Putin's private life, once shrouded in secrecy, is beginning to crumble

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in Sochi, Russia, on May 11, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

VOORSCHOTEN, NETHERLANDS (NYTIMES) - Vladimir Putin did not like the prying.

It was 2008, and the Russian president, then 56 and eight years into his tightening grip on power, stood for a news conference in Sardinia's lavish Villa Certosa.

At his side was his closest ally in Western Europe, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and Italian prime minister of legendarily hedonist appetites with whom he shared a taste for raunchy jokes, over-the-top furnishings and vast wealth.

During the summers, Mr Putin's two teenage daughters had the run of the sprawling villa, going on secret luxury shopping and boating excursions under strict orders that their identities remain concealed and their faces hidden from cameras, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement.

That strategy of strictly shielding his family worked well for Mr Putin over the years, until Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Now, as nations impose sanctions on those closest to him - including those approved on Friday (May 13) by Britain on the woman long considered to be his mistress, Ms Alina Kabaeva, and his former wife, Ms Lyudmila Ocheretnaya - the facade is beginning to crumble, shedding new light on the Russian leader's private life.

Some of the first glimmers of his complicated family affairs unfolded in that scene at the villa, as a Russian reporter, Ms Nataliya Melikova of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, gingerly broached the forbidden zone.

Days before, a report in Moskovsky Korrespondent claimed that Mr Putin and his wife of 25 years had secretly split. Enticingly, the newspaper further reported that he had fallen for Ms Kabaeva, an Olympic gold medalist in rhythmic gymnastics, who, at 24, was about the age of his daughters and had become a public face of his political party.

"I have always reacted negatively to those who, with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies, meddle in other people's lives," Mr Putin said, denying the report.

Mr Berlusconi mimed shooting Ms Melikova with an imaginary machine gun as Mr Putin, who by then had been accused of murdering several journalists, nodded and smiled. Days later, Moskovsky Korrespondent halted operations for "financial reasons".

Mr Putin is more than just a protective father who, as he has said, wanted to give his daughters a normal life and considered their safety a matter of national security. A former KGB operative steeped in the agency's ways of subterfuge, disinformation and the Janus-like ability to present different selves depending on the situation, he has shrouded his personal life in secrecy and wrapped it in rumour.

He has two officially recognised daughters from his first marriage, but according to independent Russian news outlets and unverified international news reports, he may have four more children with two other women. Yet even his acknowledged daughters, now approaching middle age, are so hidden as to be unrecognisable on a Moscow street.

In the villa-dotted Russian enclaves of Switzerland, a petition began circulating in March demanding the repatriation of his supposed paramour, Ms Kabaeva, angrily comparing her with Hitler's mistress, Ms Eva Braun. In Lugano, locals whisper about the green glass building that Ms Kabaeva lived in overlooking the lake and speak with confidence about the hospital where her rumoured children were born. But they have not seen her.

Ms Alina Kabaeva has long been rumoured to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's mistress. PHOTO: AFP

The supposed children are unverified and invisible. In many cases, they are apparitions, and as in many ghost stories, the phantoms can seem conjured for a desired effect, either by critics to undercut Mr Putin's self-made image as a protector of family values or by supporters to compound the image of Mr Putin's wealth, virility and mysteriousness. Or maybe they are simply real.

"There's so many stories. All of them can be true or none of them can be true. And that's sort of the fog of Putin," said Ms Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York.

Some things do seem clear enough, though. Members of Mr Putin's family circle are beneficiaries of a kleptocratic system that Mr Putin rules over like a mafia don. For decades, few succeeded in penetrating the opaque protective bubble built around them and their resources, but Mr Putin's invasion of Ukraine has changed that.

In April, the United States aimed into the fog and imposed sanctions on his two daughters, citing them as family members of a penalised person - Mr Putin - and asserting their support for the Russian defence industry and reception of billions of dollars of funds directly overseen by Mr Putin. The US government also nearly placed sanctions on Ms Kabaeva, but pulled back at the last moment to avoid, for now, an escalation, officials said.

Sanctions experts say those measures were less meant to do Mr Putin concrete financial harm than to send him a message that his aggression had crossed a line, and that his invisible and untouchable private world could be seen and reached by the West.

Ms Katerina Tikhonova (left) and Ms Mariya Putina were placed under sanctions by the US. PHOTO: REUTERS, SCREENGRAB FROM TV CHANNEL DOCTOR/YOUTUBE

The Dutch branch

On a grassy plot of land on the outskirts of Amsterdam, protesters recently sent a message to Mr Putin through his daughter Maria. Near Ukrainian flags planted in the middle of a heart made of candles, a sign addressed to "Ave Maria Putin" read: "It seems your old man is hard to reach and clearly impossible to stop even by his hangmen. But as we all know, fathers and daughters are a different story," and, "We beg you, Maria."

What at first seemed an unlikely place for an appeal - and an unlikely person to appeal to - made more sense when one understood that the land had recently been bought by Mr Jorrit Faassen, a Dutch man who was once married to and has at least one child with Ms Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova, as Mr Putin's eldest daughter is known. In the 15 years since Ms Vorontsova secretly began living with Mr Faassen in the Netherlands, she had at times become the focus of local ire against her authoritarian father.

Ms Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova once owned the two top floors of a building in Voorschoten, Netherlands. PHOTO: NYTIMES

All of that anger and anxiety was far removed from the revelry at a party celebrating the couple in 2008 in Wassenaar, perhaps the most exclusive and wealthy area in all the Netherlands. "It was a wedding party," recalled Mr Danny Plezier, a local singer of Dutch folk songs who performed at the affair.

He said the guests sang along with his hits, and he shook hands with the groom, whom he had known for years, and his new bride. Mr Plezier said he had no idea she was Mr Putin's daughter and left after his set.

The groom's cousin Mr Casper Faassen, now a prominent Dutch artist, said that the next time he saw his cousin's wife, Ms Vorontsova, was at his aunt's birthday party in the nearby town of Merenwijk. He said Ms Vorontsova seemed composed but apart. She communicated with everyone, including her husband, in good English and spoke little Dutch.

Neither Mr Casper Faassen nor many others in the family knew the true identity of the woman who went as Ms Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova, and now Ms Maria Faassen, but Masha to her father. But in 2010, a Russian news outlet, New Times, reported that Mr Jorrit Faassen, then an official at a Russian consultancy firm, received a beating from the bodyguards of Mr Matvey Urin, a top Russian banker who did not know who he was dealing with, after a road rage episode in Moscow.

Mr Urin promptly lost licences to operate banks and the bodyguards ended up in jail. Russian gossip reporters speculated that the Dutchman was Mr Putin's son-in-law, although Mr Jorrit Faassen always denied it.

A Ukrainian flag on land that belongs to Mr Jorrit Faassen, the former husband of Ms Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova, near Amsterdam. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The couple spent much of their time in Moscow, where documents listed him as an official at Gazprombank. Mr Casper Faassen said his cousin once offered him the potential of lucrative connections and sales in Russia. But by then, the rumours of Ms Vorontsova's parentage had begun to circulate and the artist, who reviled Mr Putin for his undercutting of democracy and violent crackdowns, demurred.

But local residents paid more attention to them. On a recent afternoon around the luxury high-rise where Mr Jorrit Faassen bought the top two floors, one Ukrainian neighbour expressed disgust at the former inhabitants while Ms Corien Zoetemelk, 57, who lives across the street from the penthouse condo, recalled seeing the couple at various times, including gliding along the canal underneath their apartment building.

"I saw them on their sloop," she said. "She was pregnant."

Mr Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and a close - and fabulously enriched - friend of Mr Putin, now on the United States' and European Union's sanctions lists, and Ms Vorontsova's godfather, once told an interviewer that she had a son in 2012. In a 2017 interview with director Oliver Stone, Mr Putin acknowledged that he had become a grandfather.

By 2014, Ms Vorontsova had become a specialist in pediatric dwarfism. Her charity project, Elfa-Endo, which helps children with endocrine problems, also received funding from the powerful - and now under sanction - Alfa Bank. That could be the reason the US Treasury decided to punish her for leading "state-funded programs that have received billions of dollars from the Kremlin toward genetics research and are personally overseen by Mr Putin".

Those sanctions could hurt her new family. According to a report published in April by the independent Russian news outlet Meduza and the Russian-language site Current Time TV, she had by then divorced Mr Jorrit Faassen and remarried a Russian man who got a job at the gas company Novatek.

A powerful oligarch, Mr Gennady Timchenko, who often pops up as Mr Putin's family fixer, and who is also on sanctions lists, recently sat on Novatek's board.

The 'disciplined' daughter

From the beginning, Mr Putin's personal story seemed filled with the stuff of myth making. He used an official biography - published in 2001 - to burnish his image as a tough but heroic family man. In it, he tells the story of personally saving the family, while naked, when a faulty sauna burned down the family dacha.

"The girls suffered the most from the incident," Mr Putin said of his two daughters.

Now, the conflagration of Mr Putin's war in Ukraine has threatened to strip them of everything again.

That goes, too, for his second daughter, Katya, who, as Mr Putin tells it, "turned out to be the most disciplined".

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Indeed, Katya, who lived under the alias Ms Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova, seems to be the one who has adhered more to Mr Putin's circle of influence. In February 2013, she reportedly married Mr Kirill Shamalov, the son of Mr Nikolai Shamalov, a close associate of Mr Putin's and major shareholder of the Bank Rossiya. One of Mr Putin's preferred ski resorts, Igora, provided an idyllic winter setting.

Ms Tikhonova was herself a seasoned performer who had become passionate about acrobatic rock 'n' roll dancing. In 2013, she and her dance partner, Mr Ivan Klimov, performed at the Boogie-Woogie World Masters of acrobatic rock.

"Everyone knew she was Putin's daughter," said Mr Edilio Pagano, who often judged the events that Ms Tikhonova competed in but said he never felt pressure to give her higher scores.

Around 2014, Mr Pagano worked with her on the executive committee of the World Rock 'n' Roll Confederation, based in Switzerland, where she was the vice president for expansion and marketing. She rarely attended meetings, he said, but when she did, she was always accompanied by two bodyguards.

By then, she was busy with bigger business. In 2015, the Russian news agency RBC reported that she had gone to Switzerland not for a dance competition, but to attend the "Russian session" of the Davos Forum with Mr Shamalov.

Mr Jan Daalder (left) and Mr Harry Lensink of Dutch investigative news outlet Follow the Money on April 1, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Putin let slip in a 2011 Russian television interview that Ms Tikhonova majored in Oriental studies at St Petersburg University. But as she stepped gingerly into view in 2015, it was as the author of a math textbook and a half-dozen scientific papers.

Yet she was more than an academic. Ms Tikhonova headed a research institute, Innopraktika, to sponsor and support young scientists, that was partly financed by the state oil company Rosneft. The board of Innopraktika, Reuters found, had a host of Mr Putin confidants and former KGB officials. By 2014, she helped oversee the $1.7 billion expansion of Moscow State University.

As she grew professionally, so did her husband's wealth. Mr Kirill Shamalov acquired from Mr Timchenko a roughly US$3 billion stake in Russia's leading oil and petrochemical company and became one of its top shareholders. The couple also acquired from Mr Timchenko a seaside villa in Biarritz, France.

In 2018, Ms Tikhonova appeared on a Russian television show, which identified her as the "director of Innopraktika and deputy director of the Institute of Mathematical Study of Complex Systems at Moscow State University." (The US Treasury Department placed sanctions on her for being "a tech executive whose work" supports the Russian government "and defense industry.") That year, Bloomberg reported that the couple divorced and shared nearly US$2 billion in assets. The US placed sanctions on Mr Shamalov, identifying him as the "former husband" of Ms Tikhonova.

The other women in Putin's life

Mr Putin's war has also forced other children linked to him to pull back from their preferred public activities.

Ms Elizaveta Vladimirovna Krivonogikh, whose patronymic means she is the daughter of a Vladimir, is a 19-year-old known as Luiza who played up her possible connection to Mr Putin to gain tens of thousands of followers on her Instagram account. But the war brought angry attention and her account suddenly disappeared.

Ms Luiza Krivonogikh is the daughter of Ms Svetlana Krivonogikh, 47, a former cleaning woman in St Petersburg, who, through an alleged relationship with Mr Putin, turned into a real estate baroness, a board member of Mr Putin's personal Bank Rossiya and a major stakeholder in the Igora ski resort where Mr Putin's second daughter was married.

The apartment building where Ms Svetlana Krivonogikh and Ms Elizaveta Vladimirovna Krivonogikh have lived in Monte Carlo. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In 2021, the release of the Pandora Papers - millions of leaked documents from offshore financial firms - and an earlier investigation by Proekt, which was subsequently banned in Russia, showed that Ms Svetlana Krivonogikh's worth was estimated to be around 100 million euros, or about $105 million.

Ms Maria Pevchikh, the head of investigations at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Russian nonprofit organization founded by Russian opposition politician Mr Alexei Navalny, was certain that Mr Putin had fathered children with his mistresses and that they had lived in luxury abroad.

She pointed to paper trails that indicated extravagant wealth for the women and their families and to property records showing that a Gazprom subsidiary gave luxurious apartments in the same Moscow building to the mothers of Ms Kabaeva and Ms Luiza Krivonogikh.

On a recent afternoon, as Russians climbed into exclusive sports cars in front of Monte Carlo's landmark casino, residents of the apartment building there said they had never seen either Ms Svetlana Krivonogikh or her daughter. The doorman said she did not live there.

On April 22, Mr Putin's supposedly current mistress - and by some accounts, his new wife, Ms Kabaeva - appeared in Moscow at her annual Alina Festival, a patriotic gymnastics event. An advisory member of the National Media Group, controlled by the powerful oligarch Yuri Kovalchuk, she rallied support for the invasion of Ukraine in front of the "Z" signs that are symbols of Mr Putin's war.

The Swiss and international news media have often reported as a given that Ms Kabaeva, who was living in Switzerland, had Mr Putin's child at the Sant'Anna clinic near Lugano in 2015, when he disappeared for eight days.

Ms Alina Kabaeva is believed to have lived in a luxury building with green glass in Lugano, Switzerland. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Lugano clinic declined to comment. A 2019 report in a Russian newspaper saying that Ms Kabaeva had given birth to twins vanished from the web.

Around Lugano, residents are certain that she had once lived under heavy guard in the glass luxury building overlooking the lake in Lugano's Paradiso neighbourhood.

But the doorman at the building said he had worked there for 10 years and had never seen anyone by that name. And the couple's reported children have never publicly materialised.

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