MOSCOW—The Investigations Management Center (IMC), housed under a mansard roof on Pokrovka Avenue in the heart of old Moscow, was full of light and buzz one night last week. A senior investigative reporter, Andrei Konyakhin, and his team were about to post one more report unveiling the luxurious lifestyle of top bureaucrats under President Vladimir Putin.
At 7 p.m., when millions of Russians sat down around their dining tables, the Center uploaded one more of its investigations, this time about the royal lifestyle of presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, known as Russia’s “gray cardinal,” its eminence grise, and “the author of Putinism.”
One cannot stay in the gray background for very long, however, when one’s wife likes to pose for pictures and post shots of herself on social networks.
The report said that Surkov and his wife, an attractive blonde named Natalya Dubovitskaya, have not one but two spacious houses in an elite, gated community 12 kilometers outside Moscow.
On Monday Konyakhin told The Daily Beast that to conduct that journalistic investigation, the reporters studied photographs on Facebook posted by Natalya’s friends and regular guests at the houses, and also checked public data about Surkov’s official income.
“The family’s official annual income of about 17 million rubles (around $300,000) would not be enough to live in such high style,” said Konyakhin.
One of the images published by the investigative reporters featured Dubovitskaya and her lady friends—glamorous wives of Russian celebrities and billionaires—dressed in the baroque style of the Marie Antoinette era. They could have been at Versailles suggesting the peasants eat cake.
Some of the same ladies are also wearing camouflage and riding on top of a military truck; or aboard a private jet flying to Dubai.
Next stop Mar-a-Lago? Certainly the taste is Trumpian, even if the money is Putinian.
The report also mentioned Russia Today (RT) editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, as one of the regular guests at Surkov’s house.
IMC, founded only a few months ago and funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil magnate jailed for almost a decade and forced into exile by Russian President Vladimir Putin, uses public sources to document corruption and the abuse of power.
In January, IMC investigative reporter Sergei Kanev was the first to report about the secret life and lucrative business of Maria Vorontsova, one of President Putin’s two daughters, in downtown Moscow for The New Times, an independent Russian magazine.
“Russians are sick of seeing how corrupt the top state officials are—they even dress up like French royalty.
“There is a high public demand to see more unveiled secrets about men in power,” said Konyakhin, a former journalist with the Russian edition of Forbes.
Almost every week, the country hears about a new high-profile leak or about some scandal involving President Putin’s close friends. Journalistic investigations expose more yachts, palaces, vast private tracts of land, and private jets enjoyed by top Russian officials.
As the countdown begins to the presidential elections a year from now, Russia seems to be turning into a giant sieve with information pouring through the system’s holes.
In less than a week, almost a million internet users viewed the report about Surkov on Facebook, the Russian social network Odnoklassniki, YouTube, and the Echo of Moscow website.
Earlier this month, the Anti-Corruption Fund, a website managed by the key opposition leader Alexei Navalny, accused the former Russian president and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of major corruption.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund reported that Medvedev owned an $85 million mansion outside of Moscow. By Monday, almost 9 million people viewed Navalny’s investigation on YouTube.
Last July, Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper famous for its investigations, told Russians about the connection between one of President Putin’s closest men, the former deputy prime minister and current head of oil giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and a beautiful yacht called St. Princess Olga. Sechin, who formerly worked closely with Trump’s secretary of State, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, has for several years avoided any public declaration of his income.
But Sechin’s wife, Olga Sechina, helped the journalistic investigation by posting on social networks pictures of her good times on the yacht in Italy and in Spain. Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project included Sechina’s images and the geo-locations in their joint report.
Novaya insisted that Sechin, one of the Russian officials close to Putin whom journalists called “untouchable,” spent more money than he made at Rosneft. He took Novaya Gazeta to court and won the lawsuit, obliging the newspaper to deny the allegations of corruption, but not the details of the yacht voyage.
More than 800,000 people read Novaya Gazeta’s investigation into Igor Sechin’s property, an impressively large online audience for a newspaper with circulation of only 184,400.
But will any of this have a real impact? Here, too, the situation is reminiscent of what’s going on in America.
“The genre of investigations is growing very popular,” says Pavel Kanygin, a Novaya Gazeta journalist. “Reporters unveil the corruption of Putin’s closest men—Surkov, Sechin, Medvev. But society does not seem to be analyzing the corruption of the president yet. He is seen as a father figure, a creator, so the investigations about Putin’s daughters or Putin’s palaces just sink under the admiration that surrounds the leader, the creator, who people prefer to keep in the fog of mystery.”