As Western nations place sanctions on people close to the Russian leader, including family members, the strict secrecy surrounding his private life is being punctured.
By Jason Horowitz
May 14, 2022
The New York Times
VOORSCHOTEN, Netherlands — 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, 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 by Britain on the woman long considered to be his mistress, Alina Kabaeva, and his former wife, 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, 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, a famously flexible 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 K.G.B. 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 rumor.
He has two officially recognized 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 unrecognizable on a Moscow street. His former wife, whom some biographers believe he married to improve his chances of entering the bachelor-resistant K.G.B., essentially vanished from view even before they divorced.
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, Eva Braun. In Lugano, locals whisper about the green glass building Ms. Kabaeva lived in overlooking the lake and speak with confidence about the hospital where her rumored children were born and the schools they attended. But they have not seen her.
The supposed children are unverified and invisible. In a Monte Carlo luxury apartment building, residents shrug at pictures of another possible girlfriend and child of Mr. Putin’s who owned property there, and whose family shares addresses with Ms. Kabaeva’s family in exclusive Moscow luxury buildings. 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 Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York. Mr. Putin, she said, was at once both obsessively clandestine and an exhibitionist who fed off the Western depiction of him as a supervillain.
The great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, Ms. Khrushcheva said that Mr. Putin had a byzantine worldview typical of the Kremlin, and like Stalin, he embraced and perpetuated mythology peppered with truth. “You create misinformation,” she said. “You create an atmosphere of something that everybody is guessing and everybody is discussing and everything is secret.”
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, with oligarch lieutenants paying him tribute in the form of wealth, lucrative jobs or luxurious villas lavished on his family and those in the potential orbit of his affection. 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 penalized person — Mr. Putin — and asserting their support for the Russian defense industry and reception of billions of dollars of funds directly overseen by Mr. Putin. The American 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. “Overall, sanctions that are not approved by the U.N. Security Council are bad, most importantly, they are useless,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, when asked for comment on the Western sanctions against Mr. Putin’s family members. “Sanctions against families, relatives, acquaintances and journalists are stupid.” Asked whether the Kremlin believed sanctions against Ms. Kabaeva and her relatives were a personal affront against Mr. Putin, Mr. Peskov added, “This is just an absurd decision!”
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 Jorrit Faassen, a Dutch man who was once married to and has at least one child with 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.
Things grew particularly tense in 2014, after Russia-backed separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet departing from Amsterdam over Ukraine, killing 298 people, including nearly 200 Dutch. Mayors throughout the Netherlands demanded Ms. Vorontsova be deported, and scrutiny has increased with the current war in Ukraine.
A Dutch investigative news outlet, Follow the Money, reached Mr. Faassen in Russia recently.
In a strong Hague accent, he called the war in Ukraine an inconvenience and denied that he had been the husband of Ms. Vorontsova. “He was not at ease,” said the editor who interviewed him, Harry Lensink. Since then, the reporters have been ill at ease, too, and worried about their phones being tapped. A contributor to their article about Mr. Faassen received notice that a person using a server in Moscow had tried to hack his email account.
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
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. Hardly anyone at the wedding knew much about her, though pals of Mr. Faassen, who moved to Moscow for business in 2006, gave clues in their rowdy speeches. They joked about their pastime of hitting on rich Russian girls in Moscow clubs.
Maria’s parents did not attend her Dutch wedding party. Some Russians did, however, including fit men who watched from the bar as a relative of the bride — a young woman who sang a touching, traditional Russian song — danced emphatically to tango music.
The groom’s cousin Casper Faassen, now a prominent Dutch artist, said that the next time he saw his cousin’s wife, Maria, was at his aunt’s birthday party in the nearby town of Merenwijk. As guests angled for Indonesian food at the buffet, he said, Maria seemed composed but apart, looking elegant in a beige dress, standing with perfect, dancerlike posture. She communicated with everyone, including her husband, in good English and spoke little Dutch.
The couple eventually ordered some of Mr. Faassen’s art pieces. He recalled delivering three blurred images of ballerinas against a gold-leaf background to their apartment above the local Albert Heijn supermarket in nearby Voorschoten. Maria answered the door as her husband, Jorrit, loafed on the couch in front of the television. As he came in, Casper joked about his cousin being a couch potato, and recalled that Maria rolled her eyes in solidarity.
Neither Casper nor many others in the family knew the true identity of the woman who went as Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova, and now Maria Faassen, but Masha to her father. But in 2010, a Russian news outlet, New Times, reported that Jorrit, then an official at a Russian consultancy firm, received a beating from the bodyguards of 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 licenses to operate banks and the bodyguards ended up in jail. Russian gossip reporters speculated that the Dutchman was Mr. Putin’s son-in-law, though Jorrit always denied it.
The couple spent much of their time in Moscow, where documents listed him as an official at Gazprombank. Casper said his cousin once offered him the potential of lucrative connections and sales in Russia. But by then, the rumors of Maria’s parentage had begun to circulate and the artist, who reviled Mr. Putin for his undercutting of democracy and violent crackdowns, demurred. “I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” he said, and steered clear of the couple from then on.
But local residents paid more attention to them. On a recent afternoon around the luxury high-rise where Jorrit bought the top two floors, one Ukrainian neighbor expressed disgust at the former inhabitants while 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.”
On the second-floor balcony of their building next to the canal, an older man said that he “was on the elevator with her once,” and that “she looked like her father.” The man said the couple also had a son, or at least people had seen Jorrit, who avoided contact with his neighbors, with a little boy. The man on the balcony stopped talking when his wife angrily called him into the apartment. “They can get you for this,” she hissed.
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 Maria’s godfather, once told an interviewer that she had a son in 2012. In a 2017 interview with Oliver Stone, Mr. Putin acknowledged that he had become a grandfather. “I did see Putin,” said Patricia Kortekaas, 62, a member of Voorschoten’s City Council, as she stood outside the supermarket he had supposedly entered. She recalled seeing him, flanked by security, in the coffee and tea aisle. “He looked cautious,” she said. “I thought, ‘What’s wrong with him?’” (Mr. Putin’s office has denied the visits.)
By 2014, Maria 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 U.S. 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 Jorrit and remarried a Russian man who got a job at the gas company Novatek. A powerful oligarch, 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.
Maria could not be reached for comment. Mr. Faassen did not return a request for comment left with his father, who said, “Go away,” at his home, where the windows, traditionally uncovered in Holland, were blocked with newspaper.
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, when he first took power as an apparent next-generation democrat — 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. “They had brought all their treasures from home to the dacha — all their toys and Barbie dolls, which they had been accumulating their whole lives. Masha told me later that she couldn’t sleep for several months after that. They had lost everything that was familiar to them.”
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.” “When I shouted, ‘Everybody get out of the house!’” he says, “she dropped her spoon on the table and leaped out of the house without asking any questions.”
Indeed, Katya, who lived under the alias 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 Kirill Shamalov, the son of 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, with the names Kirill and Katerina written in the snow.
In 2020, Meduza and another independent Russian news outlet, Important Stories, obtained emailed wedding invites that Mr. Shamalov sent to Maria, Jorrit and their son in Holland. The wedding was said to have indoor ice skating, a laser lighting display and a faux Russian village with assorted performances.
Katerina was herself a seasoned performer who had become passionate about acrobatic rock ’n’ roll dancing. In 2013, she and her dance partner, Ivan Klimov, who flipped her through the air as she wore a leotard and white sneakers, performed at the Boogie-Woogie World Masters of acrobatic rock. “Everyone knew she was Putin’s daughter,” said Edilio Pagano, who often judged the events that Katerina competed in but said he never felt pressure to give her higher scores.
He said that Katerina “was not, shall we say, a brilliant athlete, but she really cared, in that she was present at every competition.” She never spoke of her lineage, he said, but was a “very reserved, very kind, smiley and well mannered” woman who communicated mainly in English.
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. Putin let slip in a 2011 Russian television interview that Katerina 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, including one on space travel and how the body reacts to zero gravity. Her co-author, the rector of Moscow State University, Viktor Sadovnichy, did not return a request for comment.
Yet she was more than an academic. Katerina 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 Putin confidants and former K.G.B. officials, including some who lived in the same apartment complex in Dresden, Germany, when the Putin family was stationed there in the 1980s. And by 2014, she helped oversee the $1.7 billion expansion of Moscow State University, working as a liaison to the business sector with the title of vice rector.
As she grew professionally, so did her husband’s wealth. Kirill Shamalov acquired from Mr. Timchenko, the Putin-connected oligarch and apparent family fixer, a roughly $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, for an undisclosed price, a seaside villa in Biarritz, France. (In March, Russian activists broke into that villa and tried to make it available to Ukrainian refugees.)
In 2018, Katerina 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.” In the segment, she spoke in front of a computer graphic of a head wired to electrodes. (The U.S. 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 $2 billion in assets. The United States placed sanctions on Mr. Shamalov, identifying him as the “former husband” of Katerina. Her true love still seemed to be dance. In 2019, she became a council member of Russia’s World Dance Sport Federation.
But Miriam Kerpan IIzak, the president of the World Rock ’N’ Roll Confederation, said Katerina was no longer associated with the group. “I don’t have any contact with her,” she said, adding, “She’s not active anymore.”
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.
Elizaveta Vladimirovna Krivonogikh, whose patronymic means she is the daughter of a Vladimir, is a 19-year-old who played up her possible connection to Mr. Putin to gain tens of thousands of followers on her Instagram account, filled with pictures of her coyly hiding her face. In interviews, Luiza, as she is known, admitted that she looked a lot like Mr. Putin and said that if the president stood before her, she would ask him, “Why?” But the war brought angry attention and her account suddenly disappeared.
Luiza is the daughter of 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, Katerina, was married.
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 Svetlana’s worth was estimated to be around 100 million euros, or about $105 million, and included a $3.75 million Monaco apartment.
Maria Pevchikh, the head of investigations at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Russian nonprofit organization founded by the Russian opposition politician Aleksei A. 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. 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. 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. (“Doesn’t correspond to reality,” the Kremlin spokesman, Mr. Peskov, said at the time.)
The Lugano clinic, its pristine lobby filled on a recent afternoon with pregnant women speaking Russian, 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 neighborhood. “I know she lived here,” said Olena Utkina, a Ukrainian woman who worked in a beauty salon down the block. Some are so certain that Ms. Kabaeva lived there that they have sought to kick her out, circulating a petition demanding that Switzerland “take action and reunite Alina ‘Eva Braun’ Kabaeva with her ‘Führer.’”
But the doorman at the building said he had worked there for 10 years and had never seen anyone by that name. No one in the cafes of the Collina d’Oro, a fabulously wealthy area popular with the city’s Russian enclave, had ever seen her. And the couple’s reported children have never publicly materialized. “They have never been here,” said Bill Eichner, a director at the exclusive American school in Switzerland, where an application for a new Russian student, to be vetted against the growing sanctions list, sat on his desk.
None of the faithful at the nearby Russian Orthodox Church said they had ever seen Ms. Kabaeva, and Ukrainian refugees there said they would avoid her if they did. “It would be great if Switzerland would take her property away,” said Katerina Chaplynska, 25, who fled to Switzerland with her teenage sister after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some Russians, too, said they would not like to see Ms. Kabaeva, including Victoria Bussi, 34. She said she used to support Mr. Putin, but now found him less mysterious, more a plain war criminal. “He destroyed Russia’s reputation,” she said.