Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has long been one of Russia’s most-popular government figures, due in part to years of lavish state television coverage of him as emergency situations minister, a ministry he headed for nearly two decades.
He has also been largely unscathed by corruption scandals of the sorts that plagued his predecessor as defense minister, who was sacked in 2012 after facing fraud investigations.
That relatively squeaky-clean reputation now looks to have been dented with revelations by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whose team of muckrakers have accused Shoigu of hiding an $18 million mansion that he purportedly controls by registering it in the name of family members.
Navalny’s organization on October 27 published an expose of the sprawling estate in the prestigious village of Barvikha, in a region on Moscow's western outskirts that is home to some of Russia’s most elite real estate -- including the official residence of President Vladimir Putin.
Shoigu, a Putin confidant, is the latest of several Russian officials to be accused by Navalny and his associates of hiding expensive real estate that they could not realistically afford on a public servant’s salary.
The mansion sits on a 9,000-square-meter plot and features gently curved roofs similar to those of Buddhist temples. That has prompted speculation that the chosen style is an homage to Shoigu’s native Tuva, a federal subject on the Mongolian border that is one of Russia’s few predominantly Buddhist regions.
According to real estate records published by Navalny’s chief real estate investigator, Georgy Alburov, Shoigu’s daughter, Ksenia, became the owner of the property in November 2009 when she was 18.
“How the 18-year-old student Ksenia Shoigu became the owner of land that costs at a minimum $100,000 per 100 square meters -- or $9 million for the entire plot -- is unclear, and that is a great question for [Russia’s federal] Investigative Committee,” Alburov wrote in a blog post.
Alburov valued the entire property to be worth “at least” $18 million.
Alburov said Shoigu’s declared family income for 2010-12 was 173 million rubles ($2.66 million), which he noted was considerably less than the estimated cost of the property, even taking into account the stronger ruble during that two-year period.
Other documents published by Alburov show that in August 2012, ownership of the property was transferred to a woman named Yelena Antipina. Her last name is the same as the maiden name of Shoigu’s wife, Irina. Both women have the same patronymic -- Aleksandrovna.
“It’s all clear,” Alburov wrote. “The luxurious home is registered to the sister of Shoigu’s wife.”
Citing information from the Russian corporate database known as SPARK, the Russian newspaper RBC reported that Yelena Antipina and Shoigu’s wife and daughter were among the owners of a company called Barvikha 4 from 2007-2013.
Other owners of the firm included a woman with the same name as the wife of Senator Yury Vorobyov, and a man named Sergei Matviyenko. The speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, has a son named Sergei.
Alburov said that when researchers set out to find Yelena Antipina at an 80-square-meter apartment registered in her name, they were stopped outside the building by officers from the Federal Security Service and Moscow police and taken in for questioning “on suspicion of burglary.”
During the questioning, he claims, the officers accused them of collecting information about Russians fighting in Syria to hand over to Islamic State militants, and also warned them not to publish their expose.
Alburov suggested that authorities had learned of the planned expose of Shoigu’s alleged property by bugging their office.
Last month, Navalny’s organization published an expose alleging that President Vladimir Putin's longtime spokesman -- Dmitry Peskov -- lived in an 8,400-square-foot house, worth an estimated $7.1 million, in anоther elite district on Moscow's western outskirts.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not provide an immediate comment when contacted by RBC.
RBC said that Yelena Antipina declined to comment when reached by telephone.