Russia's Putin: 'Galley slave' or Persian Gulf monarch?

Vladimir Putin once compared ruling Russia to being a 'galley slave,' but a new pamphlet critical of his state-owned wealth compares him to a Persian Gulf monarch.

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti/Presidential Press Service/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, is greeted by residents of Saransk, the provincial capital of Mordovia region, 400 miles southeast of Moscow, Aug. 24.

Rumors of Russian President Vladimir Putin's supposed vast wealth have been flying around the Internet for years, but now opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has weighed, measured, and described it in print.

In a just-released pamphlet co-authored with Solidarity activist Leonid Martynyuk, Mr. Nemtsov claims that President Putin has at his disposal 20 lavish state villas and palaces, four yachts, a fleet of more than 40 aircraft, 15 helicopters, phalanxes of cars, a collection of luxury wristwatches worth about $700,000, and an alleged personal fortune that may amount to billions of dollars.

Though Putin's official salary is just over $100,000 per year, "with a lifestyle like that, it could be compared to that of a Persian Gulf monarch," say the authors of "Life of a Galley Slave" – the title is a riff on a famous Putin quote, in which he declared that he has "toiled like a galley slave, from morning to night" in his public life.

Most of the assets enumerated in the pamphlet are actually state possessions. Like Soviet commissars of the past, Putin has extensive personal access to a vast empire of property and perks that he does not literally own. Putin has repeatedly denied holding a private fortune.

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told the Moscow daily Kommersant that he had not read the report, but added it probably contains nothing controversial.     

"Information on the residences and transportation of the president is absolutely open, and there is no secret about it," Kommersant quoted Mr. Peskov as saying. "It is all state property and Putin, as the elected president, uses it in accordance with the law. Moreover, he is forced to use many of these things."    

But it also seems undeniable that Putin enjoys a lifestyle that would make a Soviet General Secretary blush. 

Nine of Putin's state domiciles, including the lavish Konstaninov palace in St. Petersburg, have been constructed recently on his orders. By contrast with Putin's total of 20 official residences, the president of the United States has just two; even the entire British royal family has only eight state-owned residences at its disposal.

Former deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov is author or co-author of nine reports about Putin, most focusing on the corruption that pervades Russia on his watch. 

In the past, he has usually managed to get his work published in Russia, even if with difficulties. This time he says that no Russian printing house would touch "Life of a Galley Slave," and a meager 5,000 rough copies were produced in private homes, as was done with the samizdat works of the Soviet era.

"None of the printing houses we previously used have agreed to produce our new project, no matter how much we offered to pay them, because they don't want trouble with the authorities," Nemtsov told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, Tuesday. 

"Even people I am friendly with, who have their own print shops, have refused to help. This is a measure of how fast this country is changing, and what a different level of fear there is of the authorities," even compared to the recent past, he added.

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