By Jake Bernstein, Petra Blum, Oliver Zihlmann, David Thompson, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer
In this story
- According to analysis, as much as $2 billion has been secretly shuffled through banks and shadow companies linked to Putin’s associates
- Bank Rossiya, identified by the U.S. as Putin’s personal cashbox, has been instrumental in building a network of offshore companies
- Dozens of loans, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, sold between offshore companies for as little as $1 or less
Vladimir Putin and Sergey Roldugin forged a bond as young men. Fast friends, almost like brothers, they cruised the streets of Leningrad, singing and, in Putin’s case, occasionally getting into fistfights.
As Putin rose to power as Russia’s supreme leader and Roldugin made a name for himself as a classical cellist and conductor, the two remained close. Roldugin has performed for Putin and high-profile guests at the president’s official residence and has given media interviews that softened Putin’s fearsome image.
Now a leak of secret documents reveals another, hidden side of their friendship.
The records show Roldugin is a behind-the-scenes player in a clandestine network operated by Putin associates that has shuffled at least $2 billion through banks and offshore companies, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media partners has found.
In the documents, Roldugin is listed as the owner of offshore companies that have obtained payments from other companies worth tens of millions of dollars. A company linked to the cellist also grabbed secret influence over Russia’s largest truck maker, another snagged a big slice of Russia’s TV advertising industry.
It’s possible Roldugin, who has publicly claimed not to be a businessman, is not the true beneficiary of these riches. Instead, the evidence in the files suggests Roldugin is acting as a front man for a network of Putin loyalists – and perhaps for Putin himself.
Roldugin did not respond to detailed questions. Reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an ICIJ partner, met briefly with the musician after a concert in Moscow last week. Roldugin told them he needed more time to review the questions and determine what he could say.
About 100 financial deals related to the network are described in the leaked documents. They are complex. Payments are disguised in various ways. On paper, shares in companies are swapped back and forth in a day. Documents are backdated. Questionable financial penalties are assessed. The rights to multimillion-dollar loans are sold between offshore companies for $1.
In almost every instance, the result is the same: money and power moves in the direction of the network, to companies and people allied to Putin. The network’s covert deals allowed it to receive money in a variety of ways including hundreds of millions of dollars in sweetheart loans from a bank controlled by the Russian government.