Three winters ago, a carpenter from the forest-rich Russian region of Karelia embarked on an ambitious snowshoeing expedition. In the third week of his trip, while making his way through the snow-capped trees bordering the shores of Lake Ladoga, he stopped to chat with some local fishermen.
He was startled by an unusual structure that saw him permeate the gray-and-white landscape across the ice, and wondered aloud about the “recreation center” of unusual shape.
The building was a far cry from the usual modest wooden huts built by the locals. Its wooden walls were tapered and curved in all directions, interrupted by large panes of glass.
The fishermen laughed. They said the building was known to everyone around the lake as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “dacha” – the Russian word for a holiday cottage – and they were surprised the carpenter didn’t know about it.
Curious to take a closer look, he crossed the frozen doorway on his boots, passed the house, and continued on. There were also other buildings in the area, including a traditional Russian sauna – one of the security guards stopped it. “I caught him by Albania,” he said on his walkie-talkie.
The guard told the carpenter that he was trespassing on private property and they took him to a security center, where his passport information was copied.
When he asked if the house was really Putin’s house, the guard remained silent. But the strangeness of the encounter made the carpenter convinced that he had stumbled upon a place used by the chief.
“From the hunters to the guards, everyone had that special look, as if you knew a strange secret and couldn’t help but tell,” he recalls.
The strange secret of “Fisherman’s Hut” – as the house was once named on the website of the architecture firm that designed it – has also been investigated in several media reports, beginning with a revelation by Dozhd TV network in 2016 that first linked a structure to the Russian president.
DZD found that the building and the surrounding land belonged to several companies owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, a close ally of Putin and a major shareholder in the Bank of Russia, nicknamed “Putin’s Bank” because of its reputation for serving the interests of the president.
OCCRP found that these companies also had another connection. It is associated with an email domain, LLCInvest.ru, which unites dozens of companies associated with members of Putin’s inner circle. The domain is hosted by a web provider that has close ties to the Bank of Russia. And the companies that use them have billions of dollars in assets tied to Putin, including Fisherman’s Hut.
OCCRP obtained thousands of leaked emails from two construction companies responsible for developing the land around the building. Their correspondence shows how LLCInvest companies work together.
The land around the “Putin House” is owned by three different companies whose managers use the LLCInvest.ru domain – Prime, Onega and Master – as well as one individual, Mikhail Dedov, who also uses the LLCInvest email. But the actual construction of the complex was directed by employees of a shadowy nonprofit organization, Reviving Maritime Traditions.
From the outside, this nonprofit organization has no formal or legal affiliation with the Karelian properties, and nothing in its annual reports indicates that its work includes running a vacation home. The only obvious relationship with other companies is that they are also associated with the LLCInvest.ru domain.
Other assets linked to Putin — including a vast palace on the Black Sea and another holiday villa in northwest Russia — are also run by companies using LLCInvest emails that appear unrelated to the real estate itself.
fire and water
The leaked emails also included floor plans, blueprints, interior design plans and other materials that provide previously undisclosed details of the stunning luxury of the Fisherman’s Hut complex, which is growing to include more than just the distinctive wooden structure featured in the media.
Satellite images show that construction of the stunning main house was already in full swing by April 2011. Designed by architectural studio Evgeny Mercuryev, the building was completed by August 2012 and won numerous awards for its design.
But the owners of this land overlooking the Gulf did not stop at just one “hut”. In 2013, construction of another structure began on the site. It was entered into the Russian Land Registry in 2018 as a “barn”, but judging by the lavish schemes acquired by OCCRP, its residents are definitely not cows.
The futuristic two-storey building features vast interior and exterior spaces that seem designed for entertaining. The spacious, open-plan dining area is over 200 square metres, separated by a glass partition from a restaurant-style kitchen where guests can watch the chefs at work using barbecue equipment, tandoor, Japanese-style teepee and smoke.
An architect’s view of the “barn” – in fact a luxurious suite that appears to be designed for entertaining.
The house also has its own brewery. It is stocked with €345,000 worth of Austrian brewing equipment that can produce 47 liters of beer per day.
On the second floor of the building there is a tea room with stunning views of Lake Ladoga. On the other side, a glass wall overlooks the brewery.
Next to the building are two small swimming pools. From the house, a small path leads to a natural waterfall that flows into the bay, where there is a cozy secluded gazebo. The waterfall used to be a popular tourist attraction, but the area is now off-limits to the public.
It is difficult to estimate the cost of this custom-built facility, but one document showed that in June 2015, the cost of general construction work alone – excluding furniture, interiors or lighting – was estimated to cost 187 million rubles (about $3.5 million at the time).
Fresh ingredients for a spacious kitchen
Most of the adjacent land was classified as farmland until the fisherman’s hut was built, and is still used largely for agriculture.
Next to Fisherman’s Hut is a trout farm. A local told OCCRP that you can buy live trout directly from the hands of the security guard at the dacha – if important guests are not on the premises, of course.
The site has also grown to include a cattle ranch where calves are raised to produce Cuban meat. But beef appears to be a more expensive commodity than trout – none of the locals OCCRP interviewed remembered being able to buy it.
OCCRP reporters were able to reach the manager of the company that owns the farms. He said he knew nothing of the private villas that surrounded him – and had no idea that the final owners of the company, and some of the surrounding estate, were Kovalchuk and his wife.
“Kovalchuk?” “Where am I, and where is the Kovalchox? I can tell you about the trout and the beauty of the Karelia region,” he asked in astonishment.
In 2021, a separate building containing a two-story 600-square-foot professional kitchen was added to the property. The first floor houses places to store and prepare fish, meat and vegetables, with areas for baking and cold and hot meals. The second floor appears to house the kitchen staff, and has four modest bedrooms with pull-out beds.
The area is still under development. In April 2021, activists from a group advocating for public access to coasts reported that a new road to the property had been built in Ladoga Skeri National Park, and large-scale logging was underway.
In the summer of 2021, construction of a new house began in the area, also facing Lake Ladoga, according to documents in the leaked emails. (It is not clear if it has been completed.)
Although it has the modest name of “Garden House”, the project is grandiose, with interiors made of semi-precious stones such as lapis labradorite and labradorite. Large floor area covered in $110,000 Fior di Bosco marble.
Designed for the interior of the Garden House, it features a brass console topped with labradorite.
Plumbing fixtures in each of the home’s six bathrooms are expected to cost more than 3 million rubles (about $46,000). The price of one bidet faucet is 700,000 rubles ($10,800), while the price of a shower handle is estimated at 300,000 rubles (more than $4,600).
On the ground floor of the Garden House there are six bedrooms, each with a private bathroom and a dressing room. In the center of the building, the indoor pool comes with its own decorative waterfall that flows from the first floor of the house.
Three architects interviewed by OCCRP described the interior design as “excellent” and “luxury”.
Someone said, “You can only build such a project with an unlimited budget.”
Another said, “The whole house is covered with semi-precious stones – the basin is made of stone.” Another said, “For me, it’s the same class as a golden toilet.”
According to the leaked documents, the high-end Russian interior design agency FullHouseDesign is leading the project. The owner of the company told OCCRP that she did not remember any such engagement, but contested the idea that the marble floors were too expensive.
“If you look at our website, there are many projects where we use marble floors, as any other respected architectural agency would.”
She said she could not comment on the cost that might be in the Garden House. But the price calculator on the FullHouseDesign website indicates that the minimum cost will be about 12 million rubles (about 188 thousand dollars) for design work alone.
When asked to respond to OCCRP’s findings on LLCInvest companies, including those that own and operate Fisherman’s Hut, the Kremlin replied only: “The President of the Russian Federation is not connected or affiliated in any way with the assets and organizations you mentioned.”
Locals told OCCRP that the entire bay is usually accessible by road, but is blocked by a barrier manned by federal protection officers when VIPs visit. Local social media groups sometimes post warnings about closures.
“Locals serve there as rangers only when the site is empty,” a local fisherman told OCCRP. “When high-ranking guests visit, locals are usually replaced by FSO [federal protection service]. ”
Some said that even when the bay is open, the large numbers of security cameras on the beach are discouraging visitors.
One said, “It’s scary.”
Meanwhile, in the Karelia region, the average monthly salary in December 2021 was 64 thousand rubles ($ 860) – significantly less than the cost of one shower handle in the Garden House bathroom. However, a local who spoke to OCCRP said he had no problem with Darsha or her owner.
“I just don’t like it when the road to the bay is closed,” he said.
Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID. Information validation was provided by the OCCRP Office of Fact Check.