MOSCOW — As millions of ordinary Russians struggle to make ends meet, the unashamedly opulent lifestyles of wealthy government officials are sparking increasing anger and resentment. And social media is bringing to light examples of high living once shielded by high gates and shaded car windows.
Much of the recent popular fury is directed at First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, the country’s third-most-powerful politician behind President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Anti-corruption activists headed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny charged earlier this month that Mr. Shuvalov had purchased 10 elite apartments worth a total of $9.4 million in one of Moscow’s seven Stalin-era skyscrapers. They also claimed, citing public documents, that a staggering 3 billion rubles — just over $46 million — had been illegally allocated from the Moscow city budget for an extensive renovation of the landmark residential building. Mr. Navalny said that Mr. Shuvalov planned to convert the 10 apartments, which are all on the 14th floor of the downtown building, into one big “czar apartment.”
Russian leaders are not exactly taking the scrutiny and criticism with grace and good humor.
“Navalny can go to hell,” an unnamed staff member from Mr. Shuvalov’s office told the Russian business newspaper Kommersant. “I won’t give any comments to scum like him.” The comment was subsequently deleted from the newspaper’s website, but screenshots were published by opposition media.
The incident touches on a sore spot in Mr. Putin’s Russia. Mr. Putin, despite his personal popularity, has not been able to revive a weak economy and bring prosperity to a wider circle of residents. Russia has the highest wealth inequality in the world, according to the financial services group Credit Suisse, which says that 111 people own 19 percent of the country’s household wealth. By comparison, at least 23 million Russians — 16 percent of the population — are currently living beneath the official poverty line of $140 a month, according to government statistics.
Sergei Kotlyarenko, a lawyer in charge of Mr. Shuvalov’s assets in Russia and abroad, later said the central Moscow apartments were part of an investment strategy being implemented on behalf of the politician. He also insisted that Mr. Shuvalov had done nothing illegal.
But the Moscow apartments are not the only upscale properties that Mr. Shuvalov is believed to own.
Russian anti-corruption activists said last year that Mr. Shuvalov and his wife own a 5,380-square-foot penthouse in central London. The luxury apartment, valued at $14.7 million, is reported to contain six bedrooms and a sitting room with a view of the Thames. Mr. Shuvalov’s spokesman called those charges “nothing new.” According to Mr. Shuvalov’s official declaration of income and assets, he rents an apartment in London and a castle in Austria. However, in 2014 he told Russian journalists that he owned the Austrian castle through a company he controls with his wife, as well as other foreign property.
Adding to his public relations woes, Mr. Shuvalov last month triggered outrage when he appeared to mock the owners of tiny homes.
“We were shown apartments that are [215 square feet] in size today,” Mr. Shuvalov told reporters during a trip to Russia’s Tartarstan. “It seems ridiculous, but people purchase them, and they are very popular.”
The comments were widely mocked on social media. “We were shown jobs that pay [$310] a month today. That might seem ridiculous, but people do such jobs and they are very popular,” read one satirical tweet.
In 2015 Mr. Shuvalov declared income of slightly more than $800,000, mainly from business interests. His official yearly salary as first deputy prime minister is around $144,000.
Role of social media
Although Russia’s heavily censored national television channels have not reported on the accusations, millions of Russians have found out about Mr. Shuvalov’s suspected riches via social media.
“I’ve read all about Shuvalov and his luxurious lifestyle, and it makes me angry and sad that there is one law for our rulers and another for ordinary people,” Yelena Klimenko, a senior citizen in Moscow, told The Washington Times. Ms. Klimenko also expressed nostalgia for the Soviet Union. “Communist officials were less corrupt,” she said.
In May, Mr. Medvedev, the prime minister, told senior citizens in Crimea, annexed by the Kremlin in 2014, that there was no money to increase pensions to match rampant inflation. “Hang on in there. Best wishes. Cheers!” Mr. Medvedev said, in a comment that was also widely mocked.
Mr. Shuvalov is not the only Russian politician forced to deal with accounts of unexplained wealth.
In April, the Panama Papers, a leak of millions of papers from the database of Panama-based Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth-biggest offshore law firm, implicated close associates of Mr. Putin in a suspected billion-dollar money laundering ring. The Kremlin denied Mr. Putin was involved in illegal activities and said the Panama Papers leaks were a CIA attempt to destabilize Russia ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov is another official who has come under fire.
Last fall, Mr. Peskov was spotted wearing a Swiss wristwatch that anti-corruption activists claimed was worth around a half-million dollars. Mr. Peskov was photographed wearing the watch at his wedding to Tatiana Navka, a Russian figure skating champion. Mr. Peskov said that the limited-edition Richard Mille watch was a wedding gift from his new wife, but Mr. Navalny, the opposition leader, responded by posting a photograph of Mr. Peskov wearing the same watch two weeks before the wedding.
By the Kremlin’s own estimate, corruption by state officials costs Russia more than $30 billion a year. However, Russia refuses to ratify Article 20 of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which stipulates automatic criminal charges for government officials unable to explain discrepancies between their spending and their official incomes. Opinion polls carried out by opposition groups indicate that 87 percent of Russians want to see criminal charges brought against corrupt officials.
It is not only Russia’s beleaguered anti-Putin movement opposition that is making a noise about corruption. The Communist Party, the second-largest party in Russia’s parliament, has also stepped up its anti-corruption rhetoric ahead of elections set for Sept. 18. Valery Rashkin, who heads the Communist Party in Moscow, is calling for the return of the death penalty for state corruption, and accuses Mr. Putin’s inner circle of “stripping the country of its assets.”
But while there has been plenty of anger, even opposition activists admit that revelations over the eye-watering wealth of Russian officials are unlikely to lead to mass discontent. “Society has become accustomed almost on a genetic level that politicians can steal from our pockets,” wrote civil activist Alena Popova in a recent online post.
Others echoed Ms. Popova’s pessimism.
“Everyone is used to this. ‘Officials should live well’ is a very widespread opinion,” Leonid Volkov, a leading member of Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption movement, said in an interview. Mr. Shuvalov, Mr. Putin and other top officials “are completely removed from reality, and seriously consider themselves to be Russia’s new nobility.”