Putin Has Created The Ultimate Bond Villain's Lair
The sprawling, ridiculously opulent, and highly secured facility that is perched above the Black Sea is unlike any other on the planet.
Earlier this week, an absolutely massive investigation dropped regarding a highly intriguing site on Russia's Black Sea coast referred to as the Residence at Cape Idokopas or, more commonly, Putin's Palace, after Russia's President Vladimir Putin. The extremely high-security estate, which covers an area just over 168 acres near the resort town of Gelendzhik, reportedly belongs to Putin, though a web of associates and shell companies. It's a totally unique, if not puzzling installation that many have kept a close eye on for years. Now, this new report offers unprecedented insight into where it came from and what it actually includes.
The Anti-Corruption Foundation, also known by its Russian acronym FBK, released the investigative report, which is presently available only in Russian, but is still well worth exploring in full, on Jan. 19, 2021. It is based heavily on financial records and other documents the organization obtained from various sources. It also includes never-before-seen exterior views of the property, including its Italian-style palace, ice rink, amphitheater, and more, as well as highly detailed interior depictions of what the main residence might eventually look like based on floor plans obtained from a whistleblower showing opulent amenities, including a huge pool, a theater, a casino, and a lounge with a pole-dancing stage, among others. FBK estimates that the entire estate, which it says also has features that feel more appropriate for a villain in a James Bond movie, including an escape tunnel, is worth approximately just under $1.4 billion. The reality is that its real worth is more or less unquantifiable, as nothing else exists really like it, outside of the likes of North Korea possibly. Even then, executing a project of this magnitude, at least in qualitative terms, would be challenging due to the tight sanctions placed on that country.
FBK is a Russian non-profit organization that seeks to expose corruption among government officials and that has been highly critical of Putin. There is strong evidence that FBK's founder, Alexei Navalny, was the target of a Russian government assassination attempt last year involving one of a secretive family of chemical weapons, known collectively as Novichoks. Navalny was eventually medically evacuated to Germany, where he recovered. The day before his team put the palace investigation online, he had returned to Russia, where he was summarily arrested on highly questionable grounds relating to a suspended prison sentence from 2014 and charges of libel against a World War II veteran.
Putin's personal spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report as "pure nonsense," reiterating the Russian government's long-standing position that Putin has no connection whatsoever to the site. However, media reports and whistleblower allegations over the past decade have provided evidence that Russia's President has been tied to the estate on the Cape Idokopas since at least 2000.
Despite Russian's government insistence that Putin has no links to the palace and the rest of the estate, it's certainly protected as if he does. For years now, journalists and activists attempting to get close to the site, by land and by sea, have reported being warded off by members of Russia's Federal Protective Service and the Federal Security Service, known by the acronyms FSO and FSB, respectively. Both of these government organizations trace their origins to branches of the Soviet-era KGB.
During its latest investigation, Navalny's team turned up an official flight chart showing a box of restricted airspace, labeled URP116, around Putin's Palace, prohibiting anything from flying through at any altitude between Flight Level 130, or 13,000 feet, and the ground. FBK also says that the actual size of the estate is around 100 times larger if one includes a nearly 17,300-acre adjacent plot of land that the FSB reportedly owns. The report adds that in September 2020 this land was leased to the firm that officially owns the Residence at Cape Idokopas through 2068, ostensibly "for scientific research and educational activities, hunting, and fishing."
All of this notwithstanding, FBK says it was able to fly a small drone with a video camera over the estate, which it has now dubbed Putin's Kingdom. That footage provides the most detailed publicly available look at the property in years.
The palace, which looks fit for a tsar, is, of course, one of the most prominent structures. It alone occupies an area of around 17,691 square meters, or approximately 190,424 square feet, according to FBK. Navalny's team says that costs associated with this building have grown substantially over the years. High humidity in the region, combined with faulty ventilation systems, led to serious mold problems that needed remediation. The palace has been under perpetual construction for many years.
The palace is just one of a number of structures on the property, though, some of which appear to also still be under construction to varying degrees. FBK identified what it said was a greenhouse, as well as an outdoor amphitheater. A very long bridge connects what Navalny's team said was a tea house to the central area of the sprawling installation. A number of the buildings appear to have been built and rebuilt over and over again, pointing to a very demanding owner with limitless financial resources.
There are also various buildings that appear to be offices and dormitories. This is not surprising given that the entire estate undoubtedly requires an equally massive staff and on-site security team. Putin and his staff might have a need for additional, more specialized office space outside of the main residence, as well, to conduct any necessary work, including on particularly sensitive issues, or to serve as a more robust command center during a crisis. There is a very prominent radio tower on this section of the property, as well.
Putin's Kingdom also has its very own church. Putin is a practicing member of the Russian Orthodox Church and its current head, Patriarch Kirill, is a major political ally of the President.
On Jan. 19, the Russian government released the video below showing Putin taking a dip in a crucifix-shaped pool with a crucifix made of ice in front of it to mark Epiphany, a religious holiday that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Of the other structures within Putin's Kingdom, a building with a sloping, grass-covered roof that was built on the site of what had been a trio of helipads is perhaps the most interesting. The footage from FBK shows that two new helipads have now been built directly adjacent to it.
FBK has identified this building as an ice rink, which is hardly surprising given Putin's well-known fondness for hockey.
The video below shows Putin playing hockey during an exhibition match in 2019 in which he scored eight goals. He also infamously fell while taking a victory lap at the end of the game.
During the construction of this building, which began in 2018, there had been some speculation that this could be a hardened underground bunker for Putin in the event of a major crisis. There was renewed discussion about this possibility in November 2020, after the Russian President disclosed the completion of a new bunker at an undisclosed location that he said could withstand a nuclear attack. The new aerial imagery shows that the building, which FBK has identified as an indoor ice rink, is only semi-buried.
While Navalny's team couldn't see inside any of these buildings, as noted, they reportedly obtained floor plans of the main palace from an individual who was apparently disgusted by its extravagant features. FBK analyzed those documents and had detailed 3D renderings made of the rooms based on their assessments of what would likely be inside, at least when everything is finished, which were also based on other pictures and documents offering potential details about specific high-end furnishings.
The interior renderings of one of the bedrooms, an adjacent bathroom, and living and reading rooms, show an aesthetic that is certainly in-line with the exterior look of the building. The style is what could be best described as being fit for a king.
There are also various amenities scattered throughout the building, including a theater and pool. There is also a casino, with FBK saying that floor plans also show slot machines and video game cabinets in adjacent rooms and surrounding halls.
FBK based many of these renderings in part on what the floorplans named the particular rooms. Some were less clear, though. For instance, one room was marked "hookah," suggesting it was a lounge where individuals could smoke, including using one of those water pipes.
"All would be fine, but in the 'hookah' there is not a single window, but for some reason there is a stage, a dressing room, spotlights, and something very similar to a pole is noted on the plan," according to the investigation. "We thought for a long time what it could be. Perhaps a giant shawarma is prepared here. Or firefighters are training," the report quips.
"And here's what happened," it continues. The accompanying rendering makes it pretty clear what Navalny's team believes this room actually is.
The palace itself has Versailles-like grounds, lined with exotic trees and ringed with huge sculptures. What looks like a roundabout carriage house or some other structure also exists towards the property's southwest corner that is also quite intriguing. This could also be the elevator access large enough for vehicles to an underground labyrinth.
Lastly, but certainly not least, there is the matter of the James Bond-esque escape tunnel that Navalny's team says links an underground portion of the palace to an exit close to the shoreline. The footage FBK took using its drone certainly shows what could be an exit and a ventilation port for the tunnel system. The apparent exit also comes out on a road along the shore that could be used as a route to escape by land or to get to a nearby dock inside an enclosed harbor, for evacuation by sea.
The investigation also found further evidence of the purpose of these features on an archived webpage of a company, Metro Style, which designed subway stations. The page included various architectural plans that it says were for "a complex of underground structures for a boarding house in Gelendzhik, Krasnodar Territory." A map showing the underground layout of the tunnels and a lateral cross-section both align very well with what is visible externally on the estate.
"And this tunnel has a little secret. Do you see something like a door in the second photo?" the investigative report adds. "This is the tasting room. Specially disguised downhill. In fact, it is a huge window that offers the best possible sea view. Here you can enjoy a glass of wine, and, what is most important for our national leader, this is not some kind of balcony where you are constantly in danger, but a very safe underground place where nothing threatens you."
While one potential dedicated bunker turned out to be the ice rink, this tunnel system under the main palace could offer a more hardened location to shelter in place, as well. It's possible, if not plausible that there are other underground facilities on the sprawling property, including an actual purpose-built command and control bunker complex.
The FBK investigation makes no other mention of security features at the palace or elsewhere on the estate. One would imagine that they are extensive, but the fact that Navalny's team was able to fly a small drone – a type of platform that, especially when combined with small munitions, presents a very real threat and has been employed in actual attempted assassinations of world leaders and other government officials around the world in recent years – over the estate has to be at best embarrassing for Russia's security services.
The entire facility is ringed by high-security walls, fencing, and other barriers with fortified checkpoints at its entrances. An improved road network also provides access all over the property and beyond. There are other features that remain totally unexplained, as well. For instance, this massive ramp-like setup that appears to be some sort of vehicle access into an underground facility. It leads to the ever-growing pier area on the southern border of the primary property.
How the estate, and the restricted areas around it, continue to evolve now remains to be seen. The footage FBK shot shows significant construction ongoing and indications that the site is not yet in regular use, but there are signs that the various facilities may soon be operational. Navalny's team also says that Putin's Kingdom is just one of a number of properties linked to the Russian President, including four other sites near Gelendzhik, including another chateau, wineries, and an oyster farm.
You can watch FBK's entire presentation on this bizarre facility and those surrounding it below:
What will happen to Putin, who is looking at a new potential wave of protests across the country over Navalny's arrest, which started yesterday, is also not entirely clear. Just yesterday, Gerogy Alburov, another member of Navalny's team, who also helped put together a nearly two-hour-long video presentation to accompany the investigative report on Putin's Kingdom, was jailed for 10 days on unclear charges. That detention would seem to be primarily intended to prevent him from taking to the streets this weekend.
There are also persistent rumors that the Russian President, who is 68, may have serious health issues, including the early stages of Parkinson's disease or cancer, but the authorities in the country have vehemently denied this and there is no hard evidence to confirm any of the claims. At the same time, in December 2020, Putin did sign a bill into law granting lifetime legal immunity to former Russian presidents, which could indicate that he does not actually expect to be in power forever, any health issues notwithstanding. Dmitry Medvedev is the only living former Russian president and did not appear to be at any risk of imminent prosecution at the time the law was passed.
All told, the Residence at Cape Idokopas certainly offers Putin an opulent place to escape from the business of running Russia while still being able to run the country if need be, but it could also become an extravagant retirement home for the long-time Russian leader some time down the line. Regardless of its final reason for being, securing its existence is certainly a high priority for the Russian government.
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