Not far from the mansion outside Gelendzhik that opposition politician Alexey Navalny and others have identified as a massive private residence built for Vladimir Putin, there used to be a children’s summer camp called “Golden Vine.” Several years ago, the camp was sold to a company owned by the president’s friends that is itself affiliated with “Putin’s palace.” According to a new investigative report by the news outlet Proekt, construction crews are now busy building luxury cottages on the former campgrounds.
Located on the Black Sea coast near Gelendzhik in the town of Praskoveyevka, the Golden Vine summer camp first opened in 1968. Originally named “Golden Meadows,” it was a recreation center for the “Specialized Scientific Research Institute for Instrumentation Engineering” (SNIIP), which was later folded into Russia’s State Nuclear Energy Corporation. When it was still active, the camp welcomed more than 2,000 children every summer.
“The first rumors that they were building a dacha for Putin nearby started in 2009 or 2010. It began when the vineyards showed up. They were constantly patrolled and they were right next to our soccer field. We had to be careful to keep the ball from landing over there,” Sophia Bragina, who spent her childhood summers at Golden Vine, told Proekt.
A former Golden Vine counselor (whose name Proekt has not released) says uniformed officers started stopping both campers and counselors in the forest near the camp, beginning in 2013 and 2014. In 2017, officers arrested the camp’s physical education teacher during his morning jog through the forest. He was escorted to a local police station and questioned until the evening. (Ecologists say agents from the Federal Protective Service and Federal Security Service have guarded the forest in the area since at least 2004.)
A company called “Lazurnaya Yagoda” owns the vineyards that appeared near Golden Vine. Today, the winery belongs to two businessmen with ties to President Putin: billionaire Gennady Timchenko and Vladimir Kolbin, the son of Putin’s childhood friend Petr Kolbin. In his investigative report released earlier this year, Alexey Navalny argued that Lazurnaya Yagoda is one of the firms involved in the construction of “Putin’s palace,” owning multiple vineyards, a chateau, and an oyster farm in the area.
In 2017, Lazurnaya Yagoda bought the Golden Vine campgrounds from SNIIP at an initial bidding price of 66 million rubles ($895,280). Without explanation, SNIIP had announced and canceled auctions to sell the campground on four previous occasions. When the institute put the property on the market for the first time, the sole bid came from businessman Dmitry Yuzhik, who wanted to transform the site into a children’s resort.
Proekt speculates that Lazurnaya Yagoda spent nearly a million dollars to acquire the campgrounds because the facility wedges into the company’s vineyards and abuts the guarded forest near the president’s supposed private mansion. “Maybe the palace’s owners needed the campsite so they could own everything around the perimeter, and so no soccer balls landed in their fields,” wrote Proekt journalist Olga Churakova.
Soon after Lazurnaya Yagoda acquired the site, demolition crews began knocking down the first camp buildings, despite objections from former camp workers and the parents of children who once attended Golden Vine. Critics complained to Gelendzhik town officials and even addressed a petition on Change.org to President Putin, amassing more than a thousand signatures. It didn’t help.
One construction worker told Proekt anonymously that the former campgrounds are now home to four nearly completed luxury cottages, one of which features a “VIP theater” that accommodates small groups of 8–10 people. “Everything inside is marble. You can only walk around in socks. The site is constantly being rebuilt. The owners are never satisfied and everything is demolished and reassembled a million times over. Even with the coronavirus, we never stopped,” said Proekt’s source.
The same work crews busy building and remodeling Vladimir Putin’s supposed residence outside Gelendzhik are also apparently responsible for transforming what used to be Golden Vine. Proekt’s source says the construction sites are all interconnected and known informally to workers by different codenames. The Federal Protective Service has checkpoints leading into the grounds, Proekt’s source says, and crew members are told they’ll be fired for using a mobile phone while on the job.
Summary by Olga Korelina
Translation by Kevin Rothrock