Until last November, Elizaveta “Luiza” Krivonogikh–exact age unknown, but reportedly born in 2003–had a pouty, moderately bling-y Instagram feed much like those of many thousands of nouveau-riche young ladies from around the world who have been kitted out by their parents with flashy designer wear and selfie sticks. They—the children of the moneyed and/or ruling elite from Guinea Bissau to Tokyo to Los Angeles–are members of a global cult that poses to become, in a foggy, inchoate-adolescent way, pop-culture icons, or at least leading acolytes thereof, in thrall to various fashion brands. Elizaveta Krivonogikh was one of this young phalanx from St. Petersburg. But Luiza brings a little something extra to her posse. Her father is reported to be Russia’s apparent president-for-life, Vladimir Putin .
That the Russian president would have what in the West might be called “a blended family” is not earth-shattering news. He’s well and truly divorced from his former wife and the mother of his two older daughters, Lyudmilla Putinova, and is as free as any bird who has ruled the Kremlin for two decades can be, which may or may not be all that free. Ironically, the Russian authorities’ arrest of crucial opposition figure Alexei Navalny after he stepped off the plane in Moscow from his five-months convalescence in Berlin from Novichok poisoning, and last weekend’s resultant, massive demonstrations, have proceeded to toss Elizaveta’s Instagram feed, along with the identities of several other alleged members of Putin’s extended family, into the blaze of international scrutiny as never before.
More demonstrations are planned, and are underway at this writing. Navalny remains in custody. The situation hangs in a fiery balance, and it’s only going to get hotter for everybody, very much including for the seemingly rock-solid Russian administration.
On Luiza Krivonogikh’s Instagram feed, shots from which were strewn last fall liberally through various publications in Europe after she was outed, Ms. Krivonogikh had posted a shot of herself in her in her jeans, with, significantly, the double-headed Romanov eagle embroidered on the right rear pocket; another shot of herself as she sat on a bench in a travel moment in, one assumed from the caption, London; and a third cropped shot of her crossed ankles in a pair of presumably pricey jet-black gladiator-strapped stillettos, positioned improbably next to a fancy bath, and at least one, for Instagram anyway, obligatory smoky-eyed selfie.
The point is a well-known one, namely, that these epigrammatic mise-en-scene moments on this particular platform work as a pretend-grownup narrative frame, prosecuted with great success by actual grown-up actors, singers, politicians, as well as by teeny-boppers such as Elizaveta.
So far, so good. From what has been reported in Russia, Ms Krivonogikh’s Instagram feed was breathtaking only in its ordinariness. Except: The Instagram account was led and fed under an assumed name.
One generation above these adolescent self-projections, the biography of Elizaveta’s mom, Svetlana Krivonogikh, was attracting a more technical level of attention from an enterprising collective of Russian journalists known as Проект (translation: Project). Last November, they published their deeper spade work into the colorful and very well-heeled life of Svetlana Krivonogikh, which included, as a by-product, an analysis of her daughter’s curious Instagram feed. To the Project journalists, the elder Ms. Krivonogikh had become a person of interest in the same way that, for the past three decades of Russia’s pronounced robber-baron phase of capitalist exercise, many Russians of largely opaque professional and personal qualifications suddenly came into staggering fortunes.
Luiza Krivonogikh’s mother Svetlana, now 47, a former cleaning lady from extremely modest St. Petersburg roots, had reportedly experienced a sudden uptick in financial prospects in the late 1990s and early Aughts, suddenly coming into possession of a string of luxury flats, a minority stake in Bank Rossiya, a yacht, a majority stake in the Igora ski resort favored by the current president of the country, and a multipurpose commercial building downtown St. Pete. All in all, the Krivonogikh fortune was estimated by the Project journalists to be in the range of 7.7 billion rubles, or about $100 million.
One other detail: Svetlana’s daughter Elizaveta, who was born in 2003, has no identifiable father, according to the Project journalists. But her given patronymic — the official middle name in Russia, signifying the first name of her father — is Vladimirovna. As Project published its piece, Elizaveta Vladimirovna Krivonogikh’s social media sites were reportedly stripped of shots showing her face, which, from the screenshots published in November, strongly resembles that of her putative father. Absent a DNA test or a statement from one of her parents, none of which is very likely forthcoming, we’ll just have to live with the winnowing ambiguity in Luiza’s case.
For the Kremlin’s part, the Project journalists report the following terse response: “Presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that this was the first time he had heard the name Krivonogikh.”
All this garnered predictably scant attention in the West last November, obsessed as it was with the then-uncertain aftermath of the US elections.
Enter Alexei Navalny, who has not been idle during his months-long convalescence in Berlin from his Novichok poisoning last summer in Russia, to give the narrative of Svetlana and Luiza Krivonogikh and Luiza’s storied, putative father some push. As soon as he physically could, Navalny and his team set to work producing his two-hour video, released on January 19, detailing the labyrinthine maze of finances surrounding a massive Black Sea villa that, according to Navalny’s paper trail, has been built by a network of oligarchs at the behest of the Russian president. To date, the video has drawn some 90 million views.
The production is a bold, rollercoaster affair, laced with satire and occasional bursts of shtick, but there is no mistaking Navalny’s seriousness within his locomotive-like delivery as presenter. He opens the film by narrating outside Putin’s former flat in a prefabricated concrete apartment building, perched just a short walk from the cliffs over the River Elbe in Dresden, not far from the former Soviet Army barracks and the KGB villa in which he, Putin, worked from 1984-89. In a riveting “by-the-time-you-are-watching-this” segment, Navalny explains that the video will only be released after his return to Russia, so that its import cannot be undermined by the accusation that he, Navalny, released it while in the (relative) safety of Germany.
Put another way, the video is Navalny’s opening move in this first round of post-Novichok chess that the opposition stalwart is playing against his nemesis, and this time, Navalny’s message is, it’s going to get personal. Portentously, the video is entitled Дворец для Путина, which translates as: Palace For Putin.
After identifying several of Putin’s cohort from his salad days in Dresden — and in the newly-renamed St. Petersburg of the early Nineties, as the young former KGB officer joined the mayor’s office — Navalny diagrams the main players as they cooperate with Putin for lucrative city and state contracts. He then proceeds to take us on an actual (drone) tour and a virtual (3D) tour of the villa in question on its bluff above the Black Sea.
This central segment of the production is what we might term the prurient, real-estate-porn of the documentary. Navalny has a set of plans from the construction workers, and, from the Italian manufacturers, images of pretty much every piece of the custom-made furniture, so, his observations on the gargantuan 190,424-square-foot villa, its outbuildings and well fortified 168-acre grounds on the promontory overlooking the sea are mindbogglingly precise. Outsized, over-gilt, and resolutely vulgar in execution, the property is on the far side of satire, festooned with emblems of the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs, its faux-French garden allees lined with sculptures. There are, Navalny notes, no less than forty gardeners tasked with maintaining the grounds. There is an in-house casino, a vineyard, a jolly in-house hookah bar with an even jollier stripper pole, and a neighboring estate with further vineyards. The surrounding 27 square miles is, according to Navalny, owned by the Russian state security apparatus, the FSB, leased to the corporation that owns the villa.
Maximizing the view, we learn that the villa itself is in the commanding position on the promontory closest to the sea, but, spread out on the acreage around and behind it are the heating plant, a house for the estate managers, the communications mast, housing for the construction workers, a 26,000-square-foot “Tea House,” which doubles as a guest house, a tunnel down through the bluff to the beach, and of course, dual helipads. There had been three helipads, Navalny notes, but one was taken out and replaced with a grass-covered mound. Navalny and his videographers found a satellite picture of that patch of ground as it was opened during construction. Underneath the mound is a full-sized underground hockey rink.
At key points in his narration — again, as part of the chess move that the story of the villa forms for Navalny — Navalny resolutely refuses to pull punches, elevating the imagery to the ultimate, personal level against his antagonist. In the post-Novichok poisoning time frame, it’s all ad hominem now.
“Finally, looking inside,” he tells us, before taking us on the 3-D gilt-furniture odyssey through the the main house, “you will understand that the president of Russia is mentally ill.”
Not many people inside Russia would utter such a sentence. It’s at moments like this that — knowing from the get-go that Navalny is in Russia, in custody, and that the demonstrations for his release are enormous and ongoing — that the production rises above a “gotcha” account of a real-estate story and becomes another sort of statement.
For his part, Vladimir Putin professed only to have seen parts of Navalny’s production, which he termed a “compilation” and a “montage” before declaring it “boring.” According to the BBC, he told a group of students via video, ironically, as he was warning them not to attend the pro-Navalny demonstrations, that “Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did.” And, he’s arguably telling the truth. It is not, according to Navalny, privately owned.
The denouement of Navalny’s production is no less entertaining, and no less ad hominem. At approximately the 1-hour-40-minute mark, he begins a section called “The Women,” in which Svetlana and Elizaveta Krivonogikh both appear, followed by Mr. Putin’s rumored current girlfriend, the former gymnast Alina Kabaeva, and the reported mother of a further Putin brood, numbering, possibly four, or two, depending upon which set of rumors one chooses to believe. Whatever the number, the Kabaeva children have been kept under deep cover and none has ever been absolutely confirmed much less photographed by anyone outside the family, including the recent, rumored pair of twin boys.
The jury’s out on whether that math is right, and Ms. Kabaeva, for her part, is as mum as is her predecessor Svetlana Krivonogikh on the subject of children or their possible paternity. But, counting his elder two daughters, Marina and Katerina, born in Moscow, and Dresden, respectively, and counting Luiza Kironogikh of St. Pete as legitimate, the Kabaeva children would bring Putin’s lifetime stats into the superdaddy echelon with a head count of five, or seven.
Given the wattage of the klieg lights focused on her for the last three months, especially in the days since the Navalny video has dropped, young Elizaveta Vladimirovna “Luiza” Krivonogikh has been demonstrating grit. She did not instantly resign from Instagram after her initial outing by the Projekt journalists, surprising even them. Now, as a result of her second, far more intensely public cameo in the Navalny documentary, she is massively trolled, according to Projekt. The nom-du-guerre on the feed no longer provides even the barest shred of protection — she has a reported 91,000 followers. But she has doubled down, refusing to budge and, in fact, now follows Navalny himself, putting herself at even more of a disadvantage among that group of followers. Admire her or not, if it is she who is responsible for that, this is one tough girl.
Perhaps, it’s just in her DNA.