Almost perfectly coincident with Vladimir Putin's recently renewed pledges of allegiance as
Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Rigged Elections President of Russia is news that he has been constructing, allegedly of course, "Project South," a massive private palace on the Black Sea.
Since his reiterated swearing-in was met with mass protests, which were then met with a heavy police crackdown, which then elicited US statements of disapproval—which have more recently been followed by by Putin saying he would not attend the forthcoming G8 meeting at Camp David, which was nonetheless followed by bilateral statements of continued commitment to a "reset of relations" via "sustained high-level dialogue"—it is possible that news related to "Project South" lost some degree of newsworthy thunder.
And that's fine, but the story is full of good intrigue. Even a major art buyer plays a part.
In short, according to Sergei Kolesnikov, a former member of Putin's circle of business cronies now living in Tallinn, Estonia, funds to build the behemoth dwelling were obtained by re-channeling donations for plans to upgrade equipment in Russian hospitals. Some of the money was spent as such, but enough overspill funds remained to be spent on other "investment projects."
Hence the somewhat baroque, somewhat neoclassical, quite Louis XVI and thus also rather tsar-like private palace on state grounds, involving state funds, guarded by state police, and so on. According to the BBC:
Originally conceived, it is said, as a modest holiday house with a swimming pool, it now boasts a magnificent columned facade reminiscent of the country palaces Russian tsars built in the 18th Century.
The massive wrought-iron gates into the courtyard are topped with a golden imperial eagle. Outside are formal gardens, a private theatre, a landing pad with bays for three helicopters, and accommodation for security guards. [...]
An agreement to build the mansion on state-owned land was signed by the head of the Department for Presidential Affairs, Vladimir Kozhin, who subsequently denied knowing anything about the site.
The documents do not prove that the palace was meant for Putin himself, or that he was personally involved in its construction.
But mystery still surrounds it.
Mystery, yes, indeed. But not only surrounding it. As one can see in a series of photos leaked by workers at the site, there's a rather mysterious presence inside it as well. He's certainly one of the workers in question, that fellow, but his dashed visage is a bit unsettling. Especially in the images with mirrors. Or in the one in the banquet room, where he's caught in a Michelangelo's Moses-like pose. The one where he's seated front and center, legs splayed in a sunlit corner, is a comedy of fear of some sort. The one in which he's lounging might actually be comical
Anyway, below are just a couple examples. More are here, and the BBC's article and video report (well worth a view, not least because Mr. Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Soccer Club and one of the world's biggest private collectors of artwork, makes a cameo about 2 minutes in) are here.
Despite all its grandeur, the palace itself appears perfectly miserable—although a few more people, or maybe scores of party-people, or just people with faces would take off some of the chill.
Pretty haunting, though, as it stands. That dashed presence, that anonymizing bar.
Speaking of dashed, or dashing...
Putin's ownership status of any sort remains only alleged. And it will probably be pretty difficult to get pictures of eventual tenants on move-in day. But what if the secret purpose of "Project South" is to serve as a lush House Arrest Resort for rogue leaders and deposed dictators?
Would that be considered philanthropy or just a well-timed business model?
Too bad the idea is a bit far fetched. It would make for some extraordinary reality TV.
You can follow Paul D'Agostino on Twitter @postuccio