When Russian opposition activists conducted a guerrilla tour of top government officials’ swanky summer homes outside Moscow in May 2014, they were repeatedly stopped by police and confronted by belligerent men who tried to impede their sightseeing.
More than a year later, one of those powerful officials has adopted a new tack in dealing with those inquiring how he can afford a grandiose dacha -- helipad and trout pond included -- on the relatively modest salary of a government servant: opening the gates himself.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff and a key architect of President Vladimir Putin’s domestic policies, has led journalists on a personal tour of his sprawling estate 80 kilometers northwest of Moscow, the independent-minded RBK daily reported on August 11.
The move appears to be, in part, a response to Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who has accused Volodin and his well-connected neighbors of using illicitly acquired wealth to finance the lavish estates and failing to declare the property.
Navalny and his fellow muckrakers in recent years have published details of senior officials’ pricey real-estate holdings in Russia and abroad in a populist bid to demonstrate how the country’s leaders allegedly exploit their political sway to enrich themselves.
His anticorruption group estimated the value of Volodin’s estate, which totals nearly 19,500 square meters -- nearly the size of three soccer fields -- and includes a 744-square-meter home, at some 155 million to 200 million rubles ($2.4 million to $3.1 million). This far exceeds his total salary of 17.2 million rubles ($267,623) from 2010-12, Navalny’s group wrote in its 2013 investigation.
Volodin gave an apparent nod to Navalny while leading journalists on a recent tour of his property in the so-called Sosna (Pine) dacha cooperative that he belongs to, together with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko and the deputy speaker of Russia's State Duma, Sergei Neverov.
Navalny had suggested Volodin used marble for his raised garden beds, though RBK’s Mikhail Rubin reported that they were made of wood.
“Test it for yourself,” Rubin quoted Volodin as saying. “It’s not marble.”
Volodin had the journalists flown to his property by helicopter over the weekend for the tour. He said he designed the estate and the home himself, studying the landscaping techniques from various countries, including France and the Czech Republic, RBK reported. He said it was completed just recently after nearly a decade of work.
The estate includes a greenhouse and gardens featuring strawberries, pumpkins, and the building blocks of an essential Russian salad: tomatoes and cucumbers.
The helipad located on the property comes in handy. Volodin says he is learning to fly a helicopter and that he rents the aircraft for lessons. The fish pond is stocked with catfish and river trout, he told the journalists.
The Kremlin has said there is nothing fishy about Volodin’s estate. In February 2014, Putin’s anticorruption pointman, Oleg Plokhoi, said Volodin financed its construction using personal and family funds, as well as a bank loan.
Navalny called Volodin’s tour, which included a spot of tea on the veranda for the visiting journalists, “very sweet, of course.”
“But it shouldn’t distract us for one second from the main question: What are the sources of income for building and maintaining these castles,” he wrote on his website on August 11.
Volodin’s guests received a much friendlier welcome at the dacha settlement than allies of Navalny who conducted a tour outside the gated homes in May 2014.
On the drive out, the activists said they were repeatedly stopped by traffic police who checked their documents, saying they were conducting an antiterrorism operation.
When they finally arrived, unidentified men attempted to prevent them from roaming around the territory and filming with video cameras, leading to minor physical altercations.
At one point during the ad hoc tour, a police officer asked what the group was doing there, noting that there had been a spate of thefts in the area.
The line elicited a deluge of ironic chortles from the activists.