Panama Papers scandal: Who is Russia’s Sergei Roldugin?

Sergei Roldugin (left), Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev visiting the St. Petersburg House of Music, Nov. 21, 2009.

Sergei Roldugin (left), Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev visiting the St. Petersburg House of Music, Nov. 21, 2009.

EPA / Vostock-photo
One of the sections of the international journalistic investigation into corruption offshore networks used by the world’s rich and powerful is devoted specifically to Russia. It focuses on renowned cellist Sergei Roldugin, who is also godfather to one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's daughters.

On Sunday Apr. 3, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released an investigation containing accusations of corruption against politicians and businesspeople in countries around the world, including Russia.

Having received from an anonymous whistleblower 11.5 million files from the database of the world’s fourth largest offshore legal firm, Panama-based Mossack Fonseca, the ICIJ has exposed corruption deals involving thousands of offshore companies.

One section of the investigation into the documents, which have been dubbed the “Panama Papers,” deals with 13 politicians and businesspeople from Russia, some of whom are allegedly engaged in operations that have links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There is nothing specific and nothing new about Putin there, no details," said presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov, commenting on the release of the so-called Panama Papers.

Although Putin’s name is not mentioned in the database, “it is obvious to us that our president was and is the main aim of leaks like these,” especially ahead of the 2018 presidential election, said Peskov, who himself features in the leaked papers.

According to ICIJ journalists, a key part in the offshore network used by the Russian government and the president belongs to Sergei Roldugin, a concert cellist from St. Petersburg and a close friend of the Russian president.

The ICIJ has concluded that the world-famous maestro has for years been leading a double life: In one he is a modest but popular musician and professor; and in the other, he is a “caretaker of Putin’s money,” who has amassed offshore trusts and companies with a turnover of several billion dollars.

‘I am not a businessman, I don’t have millions’

Roldugin has never tried to conceal his long-standing and close friendship with Putin. In the Russian president’s definitive biography First Person (2000), the cellist recalled how they met in 1977 “and have never been apart since.”

“He is simply like a brother to me. When I had nowhere to go, I would to go to his place, sleep and eat there,” said Roldugin.

Together, they went to the theater with “a lovely girl called Lyuda,” who would later become Putin’s wife, Lyudmila Putina; they stood their ground in street fights and drove around Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called before its original name was restored to the city in 1991) at night. Roldugin became godfather to Putin’s first daughter Masha.

Having graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory, Roldugin went on tour to Japan. “I had more money than Vovka [Putin] did. From my foreign trips, I brought him different souvenirs, T-shirts and stuff,” he recalled.

At the same time, in Russia Sergei Roldugin was known not so much as Putin’s friend but as a soloist and conductor at the Mariinsky Theater, a music manager, and a patron of the arts. Mentions of his minority shareholding in Bank Rossiya, which the media in Russia and abroad have dubbed “the personal bank for Putin’s inner circle,” were rare.

According to the bank’s documents, Roldugin became a shareholder in 2005, acquiring 3.96 percent of shares in an additional issue for 375 million rubles ($13,300,000 at the 2005 exchange rate). Yet at the same time, he insisted that he was not interested in big business.

“I am not a businessman, I don’t have millions,” the maestro told The New York Times in a 2014 interview. According to the Russian business daily RBK, Roldugin was not involved in managing the bank.

At one time however, he tried to combine his artistic career with an administrative one. For a year, he served as the vice-chancellor of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, after which he was tipped as the next culture minister.

Instead, in 2005 Roldugin became the artistic director of the St. Petersburg House of Music, after which the establishment was given a 19th-century palace. Its restoration was partly financed by the very same Bank Rossiya, while the state gas monopoly Gazprom, according to Roldugin himself, “donated grand pianos.”

Or an offshore king?

Roldugin continues to stress that he has no business interests, claiming that he is focused only on music and only on his cello, which he is at pains to point out is a second-hand one at that.

Yet the leaked Panama Papers give clear grounds to suggest that Roldugin is king of an offshore empire, according to journalists from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which took part in the ICIJ’s joint investigation and oversaw its Russia section.

Allegedly, Roldugin owns four companies (two directly, and two through people linked to him).

Through them, the report alleges, dozens of millions of rubles passed every day from oligarchs (also Putin’s friends), after which the money was used in dubious transactions and was invested in the purchase of the country’s strategic assets (the Kamaz and Avtovaz vehicle manufacturers, and a key player on the TV advertising market, Video International) or in “recreation,” i.e. palaces, yacht clubs, and resorts.

In addition, these companies were allegedly granted loans on economically infeasible terms.

Thus, according to the journalists, Putin’s friend has amassed a $2 billion fortune in his Panama “wallets.” According to a source acquainted with Roldugin, “the president needed a person whom he could trust implicitly, so that through his ‘shares’ he could monitor the real state of affairs,” said Novaya Gazeta. “Call him a ‘keeper’,” another source close to the cellist told the paper.

When asked by journalists about his alleged Panama-based offshore companies, Roldugin replied in vague terms and did not give a clear answer as to whether the money is his.

“I was connected to that business a very long time ago. Before perestroika. It so happened. Then it all began to develop and this is what happened. This money is used, among other things, to subsidize the House of Music. It is a matter for a separate discussion,” he said.

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