When NFL owner Robert Kraft said last weekend that Russian President Vladimir Putin stole his Super Bowl ring in 2005, he set off an angry debate for pretty much everyone in Russia.
Putin’s supporters called the accusation disgraceful—clearly the ring, a 4.9-carat, diamond-encrusted bauble worth some $25,000, had been a gift to show appreciation for the greatness of Russia and its leader. If it wasn’t a gift, why would Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, have waited eight years to claim otherwise?
Nor did representatives of the anti-Putin opposition understand why a man worth more than $2 billion did not ask for his ring back right away—but that was not what made them angry. Instead, to the president’s critics, the incident was just more proof for their argument that “Putin is a thief,” a slogan thousands of Russians chant at every anti-Putin street protest.
But both critics and supporters agreed on one thing: Putin kept the ring because he is accustomed to people giving him luxurious presents.
Opposition activists have long been struggling to find out if the president pays taxes for his villas, yachts, airplanes, and other valuable gifts. Last year, Putin’s critics published in pamphlet form a detailed record of the leader’s posh properties, including a collection of watches worth over $500,000. The Kremlin says most of it belongs to the state.
One of the pamphlet’s authors, Boris Nemtsov, told The Daily Beast that Putin was accustomed to receiving insanely expensive presents—and to giving his own expensive watches away, which is perhaps why he wouldn’t think twice of Kraft forking over his Super Bowl prize. Once, visiting a Siberian factory, Putin famously presented a worker with a Swiss watch worth over $6,000. On a different occasion, Putin took off and gave his watch to a teenager who had served as the president’s guide in the Tuva mountains.
In a futile attempt to end the simmering public debate, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, defending his boss, stating on Monday that he had witnessed the scene eight years ago at Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg when two billionaires—Kraft and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch—watched Putin try on the Patriots ring and then put it in his pocket. Peskov claimed he was standing right behind them when “the ring was presented” to Putin. He sarcastically added that if Kraft “is feeling such a horrible pain about his 2005 loss, the president will be ready to send him another ring as a gift, which he, Putin, can buy with his own money.”
Well. That statement only further enraged the anti-Putin brigade. How can Putin afford spending $25,000 on a ring when his official monthly salary that last year was about $15,000, critics asked? Bloggers and journalists also wondered why Putin offered to give Kraft a new ring rather than return the one he took. (Previously, Peskov explained that the Super Bowl ring in question was on display in the Kremlin library along with other gifts to the Russian leader.)
Meanwhile, a prominent satirist, Viktor Shenderovich, wondered why the Kremlin isn’t trying harder to save the president’s reputation. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said: “The Lord of the Ring spits on what we Russians or the West think of him. He behaves the same way as the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, except that Putin has natural resources. The recent news about the divorce is one more proof that Putin is totally confident of his power—before, Putin, the ideologist of the nation’s high morals, did not dare to break his marriage.”
Voices criticizing Vladimir Putin for his attitude to luxurious presents are mostly heard from liberals, the Russian minority, and the Communist opposition. Sergey Dorenko, the editor-in-chief of Russian News Service, a popular radio syndicate, told The Daily Beast that there was very shallow reaction to the Super Bowl ring scandal around the Russian provinces.
As for Putin’s willingness to buy a new ring for Kraft, Dorensko said, “Most Russians saw that it was an act of a real man, a proud officer, demonstrating that he could always pay back any greedy billionaire.”