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From Munich To Sevastopol: Who Is The Ballet Master Linked To Putin's Daughter?


One of the consequences of Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine has been a noticeable lifting of the veil of secrecy over the personal life of President Vladimir Putin.

Western countries have imposed personal sanctions on Putin's former wife, Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, and former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who has long been reported to be romantically involved with Putin and to have given birth to several of his children.

In addition, the women who were identified by the U.S. Treasury in imposing sanctions as Putin's two daughters from his marriage to Lyudmila -- Maria Vorontsova and Yekaterina Tikhonova (a former acrobatic dancer who often uses the first name Katerina) -- have also been hit with sanctions. Putin and Lyudmila divorced in 2013.

In April, Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, and Meduza published an investigation into the man believed to be Vorontsova's former husband, a 42-year-old Dutch citizen and construction engineer named Jorrit Faasen. Faasen, who has lived in Moscow for 16 years, has denied being married to Putin's daughter, although he said he had a Russian wife with whom he has "children."

On May 19, the German news site Der Spiegel and Russia's iStories reported that Russian ballet dancer and director Igor Zelensky, 52, is Tikhonova's partner. The two have a daughter together who was born in 2017, around the time Tikhonova reportedly divorced her first husband, Kremlin-connected billionaire Kirill Shamalov.

A follow-on report by Current Time, together with Meduza and Dosye, has added details about the interrelations between Tikhonova, Zelensky, Shamalov, and Zelensky's legal wife, former ballerina and current ballet instructor Yana Serebryakova.

'The Son Of A Military Officer'

In early April, it was announced that Zelensky was leaving his post as the director of the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, which he had held since September 2016, "for private family reasons."

Igor Zelensky (right) appears in Immortal Beloved in Moscow in 2010.
Igor Zelensky (right) appears in Immortal Beloved in Moscow in 2010.

There was no mention of the ongoing war in Ukraine, but Zelensky was quoted as saying: "At present...private family circumstances require my full attention."

"My family needs my full support," he added.

Serebryakova continues to work as a ballet coach at the theater, the theater's press service confirmed. The theater declined to comment on Zelensky's departure.

However, on May 16, prominent Russian pranksters Vladimir Krasnov and Aleksei Stolyarov, known as Vovan and Lexus and who have been suspected of having ties to the Kremlin, posed as a Ukrainian official in a telephone conversation with Bavarian State Opera General Director Serge Dorny and duped him into providing more information about Zelensky's departure from Munich.

"We spoke with him several times," Dorny said when asked whether Zelensky had been ousted for refusing to denounce the Kremlin's attack on Ukraine. "I indicated to him that he should leave.... He did not make this decision independently."

Two people who are acquainted with Zelensky told Current Time that he plans to return to Russia in the near future at the insistence of his current partner.

Another acquaintance described Zelensky as a hard taskmaster at work. "Igor Anatolyevich speaks mainly in swear words," the acquaintance said. "He is, after all, the son of a military officer."

Irma Nioradze and Igor Zelensky
Irma Nioradze and Igor Zelensky

Zelensky's tenure in Munich began with controversy when he declined to renew the contract of popular Spanish ballerina Lucia Lacarra. However, by the time he left, he'd firmly established himself as "the most active ballet director in Germany," said journalist Gisela Sonnenburg, founder of the Ballett-Journal publication.

"He hired new artists with brilliant expression," she said. "The repertoire that he built up in recent years is very fine and a good mixture of classical, classical-modern, and newer works."

Sonnenburg was confident that Zelensky's departure from Munich was a direct result of the Ukraine invasion and the "hostile relations toward Russians" that it aroused.

'The Daughter Of A Famous Man'

Current Time's investigation has established that Zelensky and Tikhonova became close when Zelensky was ballet director at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater in Moscow between 2011 and 2016.

An employee of the theater and another source with ties to its ballet corps told Current Time that Tikhonova began attending performances at the theater shortly after Zelensky began working there.

"They were seen together after performances," one source said. Zelensky reportedly told the company on occasions when Tikhonova attended performances that "tonight the daughter of a famous man is coming."

Tikhonova arrived at the performances alone and took her seat after the lights went down, sources said. She apparently had no bodyguards and behaved "very modestly" in an apparent effort to avoid attention.

Katerina Tikhonova (left) dances during the World Cup Rock'n'Roll Acrobatic Competition in Krakow, Poland, in 2014.
Katerina Tikhonova (left) dances during the World Cup Rock'n'Roll Acrobatic Competition in Krakow, Poland, in 2014.

The relationship between Tikhonova and Zelensky was an open secret in the ballet world across Moscow. According to a member of the Guild of Ballet Critics, the current rector of the Academy of Russian Ballet, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, told people in 2017 that he intended to seek Zelensky's support in his ultimately unsuccessful bid to become general director of the Bolshoi Theater.

"He told everyone he would discuss it with Zelensky because he was the lover of Putin's daughter," the source said. In comments to Current Time, Tsiskaridze denied the allegation. "I am hearing this for the first time," he said.

During the same period, Zelensky headed the ballet company at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater, but no prominent Moscow guests were known to have attended performances there. "Not Putin himself nor anyone close to him," a source at the theater said, adding that people in the company commonly said "under Putin, Zelensky is the main figure in ballet and culture" and that he makes "important decisions" in this sphere.

"Everyone knew that he was an important person, but he didn't have a car with a flashing light. Igor Anatolyevich [Zelensky] is a man of convictions who doesn't boast, wear flashy things, or live in a mansion," the Novosibirsk source added.

Current Time's search of the Russian property registry found two modest apartments owned by Zelensky -- a 169-square-meter apartment in Novosibirsk and a 34-square-meter apartment in the center of St. Petersburg.

Hacked Messages

Tikhonova's friendship with Zelensky continued even after she married businessman Shamalov in February 2013. Even after the couple reportedly divorced in 2018, Shamalov continued his relations with people associated with Tikhonova, including Zelensky and Zelensky's wife, Yana Serebryakova.

Kirill Shamalov speaks to the media during an interview in Moscow in 2015.
Kirill Shamalov speaks to the media during an interview in Moscow in 2015.

Information about these relationships has been gleaned from a trove of e-mails that were hacked from Shamalov's Ladoga Management firm.

According to the e-mails, which were provided to Current Time, Viktor Snakin, an assistant and colleague of Shamalov’s, wrote two messages regarding transfers that were titled “payment for KNSh bill – rubles” and “repayment of the main loan of KN,” using Kirill Nikolayevich Shamalov’s initials. The details of these transfers, including the amounts, were not explicitly stated, but other notations in the e-mails referred to a “transfer from the account of I. Zelensky” and a “payment from Igor Zelensky.”

Snakin did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

The e-mail leaks also show that Shamalov spoke several times in 2017 with Zelensky's wife, Serebryakova. Many of these conversations were paired with another conversation with his own wife at the time, Tikhonova. In most cases, Tikhonova and Serebryakova were in the same location -- Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or St. Petersburg. And in most cases, the conversations with Serebryakova were significantly longer than those with Tikhonova.

The last known conversation between Shamalov and Serebryakova took place on the night of April 17, 2017. Serebryakova was in Germany at the time. An hour later, in the early hours of April 18, Shamalov called Tikhonova in Moscow. During the April 25-27, 2017, period, Shamalov made several deals to sell a 17 percent share in the Sibur petrochemical company, a stake that has been described as "Tikhonova's dowry."

Seven and a half months later, Tikhonova gave birth to her daughter with Zelensky, according to a source with access to vital-records databases. In January 2018, according to Bloomberg, Shamalov and Tikhonova were divorced.

Serebryakova and Zelensky did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. Current Time was unable to reach Shamalov.

After Munich

On March 18, 2018, the Russian Consulate in Munich published a photograph of Zelensky casting his ballot in Russia's presidential election, which had been postponed by one week so that Putin's landslide reconfirmation could coincide with celebrations of the fourth anniversary of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. In the previous presidential election in 2012, Zelensky was an official representative of the Putin campaign.

Just a couple of days before Zelensky cast his ballot in 2018, the Tverskoi district registration office in Moscow issued a paternity document for Tikhonova's daughter. The baby's birth certificate identifies Zelensky as the father and "Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova" as the mother, according to Current Time's source with access to vital records. The birth certificate was issued three months after the baby's birth. Zelensky and Tikhonova, as an unmarried couple, both signed the paternity document.

Around the same time, Putin made a trip to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol during which he promised locals that the government would build a new cultural center with a theater and an academy for musicians and dancers.

Yekaterina Tikhonova gives an interview in 2020.
Yekaterina Tikhonova gives an interview in 2020.

On May 7, the day of his fourth inauguration as president, Putin signed a decree establishing the construction of such cultural centers as a national development priority for the period 2018-24. To achieve this goal, he created a special foundation called National Cultural Heritage, whose oversight board included the heads of the Bolshoi Theater and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Mariinsky Theater and Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Unexpectedly and without explanation, Igor Zelensky was also named to the board, a position he apparently still occupies.

Natalya Volynskaya, who headed the foundation's board until December 2021, said she did not know who nominated Zelensky to serve on the board, adding that he was responsible for the Sevastopol project.

The theater, which was designed by the avant-garde Austrian architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, is expected to open in 2023.

Under Zelensky's oversight, people associated with him have been given posts in Sevastopol. Dancer Sergei Polunin, who was recruited by Zelensky to join the company at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater, has become director of the new Sevastopol theater and acting director of the associated Academy of Dance in the port city. In 2020, Andrei Uvarov, who also worked with Zelensky at the Moscow theater, was named deputy director of the Sevastopol theater.

Neither Polunin nor Uvarov responded to requests for comment.

The Sevastopol theater's website mentions only Uvarov and ignores Polunin, although his appointment as its director was officially announced. Volynskaya said the directorship of the theater is vacant. Another source close to the National Cultural Heritage foundation told Current Time that the position has not been filled.

This has led to speculation that a place has been prepared for Zelensky in the wake of his departure from Munich.

"They promised Sevastopol to Zelensky," a source in the Bolshoi Theater said. "They are building an opera and ballet theater there that he is ultimately supposed to head."

"He is counting on Sevastopol, that is true," said the source at the Guild of Ballet Critics.

"He has long been making inroads in Sevastopol. Even before he started working in Bavaria," said a source at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater. "But then he chose Bavaria and kept Sevastopol in his back pocket."

Vladimir Yurovsky, musical director of the Bavarian Opera and Ballet Theater, remembered discussing Sevastopol with Zelensky in Munich: "In January 2020, Igor tried to talk me into taking my orchestra -- at the time I headed the Svetlanov State Orchestra in Moscow -- and joining the new Sevastopol theater. I would be named musical director."

This report is a joint project by journalists Svetlana Reiter and Denis Dmitriyev (Meduza), Andrei Soshnikov (Current Time), and Denis Korotkov (Dosye). RFE/RL's Robert Coalson contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly described Viktor Snakin as Shamalov’s financial manager. In addition, it mistakenly characterized seven e-mail messages as discussing deposits into accounts connected to Shamalov, while the information present in the e-mails was insufficient to establish the destination of the transfers with certainty.
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    Svetlana Reiter

    Svetlana Reiter is a correspondent for the independent Russian news outlet Meduza.

  • 16x9 Image

    Andrei Soshnikov

    Andrei Soshnikov is an investigative journalist and chief editor of RFE/RL's Russian Investigative Unit, also known as Systema. He focuses on such topics as cybersecurity, the dark web, neo-Nazis, and corruption. Previously, he worked as a special correspondent and investigator at BBC's Russian service and BBC News.​

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