BBC Panorama this week.
“To me, that is a corruption,” he adds, explaining ex-KGB spy Putin had years of experience in “masking his wealth”.
Putin expert Angus Roxburgh agrees the president is obsessed with power and riches. He says: “He behaves like a tsar, believes in himself as a tsar… and probably¬ wants to live like one.”
The author of The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, he adds: “Putin probably sees wealth simply as his due. He is president of a great country, and in his simplistic view of the world, leaders are rich.”
There are few conspicuous signs of wealth. Occasionally there is a peek behind the carefully drawn curtains – last autumn he was photographed working out in a £2,000 cashmere and silk tracksuit¬ by luxury Italian firm Lora Piana.
He also had a weakness for pricey timepieces¬ – his watch collection said to be worth nearly £450,000. In 2009, he gave a £5,500 black Blancpain to a factory worker.
Putin and his cronies dismiss all claims of his reported wealth and corruption as “pure fiction”.
The line from Putin himself is: “I am the wealthiest man not just in Europe but in the world. I collect emotions. I am wealthy in that the Russian people have twice entrusted me with leadership of a great nation.”
But the selfless portrayal could not be further from the disturbing picture dissenters paint.
Political expert Stanislav Belkovsky has claimed Putin made £27billion from stakes in three Russian energy firms, oil exploration firm, Surgutneftegaz, Gazprom, the state energy giant, and Gunvor, an oil trading company.
Sergev Kolesnikov, is among those who claim Putin uses state funds and donations¬ from rich backers supposedly to the state, for extreme personal gain.
The businessman helped Putin collect money from the super-rich, thinking it was heading towards state projects. He and two partners set up Rosinvest to invest the money. Tellingly, 94% of the company was owned by Putin.
The company initially invested in 16 different state projects but funds began to head towards a “side project”, he claims – the immense billion dollar Constantine Palace on the Black Sea.
Putin has denied it is anything to do with him but Panorama saw papers showing him linked to the money trail. The resounding claim, echoed by several former associates is that Putin has shares in some of Russia’s biggest firms. At their helm are many old and close friends.
A large number of these date back to his days in St Petersburg, where Putin was born and served as deputy mayor. Putin grew up in poverty, living in a fifth floor, one room apartment with no hot water and a shared kitchen.
His father Vladimir Spiridonovich fought with Soviet special forces in the Second World War, returning home severely disabled he worked as a labourer. His mother Maria Ivanovna, who almost died of starvation during the siege by the Nazis of the city, was a factory worker.
After graduating in 1975, Putin joined the KGB, and was eventually sent to Dresden, then in East Germany, to cultivate¬ other undercover agents.
But it was the friends and allies he made later, when he returned in 1991 to his hometown to work in public office, who have stuck with him. Critics say this is the team he trusts and rewards.
They in return, do his bidding. The unloyal risk jail, or worse. Author Karen Dawisha said: “The system is run according to the old adage, ‘For my friends everything, for my enemies the law’.” His former deputy and his lawyer in St Petersburg have both served as his prime ministers.
According to Panorama¬, another friend, the former cellist to his daughter, Sergei Roldugin, has a valuable stake in a major Russian bank.
A neighbour, Yuri Kovalchuck, has a bigger stake. Childhood pal Boris Rotenberg, made a pile from official contracts.
Angus Roxburgh says: “There is no doubt that a dozen or so of Putin’s closest friends and former colleagues have become phenomenally rich. They could not have done so without Putin’s say-so – and would he have done it without benefiting himself?” And it seems Putin may be passing both his system, his contacts, and his wealth, to the next generation.
Notoriously private about his personal life, he has two daughters. He divorced wife Lyudmila in 2013, but has been linked for years to gymnast Alina Kabaeva, 32. Information on his kids is almost as difficult to confirm as his wealth, but his youngest daughter, is believed to be Katerina Tikhonova, and seems to benefit from her father’s position – along with her husband Kirill Shamalov.
Analysts reckon Putin junior and her husband probably have holdings¬ worth about £1.5billion. That wealth stems mainly, they claim, from a publicly disclosed stake in a major firm Kirill acquired from Gennady Timchenko, a commodities trader and pal of Putin. As Roxburgh says, much of it is hard to believe – and near impossible to prove: “If he has so much wealth why do we see so little of it, other than his watches?
“If he has a yacht when on earth was he on it? Virtually every hour of his time can be accounted for. If he has this huge new palace, has he ever used it?
“All the investments, ownerships, are hidden and denied. Everything is done in secret so how do we know? Much information is from aggrieved parties.”
But whispers are getting louder, and an anecdote, recorded by author Masha Gessen, seems to sum up what is becoming clear as a Putin trait.
She talks of the time in 2005, when hosting a group of US businessmen in St Petersburg, Putin pocketed a diamond ring belonging to Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots American football team, after asking to try it on.
After many articles in the US press, Kraft announced the ring had been a gift. Surely the wisest story when dealing with a magpie like Putin?