How can a $700 million superyacht sitting in an Italian port ‘belong to no one’? Russian sleuths say it’s Putin’s

March 22, 2022, 11:52 AM UTC

In the legend of Tales From the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade is a beautiful virgin who escapes being murdered by the king by telling him stories at night.

Scheherazade is also President Vladimir Putin’s $700 million superyacht, according to Russian investigative journalists—and its ability to survive being seized by Western governments will require far more cunning than storytelling.

The yacht, currently moored in the Marina di Carrara on Italy’s Tuscany coast, is gargantuan, even by the outsize dimensions of Russian oligarchs’ superyachts. At about 459 feet long, it has six levels of decks, two helipads with a hidden helicopter hangar, a spa, huge living room and dining room, a swimming pool and three saunas, as well as an upper-level “owner’s area” that includes its own private spa.

“Belongs to no one”

For weeks, there have been questions about who owns the superyacht, which is registered in the Cayman Islands through a shell company. But on Monday, the group headed by jailed Russian activist Alexis Navalny claimed in a YouTube video that the vessel belongs to Putin himself.

“On paper, it belongs to no one, and sits quietly in an Italian port,” the video says in Russian. “Watch the video, and you will find out how Putin owns this yacht through figureheads, and how we can take this yacht away from him.”

The group obtained the all-Russian crew list for the yacht, and found that almost all of them were employed by Putin’s security detail, the Federal Protective Service, known by its Russian acronym FSO.

Earlier this month, the Scheherazade’s British captain, Guy Bennett-Pearce, told the New York Times he was under “a watertight nondisclosure agreement” about who the superyacht’s true owners were, but claimed he had never seen Putin on board.

But Navalny’s group says the crew’s employment status suggests that the Russian leader owns the vessel. If that hunch is correct, it would be subject to immediate seizure under U.S., U.K., and European Union sanctions.

Superyachts have been one of the most visible signs of Russian oligarchs’ mammoth wealth—and, recently, one of the most often seized. French police seized a $120 million vessel allegedly owned by Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, on the Mediterranean coast earlier this month. Spanish officials impounded two more yachts, including the Crescent, a 443-foot superyacht also thought to belong to Sechin.

Another boat, owned by former KGB agent Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, was stranded in Norway when no one would sell it fuel. And on Monday, the 460-foot superyacht Solaris, owned by the sanctioned billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich, was spotted parked in the harbor of Bodrum, Turkey; that country has not implemented sanctions.

Putin’s $200 billion

Western governments face a daunting task in tracking down Putin’s true wealth, which could amount to some $200 billion, according to financier Bill Browder, who told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017 that Putin’s inner circle of oligarchs split their billions 50-50 with the Russian president. The assets include a $1.3 billion mansion on the Black Sea, funded through a Russian health project in which Putin allies were vastly overpaid for medical supplies.

The Scheherazade, in fact, might not be Putin’s only superyacht. Last month, the vessel Graceful made a hurried departure from its berth in Hamburg as the EU was drafting tough new sanctions just days before Putin sent Russian tanks into Ukraine. Believed to be linked to Putin, that superyacht is thought to be worth $100 million.  

But untangling ownership details, and pinpointing them to Putin, will be immensely complicated.

In that, Navalny’s team has joined forces with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, or OCCRP, a Sarajevo-based group of investigative journalists, to create a database of oligarch wealth. It publishes its “Russian Asset Tracker” in Russian, English, and Spanish.

The journalists say they are focusing on “a new generation of wealthy men obedient to Putin”—many of whom are now under Western sanctions and whose funds Western governments believe are crucial to funding the Ukraine war. The database lists mansions, superyachts, private planes, and other property, so far totaling about $17.5 billion. The group is sure that will grow, and invites people to send details of “anything we’ve missed.”

“Figuring out who owns what, and how much of it, is a tall order even for experienced police investigators,” the journalists say. “We decided to follow the trail.”

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