An investigation into how a close acquaintance of Vladimir Putin attained a piece of Russia
Andrey Zakharov, Roman Badanin, with the participation of Mikhail Rubin, November 25, 2020
The elusive dollar millionaire Svetlana Krivonogikh lives in Saint Petersburg. She is lavished with gifts by friends of Putin and her daughter bears an uncanny resemblance to the head of state. Her story also reveals the real owner of Bank Rossiya.
The Kamenny Islands, or “Rocky Islands, ” are not Saint Petersburg’s most popular tourist destination. Locals know, however, that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more elite location in the entire city: surrounded by water, with a well-manicured park, home to a few pre-revolutionary mansions recognizable from the Soviet Sherlock Holmes movies, as well as state-owned residences with mysterious names such as “K2.”
In the early twenty-aughts, around two dozen Petersburgians were able to achieve what many only dream of by re-settling on Kamenny Island. These were no ordinary residents of Russia’s second capital, but rather members of the inner circle of newly-appointed President Vladimir Putin. They were all given deeds to apartments in a complex on 2nd Birch Alley. The building, designed after Petersburg mansions of the 19th century, was closed off both physically (by gates and a moat) and symbolically—you could not simply stroll into the developer’s office and purchase a flat. The apartments were “only offered to friends” , as one of the residents told Proekt × .
As a result, Putin’s judo sparring partners Vasily Shestakov and Arkady Rotenberg, his friends from the Ozero Dacha Consumer Cooperative Yuri Kovalchuk, Sergey Fursenko, Viktor Myachin and Nikolai Shamalov , from Rosreestr data × , and a number of others with ties to the Russian leader suddenly became neighbors.
Perhaps the most inconspicuous member of this select society was a woman who remains virtually unknown to the general public. Even two of her neighbors in the complex on Kamenny Island confessed to Proekt that they had heard her surname, but had never met her, and hadn’t the faintest idea who she really was.
The name of that stranger was Svetlana Krivonogikh.
The Cleaning Lady
Before becoming the deed holder of a property on Kamenny Island, Svetlana Krivonogikh spent her childhood in a communal apartment on Gorokhovaya Street. She grew up surrounded by the criminal underworld of Saint Petersburg. Her neighbor down the hall, the brother of a friend, had ties to organized crime , as reported by one of Krivonogikh’s neighbors and as is consistent with archives of the St. Petersburg Organized Crime Control Department × and across the courtyard sat the headquarters of the security holding company Baltic Export. This company was created in the “wild 90s” by the protagonist of a previous article Roman Tsepov, who is closely connected to the Petersburg criminal scene. It’s unlikely that Tsepov himself lived in the complex, but as our story will later reveal, he couldn’t help but cross paths with Krivonogikh.
As is befitting of a communal apartment complex, the once grand pre-revolution facade gives way to squalid living conditions within. The ancient and well-worn door to the building where Krivonogikh used to live is still adorned with five doorbells—one for each family, who all shared a single kitchen and bathroom. Krivonogikh’s parents moved to Leningrad from the provinces: her mother from the Yaroslavl Oblast, and her father from Saratov. Before the birth of their daughter in 1975, they lived in a different neighborhood, but then received permission to relocate to the communal complex on Gorokhovaya, or as it was then called, Dzerzhinsky Street , as found in an archive database of the residents of Leningrad × . Her mother worked as a painter for a team renovating apartments , according to neighbors × . As for her father, one neighbor recalls only that he had indeed existed, that he drank, and that he had died rather young.
“It was a very simple childhood, ” recalls a friend of Krivonogikh. Her family had no money, and after receiving her high school diploma, Krivonogikh worked for some time as a cleaning lady at a nearby store , continues her friend × . She attended the the University of Economics and Finance and was in the Department of International Economic Relations, but when former classmates were asked to describe her, they simply shrugged their shoulders. “I don’t remember ever seeing her in class, I don’t even remember seeing her at the graduation ceremony, ” said one.
Krivonogikh received her diploma in 2000, which is around the same time that her life began to change dramatically. She and her mother left the apartment on Gorokhovaya Street behind and became the owners of a residence in the most sought-after location in Saint Petersburg. Today, according to Proekt estimates, the Krivonogikh family owns residential real estate in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Sochi with a combined estimated value of around 1.1 billion rubles. When asked to speculate about the Krivonogikhs’ unexpected wellspring of wealth, two former neighbors from Gorokhovaya Street mentioned the fact that in the 90s, Svetlana had a wealthy benefactor. One of them recalled that he was a “member of the Petersburg government, ” the other simply and scathingly refers to him as “Daddy.”
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There is, naturally, no information to be found about Krivonogikh’s benefactor in public documents. However, these documents do reveal the source of her sudden windfall. In the early 2000s, the new graduate obtained stocks in several companies at once, among which the rapidly growing Bank Rossiya stood out.
She began working at the bank in 2001 at the latest , as evidenced by documents procured by Proekt × , and then became a shareholder. In 2001, she registered a company under the playful name “Relax, ” to which she later listed her share in the bank. Public documents are unclear on when exactly Relax obtained this piece of Russia: the first mention of a shareholder with 3.6% only appears in bank documents in 2007. As of the beginning of 2019, the Krivonogikhs had slightly less—about 2.8%, or about 800 million rubles, based on the market value of the bank , or almost 200 million, based on the amount of dividends. How many shares the Krivonogikh’s now own is unknown: the Central Bank decided not to disclose the full structure of the share capital of banks that have come under the sanctions, and Russia itself only publically reports shareholders with a share of more than 5%. However, judging by Relax’s financial reports for 2019, these shares are still registered under the company × .
Bank Rossiya took off during Putin’s presidency, and largely thanks to his efforts. Founded by Leningrad party officials at the end of Perestroika, it operated exclusively in the northwest until 2000, and only opened an office in the capital after Putin was elected, a fact proudly reported to shareholders in the first paragraph of the 2000 report. The burgeoning bank was soon glutted with assets given by the state-owned gas giant Gazprom.
First came the de facto privatization of the SOGAZ insurance group, which was owned by the gas monopoly. “After the  presidential elections, the final decision was made to sell SOGAZ off to a strategic investor. Putin said, ‘Bank Rossiya, period, ’” recalls former Deputy Minister of Energy Vladimir Milov in conversation with Forbes. Just two and a half years after the sale, SOGAZ had brought Bank Rossiya shareholders 7.5 billion in net profit , writes Forbes × . After SOGAZ came the Leader Management Company, through which Bank Rossiya became the co-owner of two more Gazprom assets—Gazprombank and the Gazfond retirement fund.
Exclusive access to state assets ensured enough growth to skyrocket Rossiya into the list of the twenty largest banks in the country in terms of assets. Rossiya assets amount to more than a trillion rubles × . In 2014, immediately after the annexation of Crimea, the bank came under sanctions due to its close ties to Putin. But the president was quick to give his symbolic support, promising that he would open an account with Rossiya in which he would store his salary. “Moreover, the bank, in my opinion, has such a sonorous and symbolic name. It is called Russia, ” he stated at the time.
It is no act of chance that Rossiya took wing in Putin’s Russia: there are no random faces among the list of shareholders, and almost all of them are in one way or another connected to the president. The main owner of the bank, according to public documents, is Putin’s partner from the Ozero Cooperative Yuri Kovalchuk, who owns almost 40% of the shares , these figures are based on the latest available bank statements × . However, Krivonogikh’s story will reveal who is actually in charge at Rossiya.
The Mistress of the Mountain
At the end of January 2011, the Igora Ski Resort in the northern part of the Leningrad Oblast temporarily shut down one of its slopes. Rumor quickly spread among the resort-goers: “Putin is on the mountain.” As he made his way down the slope, the then prime minister was flanked by three guards mimicking his every maneuver, one of which very nearly fell over from his enthusiasm , reports Moskovsky Komsomolets in Petersburg × . Putin truly loved the Igor Resort, located 40 km from the Ozero Dacha Cooperative. He attended the opening of the complex in early 2006 , writes Forbes × , and it was here that his daughter Katerina and the son of his friend Kirill Shamalov celebrated their wedding in 2013 , reports Reuters × .
This resort, so beloved by the president, is owned by the very same Svetlana Krivonogikh. She currently owns 75% of the company Ozon, which manages Igor, as well as owning the land underneath it and the trademark , before this, the ownership structure of the resort changed several times, the Krivonogikh family was periodically listed among the official owners and then removed × . Yuri Kovalchuk and his wife now hold only 25% of the shares, although his bank was the key investor in the resort, whose revenue in 2019 exceeded half a billion rubles.
With support from Rossiya, Krivonogikh came to own another venue—Leningrad Center, located within the Tauride Palace and Gardens in St. Petersburg. In Soviet times, Leningrad Center was home to a movie theater with a panoramic screen, but it was shut down in the early 2000s. The building was later bought up by Kovalchuk, and the tedious reconstruction process began: at first they planned to create a sports center with a go-kart track, then a French-style cabaret, but by 2014, it had become a cultural space where exhibitions and events are held, including the Golden Feather award ceremony for journalistic excellence.
By this time, Krivonogikh had become the main owner of the Leningrad Center with 75% of the shares , this is her share in the company Profit, which owns the building. The leisure center is managed by another body, registered to someone from the SOGAZ subsidiary × . As was the case with the Igor Resort, a quarter of the stocks remained with Kovalchuk. However, they did not completely abandon the idea of building a cabaret: for example, this month, the play Love Sick, hailed as a candid and provocative piece of theater, is being performed at the center.
Waiters deliver free champagne to tables scattered throughout the hall, and ticket prices start at 25 thousand rubles. On stage is an erotic show featuring acrobatics, half-naked satyr dances, and a girl lying in bed dressed only in a negligee. “Each number is like hitting a bare nerve, and is built on contrasts, where there is always a place for sex and rock and roll,” reads the show description. Sex, rock and roll, and exhibitions of contemporary art bring in a little over 100 million rubles in revenue each year.
News sources writing about these properties usually only mention Krivonogikh in passing, viewing her as a close acquaintance of Yuri Kovalchuk. But, as Proekt has discovered, Svetlana may be considerably closer to the president than even Kovalchuk himself.
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On the evening of January 4, 1999, a flight departed from Pulkovo on its way to Moscow. At the head of the plane, in seats 5A and 5B, sat Putin, then the director of the Federal Security Service, and his work acquaintance from Smolny Viktor Zolotov. In front of them, in seat 1B, sat Svetlana Krivonogikh , as evidenced by the Sirena ticket reservation system archive; The Insider also wrote on the topic and referenced a similar database × . Coincidence or not, Krivonogikh bought her ticket seven and eight minutes before Zolotov and Putin, respectively.
At the beginning of the 2000s, Krivonogikh could often be found on flights between St. Petersburg and Moscow , according to data from the Sirena system archive × . Her constant companion was a girl named Dina Tsilevich! , for example, on April 4, 1999, they flew together from the capital to St. Petersburg. They also took the same flight together on November 7, 2000, January 12, 2001, and April 12, 2002*). This is beyond the realm of coincidence, they were clearly friends, bought tickets together and sat side by side. On at least two occasions, they were accompanied by Zolotov.
What was the purpose of these flights? Who were they visiting? It is known that in the late 90s and early 2000s, Tsilevich, the subject of the first part of our investigation, was quite close to Zolotov. This was an interesting period in the life of the man who currently heads the Russian Guard. At first, he may have worked for Roman Tsepov at the very same Baltic Escort , according to two Proekt sources familiar with Tsepov × , and as soon as Putin became the head of state, Zolotov moved to Moscow to head the presidential guard. It was at this moment that the lives of Krivonogikh and Tsilevich became closely intertwined: they flew to Moscow and back together, they both became business owners, and almost simultaneously, they both became mothers. Dina Tsilevich confirmed to Proekt that she has known Krivonogikh for quite some time.
Two sources who know the pair of friends explained the reason why Krivonogikh’sf life took a sudden upswing: she had been close friends with Putin. Their relationship began back in the 90s, before Putin was elected president, and continued into the early 2000s. Somewhere near the end of the last decade, according to Proekt sources, they most likely broke ties. When asked about Krivonogikh, two of Putin’s acquaintances from the 90s reacted strongly—not denying that they had information about her, but blatantly refusing to discuss it, saying, “Maybe I heard something, but I’m not going to talk about it, ” and “I will not comment on that topic.”
The reason for such secretiveness might lie in the fact that Krivonogikh has a daughter who was born in 2003, at the same time when Putin was campaigning for the first election of his career. In copies of documents obtained by Proekt, Elizaveta Krivonogikh’s father is not indicated, and only her patronymic is known: Vladimirovna.
For the past several years, Elizaveta has lived under a different surname and maintains several social media accounts with this alias. Judging by the pictures procured by Proekt, she bears a phenomenal resemblance to the Russian president. Professor Hassan Ugail, Director of the Center for Visual Computing at the University of Bradford in the UK, has come to the same conclusion. According to him, Putin and the younger Krivonogikh share a facial similarity of 70.44% , bear in mind that if this figure exceeds 75%, it means that the pictures are of the same person × . “From this information, we can draw the conclusion that they may be related, ” the professor states in the conclusion made at the behest of our editor’s office.
A fragment from the conclusion of the director of the Center for Visual Analysis of Bradford University, Hassan Ugail, on the similarity between Putin and the daughter of Krivonogikh
Proekt will not publish photos of the underaged Krivonogikh daughter due to ethical constraints. After Svetlana Krivonogikh was questioned by the editorial staff, her daughter deleted most of the pictures where her face was visible from her account.
A steady stream of assets and properties continue to flow into the Krivonogikh family’s hands, which serves as further evidence that these people are very important to the president.
The Krivonogikhs purchased the enormous apartment on Kamenny island in 2004 from a company that, naturally, had connections to Rossiya Bank . The developer of the elite complex was the private corporation BSK-Saint Petersburg, co-owned by Yuri Kovalchuk and Viktor Myachin, another member of the Ozero cooperative. They, along with other company shareholders, are among those who sold the apartment × .
Vladimir Litvinenko, permanent rector of Saint Petersburg Mining University, under whose leadership Putin defended his dissertation, also helped the Krivonogikhs find other housing. The university has several dormitories on Vasilievsky Island, including on the unusually named street, Shkipersky Channel. However, students are not the only ones living in this masterpiece of Stalinist architecture. At the beginning of the 2000s, a company associated with the Mining University became the owner of a number of premises, and then sold them as apartments , the courtyard entrance leading to the apartments is separate from the one leading to the dormitory, affirms Proekt’s correspondent × . Some of them went to the professors, and others to less-than-ordinary citizens such as the family of Roman Tsepov or the mother of Svetlana Krivonogikh.
A little later, Oleg Rudnov, the now deceased owner of the Baltic Media Group, became another benefactor. At one time, he had worked as the director of the St. Petersburg Channel Five, where he became close to Putin during Anatoly Sobchak’s election campaign in 1996 , says an acquaintance of Rudnov × . The Rudnov family did then, and continues to carry out delicate assignments for the president—Rudnov restored the grave of Putin’s grandfather in the Moscow region , explains Rudnov’s acquaintance × , bought the president’s family home in the Tver region , continues Rudnov’s friend and reports Russian news source Sobosednik × , and Rudnov’s son owns a mansion near Vyborg, where the president has supposedly vacationed , reports news source Dozhd × .
In 2006, Rudnov Sr. bought a 200-square-meter apartment and non-residential premises in the most famous spot in St. Petersburg—at the very head of Bolshaya Morskaya Street, next to the Palace Square exit. Both properties went to Krivonogikh in around 2008, after which she opened the Oil Canvas restaurant in the non-residential property , it is difficult to find the exact date of this transition, as between Rudynov and Krivonogikh, ownership was passed to two nameless companies in Cyprus, but as of 2017, the owners of both offshore companies were the very same Krivonogikhs × .
The Krivonogikhs were also helped out by another of Putin’s friends—cellist, godfather to his daughter Maria, and minority shareholder of Rossiya Bank Sergei Roldugin. The Panama Papers revealed that in 2011, a company in the British Virgin Islands with connections to the cellist transferred two loans to the Igor management company in the amount of about 200 million rubles at an astonishingly low interest rate of 1% per annum , writes Novaya Gazeta × .
At that time, the main shareholder of Igor was hidden behind an anonymous offshore company in Cyprus which most likely had ties to the Krivonogikhs. This same shell company helped Svetlana became the owner of a 37-meter Al’doga yacht, which has been spotted at least once docked at Yuri Kovalchuk’s yacht club Laguna on Lake Ladoga , as evidenced by a photo taken by one user on the site “fleetphoto.ru” × . Today, this yacht costs around $5.4 million.
The total value of all property and business assets owned by the Krivonogikh family as discovered by Proekt is estimated at 7.7 billion rubles, or approximately $100 million , What is included in this figure? We have estimated the total real estate value of the Krivonogikh family at around 1.1 billion rubles. The yacht, at the current exchange rate, costs over 400 million rubles. The cost of the Leningrad Center building and the restaurant near the Palace, according to East Real partner Sergei Fedorov, is about 1.2 billion rubles. The Krivonogikhs’ share in Igor and Rossiya Bank, taking into account Igor’s billion-dollar debt, is around 5 billion. In total: 7.7 billion rubles, or $100 million × .
When a Proekt correspondent called Krivonogikh, she said that she was unable to talk at the time, as she was on a train. She promised to call back later, but never did, and Proekt was unable to contact her further. Presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that this was the first time he had heard the name Krivonogikh . Rossiya Bank also did not respond to Project’s request for an interview × .
* * *
The Krivonogikh family can occasionally be seen sailing their yacht down the Neva , she was once photographed at the entrance to the Neva from the Gulf of Finland × . But the strong undercurrents make it impossible for the boat to reach the Kamenny Island property, although there is a dock there for small vessels , affirmed by a Petersburgian yachtsman, who researched the specifications of the Al-doga per Proekt’s request × . Only a select few can reach this pier, as the path from the land is blocked by a chained and locked gate. “No passage,” reads a sign, along with the contact information of a security company associated with Rossiya Bank.
Illustrations the chapters by Anastasia Samokhina