The dark recesses of Moscow's cavernous Sheremetyevo airport, which shielded runaway former NSA contractor Edward Snowden from the prying eyes of the world for 38 days last summer, might be concealing a much more tantalizing secret: nearly $27 billion in unclaimed cash, which could be the lost fortune of Saddam Hussein or Iranian oil money diverted by US embargo.
Or, insists Moscow's leading tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsololets (MK), the mysterious hoard – delivered to Sheremetyevo without a forwarding address six years ago and consisting of 200 pallets of vacuum-wrapped cash – is being held in a heavily guarded warehouse at the airport while Russian authorities figure out what to do with it.
The MK story has stirred up a frenzy in Moscow, and was apparently the main source for a sensational piece in London's Mail on Sunday that dwelt upon theories that it could be the ill-gotten lucre of deposed dictators, Chechen gangsters, or even international bank robbers.
The only official reaction so far has been a blunt denial from the press service of Sheremetyevo airport.
"We cannot confirm this information. There is no money. No such aircraft landed at our airport. It's even theoretically difficult to imagine such a situation," Sheremetyevo's press spokesman Roman Genis told journalists Monday.
In an article published last week, MK speculated that the vast trove of 100-euro notes, weighing around 200 tons, might be the orphaned riches of deceased dictators Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, spirited away to hoped-for safety in Moscow.
In a second story published today, the paper weaves an even more tangled tale involving revenues from Iranian oil exports, allegedly funneled through Germany's Deutsche Bank Group, which got sidetracked to Moscow when US-inspired sanctions on Iran started to bite.
"It is possible that this is the money of Saddam Hussein," MK quotes an anonymous Russian security official as saying. "I can't confirm that, but am just guessing. It is well known that $60–100 billion dollars belonging to the Iraqi dictator is circulating throughout the world."
Most Russian experts consulted Monday tended to rubbish the story, saying that the huge sum alone – which would beggar even the richest Russian oligarch – makes it extremely unlikely to be true.
The newspaper, MK, is a venerable Moscow tabloid with a huge and loyal readership, but is not the most solid link in Russia's media chain. "Sometimes it's reliable, but sometimes it goes off the deep end with stories about crocodiles in the Moscow metro and such," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal focusing on security issues.
The author of the Sheremetyevo treasure stories, MK correspondent Eva Merkacheva, says she has never actually seen the money, but claims to have documents proving its existence.
Customs lawyer Vadim Lyalin, who is quoted in Ms. Merkacheva's story, told the Monitor by phone Monday that he does indeed have clients who are trying to retrieve the cash, though he cannot name them and hasn't seen the money for himself either.
"It's too big a sum to belong to nobody," Mr. Lyalin says.
Mr. Soldatov says he's very skeptical. "Everything is possible in Moscow, but this strains credulity. It's extremely improbable."