Russian billionaires came from humble beginnings. One sold used rugs and resold theater tickets. By Will Fitzgibbon and Antonio Cucho
Since Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000, his oligarch allies have found few barriers to luxury, snapping up yachts, jets, villas and other assets, with plenty of professional help along the way.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that.
Governments have sanctioned members of President Putin’s inner circle, alleging their wealth came on the back of insider deals for sovereign assets. Authorities have seized yachts in docks and planes in hangars.
But targeting owners is one thing. Identifying the enablers – the elite professionals who help oligarchs buy, conceal and maintain the assets – is another.
Leaked records show for each luxury plaything they bought, Russians now under sanctions relied on the services of a small army of professionals in Europe, Asia and North America: attorneys to write contracts, brokers to sell insurance, bankers to move the money, accountants, ship builders to hand over the keys – all without asking too many questions about where the money came from.
The Western enablers say they broke no laws in helping oligarchs. Yet, experts say, they do have a choice and every opportunity to identify their customer and decline the business.
“Without Wall St, London, Zurich bankers, lawyers, property dealers, yacht brokers, and other financial consultants, the oligarchs could not have secretly and safely moved vast funds into Western markets,” Frank Vogl, a co-founder of Transparency International, told ICIJ in an email. “Everyone in business has a choice — to do the right thing, serve the core public interest and act with integrity, or act in the shadows to secure more and more cash.”
Last month, the U.S. sanctioned Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, alleging that they are among “Putin’s cronies.” The brothers have denied benefiting financially from their friendship with Russia’s president.
Many sanctioned Russian billionaires came from humble beginnings. One sold used rugs and resold theater tickets. Others, like Gennady Timchenko, reportedly studied espionage alongside Vladimir Putin decades ago at KGB training school. All have since gone on to amass eye-watering wealth.
Timchenko has denied that President Putin is connected to his businesses. He previously said he has always acted lawfully. In March, the Italian government seized the Lena, one of at least nine luxury yachts impounded around the world since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
“The enablers are not just those dealing in finance,” Vogl said, adding that others “used their influence in return for handsome fees, to try to polish the reputations of oligarchs who in so many cases have utterly failed to disclose how they made their fortunes and how they continue to acquire massive wealth.”
The United Kingdom, Switzerland and Singapore are among countries that have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctioned state-owned companies, including Russia’s largest gas company, Gazprom. For years, leaked records show, those same governments were home to Gazprom investments and shell companies and pit stops for suspicious transactions.
ICIJ asked Gazprom and its other enablers to comment on but received no reply.
Leaked records show, however, that the Russian company’s enablers had questions of their own. “Additional information provided did not assuage…concerns,” AsiaCiti’s employees wrote in 2018.
“Reasonable suspicions maintained.”