It was billed as a bombshell: an exposé on Russian state television that promised to rip the roof off the "luxurious" German house where opposition politician Aleksei Navalny lived while recuperating from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning, allegedly at the hands of Russian security agents.
Among the program’s explosive findings? The villa had a coffee maker; the building’s swimming pool was a pleasant 26 degrees Celsius; and even the toilet brushes were high standard.
In the days since the broadcast, however, Russian social media has been flooded with quips and memes mocking the report as the ultimate example of much ado about nothing.
By contrast, Navalny’s splashy, snarky investigations into official corruption have dominated the Russian mediascape for months -- only gaining steam from August, when he almost died while traveling in Siberia, to his dramatic return to Moscow in January, and his immediate arrest.
The ability of Navalny and his allies to capture public attention and galvanize anti-government sentiment has vexed the Kremlin and the state-owned and financed media that normally dominate Russia’s airwaves and newsstands.
Exhibit A is the most-watched Russian-language program on YouTube at present: the two-hour documentary Navalny’s team published the day after his January 17 arrest that showed a gargantuan, Versailles-like palace perched on a Black Sea bluff. Called Putin’s Palace, the film alleged the $1.7 billion house was built for Putin and financed through a network of corrupt offshore companies by some of Putin’s closest allies.
On February 7, in a seven-minute segment on the program Vesti Nedeli, state television responded to the Putin Palace documentary.
Produced by Rossiya-1 television and broadcast nationwide, Vesti Nedeli is the channel’s main Sunday evening news program. It’s hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov, a fire-breathing presenter who has garnered notoriety for making outrageous statements, such as bragging of Russia’s ability to turn the United States into “radioactive ash.”
After being released from the Berlin hospital where he was treated -- and where German doctors said he had been poisoned with a substance related to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok -- Navalny recuperated for nearly two months in a villa in Freiberg, in southwestern Germany.
In its segment, Vesti Nedeli’s crew gained access to the villa and portrayed Navalny’s rental of the place as an exorbitant expense unbefitting of the anti-corruption crusader’s image.
The program’s presenter, Anastasia Popova, described for viewers "a spacious living room, two sofas, a television. And fresh fruit on the table” and a complimentary bottle of wine on the kitchen counter.
At one point, Popova goes swimming in the villa’s pool. At another, she inspects the villa’s main bathroom -- and even inspects the bathroom’s toilet brush.
“It sparkles, but not that much,” she said.
The toilet brush is a nod to the findings presented in the Putin’s Palace documentary, where Navalny’s team alleged -- based on architectural and design documents -- that one of the bathrooms included a $700 toilet brush. Some protesters who have taken to the streets in support of Navalny have carried toilet brushes.
The Kremlin has denied that Putin owns the palace. Days after the documentary was released, Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire childhood friend and former judo partner of Putin’s, publicly claimed he was the owner.
The Vesti Nedeli program said the 300-square-meter, two-story German villa cost 530 euros a day, a figure that could not be independently confirmed. However, Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, found a public listing for the same villa for less than half that amount.
The owner of the villa, meanwhile, told the independent news channel TV Dozhd that the Russian reporters rented the residence while pretending to be Belgian tourists. The lead reporter used a made-up French surname, the channel reported.
The owner also said he had contacted German law enforcement after the Russian reporters filmed him with a hidden camera without his consent.
The Vesti Nedeli segment was accompanied by another segment that focused on the nearby film studio where Navalny’s team shot and produced the Putin’s Palace documentary.
Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide, later told TV Dozhd that Vesti Nedeli had exaggerated the cost of the villa’s rental, which he said was paid for by Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a multimillionaire Russian businessman who now lives in self-imposed exile in London. Chichvarkin also helped pay for the rental of the studio space, Volkov said.
Many of the details of Navalny’s finances while recuperating in Germany were previously published by Navalny himself on his Instagram account.
“You go into journalism. Expectation: You make cool reports and reveal the whole truth. Reality: You shoot a review of Navalny's toilet and show wine for 2 euros, calling it a luxury lifestyle,” Ruslan Shaveddinov, a leading member of Navalny’s team, said in mocking post on Twitter.
Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy energy minister who is now a strident critic of the Kremlin, mocked the Vesti report, saying it focused on what he said was fairly typical German housing.
And he compared it to average housing stock in Russia, where he said an inordinately high percentage of homes lacked indoor plumbing and hot water or showers.
Navalny’s return to Russia was followed by two consecutive weekends of nationwide protests -- some of the biggest Russia has seen in years. On February 2, Navalny was ordered to prison by a judge who ruled he had violated conditions of a suspended sentence imposed in 2014 in a case Navalny says was politically motivated. That decision prompted more street protests -- and a brutal response from riot police.
German authorities concluded that Navalny was targeted with a poison related to Novichok, which burst into public attention in 2018 when it was used, allegedly by Russian agents, to try to kill a former Russian intelligence agent in England. Laboratories in Sweden and France, and experts from the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, later corroborated the German finding.
Aside from physical violence, the Kremlin has also sought repeatedly to discredit Navalny, accusing him of being a foreign agent on the payroll of the CIA or MI6 or similar foreign entities.
"The intelligence agencies of three NATO countries worked on a fake documentary about the fake palace, and Navalny was invited only to do a voice-over," Kiselyov alleged in his own commentary accompanying the Vesti Nedeli segment. "The goal clearly was to harm President Putin personally, as the national leader, and Russia itself."
While the Putin’s Palace investigation has broken records for Russian viewership on YouTube, its effect on public opinion toward Putin has been more muted.
A poll by the independent Levada Center found that more than one-quarter of Russians had seen the film, but most of the poll’s respondents -- 77 percent -- who watched or heard of the investigation said their opinions of Putin were unchanged.