When Lyudmila Putin, 59, divorced Russian President Vladimir Putin and married the director of a Russian non-profit organization, she might have expected that her days of living in opulent luxury were over.
But not so. Reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) have found that, together with her new husband, the former Mrs. Putin owns a mini-palace near the upscale French resort town of Biarritz that could be worth up to €7 million. This is the same seaside region where another member of the family - Katerina Tikhonova, widely reported to be the president’s daughter - has already put down roots.
According to municipal records, this opulent villa - which is undergoing a massive renovation - formally belongs to Artur Ocheretny, a younger man believed to be Lyudmila’s new husband.
There is nothing in Ocheretny’s background that explains how he could have come to own such a prime piece of real estate. Furthermore, the income and asset declarations Lyudmila filed during her marriage to President Putin show only relatively modest sums.
That’s why Artur’s unexpected property raises questions about the undisclosed wealth of Russia’s first family.
A new marriage
The Russian president is notoriously secretive about his family relationships, so journalists must gather information about his private life piece by piece. A year ago, the Russian newspaper Sobesednik marshalled convincing evidence - based on documents showing that she had changed her last name - that, at some point, Putin’s ex-wife had married a man named Artur Ocheretny. The information has never been denied or confirmed by any of the involved parties.
Just this week, the Russian website Starhit published a series of photos of Lyudmila with Ocheretny at Heathrow Airport in London.
At 39, Artur Ocheretny, is almost 20 years younger than his new wife.
Given his employment history, it’s likely the two have known each other for some time. Between 2003 and 2008, Ocheretny was the general director of an event agency, Art-Show Center, which organized events for large clients, including some with government connections. Among them were state-owned giants like Gazprom and Transneft as well as political entities like the governing United Russia party and the government-aligned All-Russia People’s Front.
The agency’s clients also included a non-profit organization, the Center for the Development of Interpersonal Communications, which was founded in 2000 by people close to Putin.
Since its founding, the Center has been strongly associated with Lyudmila Putina - now known as Lyudmila Ocheretnaya - who is widely known to be its unofficial patron. Even as Russia’s first lady, she rarely attended public events. After divorcing the president she practically disappeared from the public sphere, mostly emerging only to attend events organized by the Center.
Her husband, Artur, became the Center’s director in 2010.
In December 2013 - just six months after Lyudmila made public her divorce from president Putin - Ocheretny bought his villa in the south of France. The house near Biarritz, in a little seaside town called Anglet, is not far from another villa owned by the husband of Katerina Tikhonova, who is widely reported to be Vladimir Putin’s daughter.
“Souzanna” or “Reverie”
Anglet is on southwestern France’s Atlantic coast, between Biarritz and Bayonne. Guide books praise the sandy beaches and pine forests that surround the town. The Art Deco villa which now belongs to Ocheretny was built in 1927 and is locally known as “Souzanna.”
According to planning documents, the villa is called “Reverie” by its new owner.
In 2013, the real estate publication Le Figaro Properties published a photo of the villa in an advertisement that also described some of the home’s interior details: marble floors, original chandeliers and moldings, and a bas-relief by twin French sculptors Jan and Joël Martel that decorates the villa’s semicircular porch.
The villa of 450 square meters has four bedrooms, a living room, and a dining room with a terrace, and a space to play billiards. It is surrounded by a spacious private park of 5,000 square meters with an outdoor pool and a music pavilion. In the words of a city administration staffer, the villa is “very special.”
The Figaro Properties advertisement lists the home’s price at between €6 and €7 million. Meanwhile, an evaluation of the property in municipal documents obtained by reporters lists its price at nearly €5.4 million.
But it’s clear that the villa’s new owners are ready to spend more. In February 2015 they filed a request with the municipal authorities for a major upgrade which was approved three months later - the house is currently enclosed in scaffolding.
The project’s architect, Luc Vaichère, told OCCRP that he is not in contact with the villa’s owner, saying that he communicates with them through lawyers. “We keep the spirit of the building and we develop the comforts in(side) the house,” is all he wanted to say about the villa’s reconstruction.
As far as can be discerned through publicly available information, there is nothing in Artur Ocheretny’s background that explains how he could afford to purchase and renovate such a fine home. That’s why his purchase at about the same time that he married President Putin’s ex-wife suggests a connection between the two events - and why it raises questions about her official declarations of income.
Until mid-2013, while she was married to President Putin, Lyudmila was obliged by Russian law to declare her property and income. But she never declared much. According to her filings, she earned just 121,000 rubles (US$ 3,800) during the whole of 2012, the year before the villa was purchased. In 2011, she declared 424,000 rubles ($14,000), and in 2009 she declared just 582 rubles ($18). In the 2010 declaration - a pre-election year during which the reporting requirements were stricter - her filings showed savings of 8 million rubles ($270,000). The Putin family’s declared property - consisting of two apartments, a plot of land, a garage, and three cars - remained with her husband, President Putin, after their divorce. At least, they did not disappear from his declaration afterwards.
Not an oligarch
If the former Mrs. Putin’s declarations are accurate, the money for the French villa must have come from her new husband.
But Artur Ocheretny is hardly a successful businessman. According to “Spark-Interfax,” a database of public records, Ocheretny has been registered as the owner of three companies, all of which are now liquidated. Judging by the publically available data, none of the businesses succeeded.
One of them, KA-Building, was, according to the tax registry, engaged in plastering work. The firm was founded in 2007 and went bankrupt in 2013, at which point it had about 3,800 rubles (about $120) on its accounts (and owed around 230,000 rubles, or around $7,300, to its creditors). According to the report of the bankruptcy administrator, it conducted no business after 2011.
Another of Ocheretny’s companies, Expodrome, which was founded in 2004 to trade in seafood, last filed an accounting report to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service in 2007. At that time, its net profit was 169,000 rubles ($ 6,650) with a yearly revenue of 10.5 million rubles ($410,000). In 2013, the company was liquidated by order of the tax authorities because it had conducted no activity for over a year.
His third company, Funtein-Express, closed in 2014 - once again, by order of the tax authorities. In effect, the company had been dormant since 2013. Its last accounting report to the statistics service was dated 1999.
Ocheretny held and continues to hold leadership positions in several Russian companies. From 2003 through 2008 he was the general director of Art-Show Center, a Moscow-based event agency with multiple government clients. This business - unlike Ocheretny’s own - was somewhat more successful, though it was not large.
In 2007, when Ocheretny was its director, Art-Show Center netted 527,000 rubles (about $21,000) in profit with revenue of 58.2 million rubles ($2,290,000). In 2006, it made just 12,000 rubles ($420).
According to Superjob, a Russian job site, the average salary of a top general director begins at 200,000 rubles ($3,560) per month. But not long ago, Art-Show Center was seeking a general director on the web site hh.ru with an offer of just 100,000 rubles ($1,780).
In 2010, Ocheretny left the for-profit world for good. In August of that year he took up the leadership of the Center for the Development of Interpersonal Communications.
Not a child of privilege
According to French documents pertaining to the villa which were obtained by OCCRP, Ocheretny was born in Lyubertsy, a working-class town near Moscow. His father, Sergei Ocheretny, was the co-owner of one of his son’s liquidated companies. Another person who shows up in records is Lyudmila Ivanovna Ocheretnaya, likely Artur’s mother. (Her name and Artur’s appear in documents pertaining to a Lyubertsy apartment). That apartment may be where Ocheretny spent his youth. It is situated close to the regular state school he attended, about which he has posted on his Facebook page.
No other companies were registered in the name of either Ocheretny’s mother or his father.
A local attraction
Particularly in light of these modest beginnings, Ocheretny’s villa leaves an impression. It’s situated in a quiet part of Anglet, away from the main waterfront, in a part of town that is surrounded by golf courses. This is a place where wealthy people spend their retirement years.
“We’re all retired now,” says Bernard, a local pensioner who lives next door to Ocheretny’s villa. “Some have saved for a grand villa. Others, like me, got their homes by inheritance.”
Bernard is well-aware of the famous home’s new owners. “This is a local attraction. It’s Art Deco!” he says. “The villa belonged to some French family since forever ago, but they hardly ever came here and a few years ago they sold it. And the buyer is Putin’s ex-wife, we all know this here,” he says, unaware that the house is formally registered to Ocheretny.
“I don’t know how [this is known],” he says. “But you have to understand, this is a provincial place. Everyone knows everything about everyone.”
Bernard has never seen Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, but he says that the local mailman has met her. “She came in a car, and there was a young man with her - attractive, a bit ooh-la-la,” he says, retelling the story. “The mailman thought this might have been her bodyguard.”
According to Bernard, the repairs on the villa have been on hold for about a month. And indeed, a visiting OCCRP reporter saw that the house was empty. There were no workers on the site.
Bernard is afraid that the Ocheretnys may have run out of money and that the famous villa will remain half-renovated - maybe that it will eventually collapse. Several other neighbors voiced the same concerns to an OCCRP reporter.
But it seems likely that the money will come.
Lyudmila’s “non-profit” center
Since her divorce from the president - and despite its status as a non-profit organization - the Center for the Development of Interpersonal Communications appears to have become an important source of income for Lyudmila Ocheretnaya.
The Center, which is believed to have been associated with her since the early 2000s, and which her new husband Artur now heads, appears to make serious money in various areas: In hosting lectures, in professional qualification programs, in book publishing, and especially in real estate.
Among the Center’s most widely advertised activities are “projects on popularizing and renewing the professional role of school librarians.” It holds courses on raising the qualifications of librarians at 3900 rubles ($70) per course.
True to its name, the Center also hosts paid trainings on how to develop “mature communication” skills, for which attendees pay from 500 to 2000 rubles ($9 to $36) per session.
But a much more lucrative line of business appears to be real estate. Since 2005, the Center has owned an old building in Moscow. Of its 7,500 square meters, 5,200 are in long-term rental to Meridian, a company which since September 2014 belongs to Lyudmila Shkrebneva (Lyumdila Ocheretnaya’s maiden name).
Meridian itself rents this space out. According to the firm’s advertising, which list an average price of 35,000 rubles per square meter per year, its income from the property could yield it up to 183 million rubles ($3,250,000) per year.
The Center also receives government assistance. In 2015, the Moscow city government gave the organization a grant of 62 million rubles ($935,000) to “create the conditions for effective communication in society.” It has also received funds from state corporations. In 2012, according to its annual report, a subsidiary of Russian Railways granted the Center 25 million rubles ($800,000) in unspecified “assistance.”
The Ministry of Justice website has no annual financial reports from the foundation, as is required by law of all nonprofits, so it is not possible to ascertain all of its donors.
So where’s the money?
Lyudmila didn’t declare it. Artur didn’t appear to have it. And yet the money for the villa must have come from somewhere.
The details are, as yet, unknowable. But part of the explanation may lie in previous reporting on how the Putin family conceals its wealth. In 2016, OCCRP and Novaya Gazeta reported that the Panama Papers - a leak of thousands of documents obtained from an offshore services provider - revealed how Vladimir Putin’s childhood friend, a musician who has never openly run a business, concealed billions of dollars in undeclared assets through palaces, investments, and shares in strategic enterprises.
If, indeed, Artur Ocheretny’s purchase of the French villa was made possible by funds from the Putin family, these hidden structures may be the reason they have remained undisclosed.
Artur Ocheretny did not respond to multiple requests for comment.