Keeping the Russian dictator’s personal life hidden is a typical habit of the Soviet security services, helped by the self-censorship of the Russian press, Mikhail Ruban, a journalist with the Russian Proekt outlet, told Radio NV.
Proekt is an online publication in Russia, banned by the Putin regime, specializing in investigative journalism. Its journalists have authored several headline-making investigations into the Kremlin dictator's entourage, as well as his personal life. We print an excerpt of the interview below.
NV: The Wall Street Journal reports that there was a package of sanctions against Alina Kabaeva (an alleged mistress of Putin) but these sanctions were withheld in order to not provoke Putin's anger. Do you see the logic behind this, why sanctions can be imposed on his daughters, but not on his mistress?
Ruban: I think it's very bizarre. You know, I have this association, not a very pleasant one. Many of my fellow journalists in Russia have at some point decided for themselves that there is a double solid line, some red lines that cannot be crossed, such as the health of the president or his family. And so if they cross these red lines, their publications will be closed, they will be fired; but if they do not cross them, they will somehow survive and save face. By no means do I compare, of course, some of my so-called colleagues with the U.S. position, but I do see some overlaps here.
For some reason, the Americans decided for themselves that daughters are acceptable, but Kabaeva is terrifying. Well, you know, you always have to allow for the fact that, unlike Russian journalists, Americans may have access to some intelligence. But to be honest, it seems to me that even if its intelligence, it's still some odd overly cautious behavior. In my opinion, on the contrary, the more people really close to Vladimir Putin would be affected, the better, the stronger the sanctions pressure would be, perhaps.
But for some reason, the Americans have decided to play it safe. This overcautiousness seems illogical to me, as the example of my Russian colleagues proves. All those hedging their bets have long been punished much more than even those journalists who did not err on the side of caution. It seems to me that the same thing would happen in international politics if Kabaeva was not exempted from sanctions. If Putin is so mad that he plans to up the ante and – I don't know what could be worse, a nuclear war, an attack on another country – I do not think that sanctions on Alina Kabaeva will play a decisive role.
NV: The U.S. government believes that Kabaeva has at least three children from Putin, while another story says four.
Ruban: He has two other children against whom sanctions have already been imposed.
NV: Can you explain how Kabaeva turned from a gymnastics champion into one of the most influential women in Russia?
Putin: Here we have to separate, as always, everything in Russia, separate facts from conjectures. Nobody knows for sure, it’s all talk, but talk, as in any rigidly authoritarian or already totalitarian states, constitutes just some signals and positions.
And these are often informal positions – perhaps even not in totalitarian societies, but in feudal ones – I no longer know how to describe today's Russia. Such regimes have some informal positions that indicate the person’s influence. Alina Kabaeva holds a leading position in the National Media Group, a private entity controlled by Putin's friend Yuri Kovalchuk.
So, this National Media Group unites almost all non-state but loyal media in Russia. Not the (leading) Rossiya channel, but, say, the First Channel or Ren-TV, they are both in the National Media Group. And Alina Kabaeva holds an honorary leadership position there.
Ordinary joes are not given such positions. Kovalchuk is a person who specializes in Vladimir Putin's personal affairs, so there are no ordinary people in his structures. He owns Rossiya Bank, and the bank's shareholders are close friends and relatives of Vladimir Putin.
And if they cease to be his relatives, as in the case of his ex-son-in-law, who divorced his daughter, their share in the bank is taken away. It may sound a little complicated, but the point is that Yuri Kovalchuk is a man who puts people important to Putin in different places, in different positions. Kabaeva is one of these people.
The second thing we need to bear in mind is that in Russia, Putin has a few people who are simply tasked with donating real estate to his relatives. Generally, they also do not gift real estate to ordinary people. I do not know how important these people are, like Petr Kolbin, Gennady Timchenko, the structures of Arkady Rotenberg; here they were all caught donating real estate first to Alina Kabaeva’s grandmother, then to her sister, and every time these are quite luxurious assets.
All this together leads us to believe that Kabaeva, of course, is not an ordinary person. The rest are insider stories, which in Russia should be taken with a grain of salt.
NV: Is there an understanding of why Putin hides his personal life so much? Is this a Chekist (the original Soviet security service) habit, or does it violate his image of a monk who is busy with governance and nothing more? Why, when he divorced his wife, could he not publicly marry Kabaeva?
Ruban: Here we can assume, of course, this is a set of stories. But at one point, Putin decided that the less (the public) knew about him, the better. He has his head in higher clouds that have long been inaccessible to us, why should ordinary mortals be interested? Putin at the dawn of his political career, I mean the beginning of his presidency, revealed a number of facts about himself.
I can give an example of this story: at one point we once again probed into his family and found that a very important woman who controls the coal business and a whole region in Russia is his niece. So we found a photo of her with Putin in his biography, and all these photos were provided with Putin's permission. I think he is very angry… Putin's relatives, his nearest and dearest, acquaintances, all the people who are somehow very close to him, are used in Russia to hide valuable assets.
At one point, he first regretted that he had already revealed something and decided that he would not disclose other relatives holding his assets. Why should he stress out unnecessarily? I don't think Putin is too scared, but I don't think he, on the other hand, wants anyone to know about his luxury if he can help it. You are right that this is, of course, the Chekist past, this is the idea that you only need to know about him what he wants to say here and now. The problem is, however, that at some point he began to flounder in his testimony: he says one thing, then say something else entirely about himself. Why? Because this kind of ruler is always a bit of an enigma, there should be no objective knowledge about him – he is a bit of a mythical character of some sort. That's how I’d put it.
NV: I noticed that even the independent Russian media does not report on this topic very much. Is it a question of self-censorship? How strong was this impulse, and what role did it play in what we see now, the total destruction of all independent press?
Ruban: Self-censorship in Russia is catastrophically high, but it now concerns not the sublime – it concerns trifles. Self-censorship in Russia may be to avoid giving a different image of Ukraine. I think that the editors-in-chief of all the official media are sitting there pondering, because once again no one is explaining to them what to do. But this is a story in its own right, this is a phenomenon that will also be interesting to study someday, especially in relation to the war which is now taking place.
As for Kabaeva, I have a different answer for you: does anyone think that it is so easy to get up and find something about Vladimir Putin? Of course, this may not be obvious to the Western audience, which is accustomed to the fact that officials themselves go to reveal some facts about their lives. It doesn't work that way (in Russia) – in order to learn many things, we need the development of investigative journalism, we need to develop some technologies and methodologies for investigative journalists.
Yes, it's a complex issue. It is not for nothing that Russian investigative journalism is now flourishing in such terrible, difficult times, because there are many technologies, tools, skills, and opportunities to conduct such investigations. Some things are gradually becoming public property.
It took us many years to learn about Vladimir Putin's affair with Svetlana Krivonogikh, with whom he has an illegitimate daughter. We did this investigation the year before last, and the affair took place almost 20 years ago. It is clear that all this is very difficult. Therefore, there are very few facts about Alina Kabaeva.
It just so happened that we learned about her a few years ago, and after that, there is very little evidence of what is happening with her now. I can only tell you that I am sure that sooner or later all this will become known, proven or refuted. We’ll see, but that’s what we have so far. I will reiterate, of course, that self-censorship is present in Russia, but there are several publications that I am sure are working on this, have worked, and will work on it again.
NV: It seems that the fact that Alina Kabaeva appeared with an engagement ring in August 2021 was widely discussed. Hitler also married Eva Braun just before committing suicide. Therefore, everyone is waiting for this moment. [Russian outlet] Open Media in 2019 investigated that the value of the real estate of the Kabaeva family reached 1.25 billion rubles ($17.5 million), all this just confirms your statements.
Ruban: It is quite true, you see, we are forced to judge by some indirect signs, we just see that she is rich and therefore we make some assumptions. Other documentary evidence so far – I stress, so far, as I am almost sure that things will change this year – is yet to be found.