Well, that’ll teach Russian politicians to go mushroom picking on Instagram.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who you may recall was once president of the Russian Federation, is the latest subject of anti-corruption crusader and former Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny’s open source muckraking. And he probably didn’t anticipate much of a scandal when, on Sept. 15, 2015, he posted a photograph of a basketful of nightshade on the social media platform with the bucolic headline, “Autumn.”
Unfortunately, Instagram geolocated his position around the village of Plyos in the Ivanovo region east of Moscow, rather near to a sprawling estate behind a 6-meter-tall green fence. Locals had always wondered what lavish digs lay inside this place where Medvedev is known to have holidayed over the years.
They need wonder no more.
Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption sent a video-mounted drone over the fence of this 80-hectare property that is the equivalent, as he notes, of “three Kremlins or 30 Red Squares.” The footage, accompanied by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” features a Valhalla of a dacha, complete with ski slope and chairlift, a multi-layered swimming pool, a soccer or hockey court, a greenhouse complex, a manmade lake, multiple residences (for the master, his guests and the help), three helipads and two garages fit for a fleet of luxury vehicles. The drone footage, uploaded as a YouTube video, has so far been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
The Milovka estate, as it is formally known, was subject to a prior investigation and found to belong to something called the Dar Charitable Foundation Fund. Dar is the Russian word for “gift,” and many enterprising bloggers and graft-sniffers had long assumed that a rather unseemly present is what the pile was, after a fashion.
The foundation is meant to invest in “regional nonprofit projects,” and was established by two billionaire oligarchs, Leonid Mikhelson and Leonid Simanovsky, a parliamentarian of the ruling United Russia Party. Both men are shareholders in the Russian gas giant NOVATEK. And one of Medvedev’s former law school classmates sits on the supervisory board of Dar, according to Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that first reported on Milovka in 2011.
On his self-named blog, Navalny wrote a year to the day of Medvedev’s implicating Instagram pic that the dacha was “built not just on oligarchs’ money, but oligarchs’ money given to charity,” specifically Mikhelson and Simanovsky’s, and the suggestion is that it came in exchange for various state favors bestowed upon them by the prime minister.
Medvedev’s spokesperson Natalya Timakova denied any claim that he had an ownership interest in the estate, saying that Milovka was government residence, guarded by the increasingly powerful Federal Protection Service, where the premier only visited occasionally.
The Pro-Kremlin news service Regnum also noted in reporting on Timakova’s statement that none of the documents Navalny produced on his website regarding the helipads, ski slope, underground buildings, and communications towers had Medvedev’s name on them. All legally belong to Dar.
Against this denial, Navalny replied in a tweet that if Medvedev used the dacha for free, then that in itself was a “clear case of bribery.”
Navalny’s previous targets in the Putinist inner circle (past and present) have included First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin, and Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.
Medvedev, who has of late become a diminutive foil for much online derision by liberal Russians, has had trouble with social media before. In 2014, his Twitter account was hacked with hoaxers posting messages such as,“I’m resigning. I’m ashamed by the actions of the government. Forgive me,” and “#CrimeaIsNotOurs please retweet,” a reference to the popular Krym Nash (“Crimea is Ours”) hashtag meant to demonstrate support for Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula that same year.
Last June, Medvedev excited the Internet yet again when he turned up in Crimea and replied to an old woman’s question about why her measly state pension—around $125 per month—was not competitive with the rising cost of living on occupied territory. “There just isn’t any money now,” Medvedev answered the babushka. “When we find money, we’ll make the adjustment. But be strong. I wish you all the best. Have a good day and take care!”
The YouTube video capturing that valedictory went viral in Russia.