Meet the Russian Cellist Behind Putin’s Alleged Offshore Fortune

8 minute read

Nearly 40 years of close friendship with Vladimir Putin have taken their toll on the nerves of Sergei Roldugin, a noted Russian cellist and composer. When he gives a concert in Moscow these days, he once complained that his bodyguards have to stand backstage, making sure no one can approach Roldugin to ask for a favor from the Russian President.

“I’m terribly afraid of questions about Putin,” Roldugin confided to an interviewer in 2014. “I’m a musician. I can’t and don’t want to ask Volodya to help anyone,” he added, using a pet name for the Russian leader. “I’ve been offered any number of things in exchange for such services. I’ve been offered airplanes! It’s pointless.”

Their relationship does, however, seem to have its perks. According to secret documents published on Sunday as part of what could be the biggest information leak in history, Roldugin is at the center of an intricate and long-running scheme to move more than $2 billion through a network of offshore bank accounts and companies. The documents, which were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the BBC, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news organizations, suggest that Putin may have used Roldugin as a front man to hide and manage his fortune.

The Kremlin denies this. About a week before the leak became public, Putin’s spokesman warned Russian news agencies about an imminent “information attack” against the President that would implicate Roldugin as well. “All of this information, of course, does not correspond to reality,” said the spokesman, Dmitri Peskov.

Read More: What to Know About the ‘Panama Papers’ Leak

Still, the trove of documents seems to show a money trail that runs through Russian state banks, Swiss and Panamanian law firms and, ultimately, to companies wholly or partly owned by Putin’s closest friends and associates—most intriguingly Roldugin. But though the Panama Papers are more detailed than previous reports of Putin’s alleged wealth, the documents aren’t likely to have much of an impact on Russian politics, says Kirill Kabanov, a member of the Kremlin’s human rights council who focuses on issues of corruption. “We’ve heard all these stories a thousand times before,” he tells TIME by phone from Moscow. “To most Russians, it’s just not interesting. People here assume that folks with political connections earn money, and there’s no law against that. So I think this will blow over in a day or so.”

But the new details about Roldugin’s finances will likely follow the cellist for longer than that. According to the Guardian newspaper, which was among the dozens of news organizations around the world to publish reports based on the leaked documents on Sunday, Roldugin has “ostensible control” of assets worth more than $100 million. He has a 12.5% stake in Russia’s biggest TV advertising firm, Video International, and a 3.2% stake in Bank Rossiya, which U.S. authorities have described as the bank catering to Putin’s inner circle. (In an apparently unrelated case that police are still investigating, the founder of Video International, Mikhail Lesin, a former minister of information in Putin’s government, was found dead in November in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., with signs of blunt force trauma to the head.)

Read More: Here Are the International Figures Tied to the ‘Panama Papers’ Leak

Elena Panfilova, the head of the Russian office of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog, says Roldugin’s role in the financial scheme is a sign of its legal sophistication. In order to prove a definitive link between Putin and any kind of financial assets, investigators would need to show that those assets belong to a person “affiliated” with Putin. In most countries, the legal concept of an “affiliated person” applies mostly to close relatives and business associates. But it would not apply to the less formal ties that bind Putin to Roldugin. “So the cellist was apparently chosen because it would be very difficult to define him as a person legally affiliated with Putin,” Panfilova says.

At the same time, Roldugin is someone the President clearly trusts. He is the godfather of Putin’s elder daughter, Maria, and he introduced Putin to the woman he would later marry. In a rare interview in 2014, Roldugin told the culture section of a local Russian newspaper, the Evening Kazan, about the night that he and Putin met during a romp in Leningrad in 1977.

At the time, Roldugin was serving out his mandatory military service at a base in that city, which is Putin’s hometown. Roldugin’s older brother, Evgeny, was a young KGB agent at the time, and he had studied in the same class as Putin at the KGB’s prestigious Academy of the Red Banner. So when Roldugin moved to Leningrad to serve in the army, his brother gave him Putin’s phone number, suggesting they get to know each other. “In truth, my acquaintance with Putin had a slightly criminal tinge,” Roldugin joked in the interview.

Read More: Massive Leak Ties Vladimir Putin Associates to $2 Billion Offshore Fortune

One day, he decided to sneak out of his barracks, climbed a fence to escape the base and called the phone number his brother had given him. Soon Putin pulled up in an old Soviet clunker, a Zaporozhets car with no muffler, and picked up the runaway soldier for a night on the town. “We drove around all night. We sang songs,” he recalled in the interview. “We took such pleasure in singing! Volodya has a wonderful ear.”

Like many of Putin’s old friends from Leningrad, Roldugin’s fortunes improved dramatically after Putin became president in 2000. Six years later, the cellist founded an opulent concert venue known as the Hall of Music in St. Petersburg, as the city of Leningrad is called today. It is situated in the former palace of Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, on the embankment of the Moyka River, and Roldugin has admitted that he could never have opened such an extravagant hall without Putin’s help. “Volodya approved this idea of mine and really, really helped to realize it,” he told the Evening Kazan.

Since the leaked documents shed light on some of Roldugin’s other undertakings, he has not responded to requests for comment, though when reporters from Novaya Gazeta asked him last week about the offshore companies, he told them:

Guys, honestly, I can’t comment at this time. I have to take a look and find out what I can say and what I can’t. I understand the topic is serious. Do you do business or not? Where’s the money from? Whose are they? I know all this. This is all delicate.

Since then the Kremlin and its news outlets have issued truculent denials on his behalf. Virtually all state-run media in Russia reported Monday on the start of the “information attack” that Putin’s spokesman warned about last week, mostly ignoring the details of the revelations and not mentioning Roldugin’s name.

One national network, Channel 5, kicked off its morning news bulletin this way: “Western journalists have begun their latest attempt to attack Russia with information.” The news anchor then informed viewers that, “They have not presented a single document that would directly implicate the President. It’s all hints and assumptions, as we’ve seen more than once before.”

That was at least partly accurate; Putin’s name does not appear in any of the more than 11.5 million leaked documents. “They’re not that stupid,” says Panfilova of Transparency International. “You have to remember that the people behind these schemes have enormous resources, the best lawyers and consultants. They know how to do their job.” So even if the trove of documents does serve to confirm some of the rumors of wealth and financial subterfuge that have surrounded Putin’s circle of friends for years, it is not likely to lead to any criminal investigations, least of all in Putin’s Russia.

For that to happen, the laws that govern the world’s financial flows would first have to change, says Alexandra Wrage, the president of the anti-corruption advocacy group Trace International. “There is currently nothing inherently illegal about taking advantage of the tax benefits and privacy that offshore accounts provide,” she says in an email to TIME. And that, in essence, is what Putin’s friends appear to have done. Whether they did so at the President’s behest, or in the service of his own financial interests, will probably remain a mystery.

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