Only a handful of people know the exact location where President Vladimir Putin is celebrating his 70th birthday in St. Petersburg on Friday, but critics say he spends more and more of his time isolated deep inside nuclear bunkers.
The Kremlin has announced that Putin will spend his birthday working. Mired, as he is, in the biggest self-made disaster of his presidency, that just raises more worrying questions about what kind of orders he’s going to issue on his big day. Backed into a corner, what is Putin considering next?
People who’ve known Putin for many years claim the Russian leader is “nervous” and “tense” these days; online political groups speculate on Telegram that Putin is planning “to use tactical nuclear weapons out of a bunker, far from Moscow,” while Kremlinologists debate how to prevent a looming doomsday scenario.
Putin himself has said he will respond to the grim daily news from Ukraine—where his army is suffering defeat after defeat—with “all the means at our disposal.” That, he added, “is not a bluff.”
In an alarming symbolic gesture, he promoted one of his closest and most notorious allies on Wednesday, the leader of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is now a general. His elevation came just a couple of days after Kadyrov called for more drastic escalation in Ukraine, including the declaration of martial law in Russia’s border areas and “the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.”
Russians are growing increasingly worried about their leader’s state of mind.
In his most recent public appearance, Putin’s eyes looked sunk and foggy. He spoke to a group of teachers from a small office over Zoom. The idea was to celebrate Wednesday’s “Teachers’ Day”—but Putin couldn’t resist ranting about the so-called “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine.
“That part looked really insane,” 17-year-old student Vitaly Shatrov from St. Petersburg, whose last name has been changed for privacy reasons, told The Daily Beast. “Putin, who many compare to Hitler for the violence against Ukrainian people, speaks with teachers from some bunker about Nazis.”
Shatrov is so concerned about nuclear escalation that he is clinging to the idea of peace talks as suggested by Pope Francis and Tesla boss Elon Musk, who have been derided for suggesting Ukraine effectively accept defeat. “I am afraid of a nuclear war. There are no politicians in the world who could calm Putin down. Instead everybody mocks him, threatens him, so he goes even more insane in the upside-down world that he’s created.”
One thing is clear: Putin has a wide choice of bunkers to retreat to. One of his favorite hideaways is in the Altai mountains. Any taxi driver in the remote region of Ongudaysky near the border with Mongolia will show you the way to “Putin’s bunker” or Altayskoye Podvorye. During the pandemic, residents told The Daily Beast about the presidential helicopter seen regularly in the air over the mountains. Locals talk of a giant underground bunker where all Putin’s family members, and Gazprom and Kremlin employees, could hide from radiation in case of a nuclear attack—but like much of the president’s security apparatus, that has never been officially confirmed.
Another famous hiding place is almost 1,000 miles away from Moscow in the republic of Bashkortostan, in the southern Ural mountains. The construction of this immense network of bunkers began under Boris Yeltsin, but the project was frozen after the fall of the USSR. Western spies have suggested the huge underground complex could house between 100,000 and 300,000 people; others suggested it was a nuclear command post or a storage for secret weapons.
Putin’s whereabouts is often a subject of fascination in Russia. When he holds his meetings on Zoom it is hard to figure out where he is, but during the pandemic it became obvious that he has at least two identical offices, one in Moscow and the other in his residence on the Black Sea, in the city of Sochi.
Gennady Gudkov, an exiled former Russian parliamentarian, told The Daily Beast that the president was taking precautions as the war in Ukraine spirals out of control.
“Putin is going to hide in a bunker in case of a nuclear war,” he said. “But he is not safe there either; he will be destroyed—that’s what Biden should tell Putin clearly now.”
Allies of Putin say the president’s nuclear threats are being overinterpreted outside the country, but they blame the West for that. “Russia will strike only in response to an attack. The decision-making to use nuclear weapons is complicated, it involves many people and there is no Kadyrov among them,” pro-Putin political analyst Yuriy Krupnov told The Daily Beast.
He said the average Russian—even in elite circles—knows they would have no protection if a nuclear conflict really did break out. “No bunker will help Moscow, of course. Maybe just the leadership has proper shelters.”
Veteran human rights defender Valentina Melnikova, who has been helping Russian families avoid the draft, said she was not so confident that the world was safe from nuclear war. “I am sure our generals are capable of bombing Kyiv and Washington with nuclear torpedoes and bombs. I say that because I know the Russian military well—they will obey any of Putin’s orders and there is hardly anything that could stop this disaster at this point.”
Many more Russians are beginning to think the unthinkable.
Perceptions have changed so much over the last two decades. At the beginning of Putin’s rule, few Russians would have believed a female journalist like Anna Politkovskaya could be assassinated in the center of Moscow. And yet it happened—on Putin’s birthday—in 2006.
People’s understanding of what Putin might do is changing faster and faster.
A year ago, the majority of the public did not believe the Kremlin would launch a full-scale assault on a neighboring country, such as Ukraine. Even then, they were certain there would be no mass-mobilization—but, again, it is happening, right now.
Russians were always afraid of nuclear war but most of them never imagined that their own motherland would start one.
Now, they are not so sure.