On April 12, the website of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny released an investigation into the hidden international wealth of conductor and Putin confidant Valery Gergiev. The report is the latest in a series authored by Navalny’s team which, as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project notes, do not constitute neutral journalism—a video version of the Gergiev report is posted to YouTube with the title card “Free Navalny”—but nonetheless “expose the corruption at the heart of the Putin regime” with skill and accuracy. The following is a summary of the Navalny team’s Russian-language investigation and the allegations it contains, including large-scale fraudulent misappropriation of charitable funds. 

Investigators working for Alexei Navalny have alleged that Valery Gergiev, “Vladimir Putin’s cultural ambassador,” has been hiding his foreign assets from the public for years. Public records revealed a 1,776-square-foot apartment, bought by the 68-year-old Gergiev in 2004 for approximately $2.5 million, close to New York’s Central Park and the Metropolitan Opera. This ownership was confirmed by the city’s Register Information System. 

YouTube video
A video version of the Navaly team’s report on Gergiev (with English subtitles available on YouTube)

According to the investigation, most of Gergiev’s extensive properties are located in Italy, including a villa in Olgiata Country Club, a luxury apartment complex located an hour outside of Rome; land in the coastal city of Massa Lubrense near Naples; a little over an acre of farmland—plus an amusement park, basketball court, and restaurant called the United Tastes of Hamerica’s—in Rimini; a 200-acre estate in Milan; and the Palazzo Barbarigo, another 15th-century palace, and the Grancaffè Quadri, established in 1775 on Piazza San Marco, in Venice. 

Venice’s Palazzo Barbarigo, one of Valery Gergiev’s properties in Italy (Photo Deror aviCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the property records also suggested that the conductor has Dutch citizenship (he identified himself using a Dutch passport). Gergiev was chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1995 to 2008. In 2005, he was awarded the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands by then-Queen Beatrix, but his Dutch citizenship had not been previously reported. (While Russia’s dual citizenship legislation has been amended in the last two years, it remains illegal for state officials. Private citizens are eligible, but must register as such with the appropriate authority. On its website, the Dutch government also notes that it wants to “limit dual nationality as much as possible.”)

Navalny’s investigative team estimates the value of Gergiev’s Italian holdings alone at over $100 million. The majority of this was apparently inherited from the Japanese harpist Yoko Nagae Ceschina, who in turn inherited around $190 million from her late husband, Count Renzo Ceschina. A prolific patron, Countess Ceschina supported many artists with her wealth, including the New York Philharmonic, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, and the Mariinsky Theater. According to the Navalny team, she made Gergiev her sole heir when she died.

In a Facebook post following Nagae Ceschina’s death in 2015, Gergiev wrote that she was “more than just a friend and partner of the Mariinsky Theatre—she was also a true fan of great Russian culture” who “invariably attended all of our key events.” This included, “of course, a concert in memory of the victims of the ruined city of Tskhinvali,” a major battleground in the Russo-Georgian War. Nagae Ceschina also supported many of the audio and video recordings produced on the Mariinsky’s in-house label. In 2014, Putin awarded her the Order of Friendship for her “great contribution to popularizing Russian culture abroad.” (Gergiev’s statement did not mention any inheritance from Nagae Ceschina.)

Vladimir Putin and Yoko Nagae Ceschina at the 2014 award ceremony of the Russian Order of Friendship (Photo: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A further accusation in the investigation is that Gergiev declined to publicly release his tax returns. The Navalny team claims that this is “completely illegal,” since “the tax statements of other theater directors are made public every year.” In fact, it is not entirely clear whether the law requires such officials to make their yearly tax returns public. The Russian Ministry of Culture does release tax returns for its top officials, and, in 2014, a group of well-known Russian artists also began releasing their tax returns publicly; before then, the practice was uncommon in Russia. Most Russian citizens are not required to declare foreign assets at home, but public servants and other officials are required to do so. Within the arts world, opinions differ on whether the artistic directors of publicly financed theaters count as public servants. (In a 2017 investigation, Transparency International Russia insisted that whether or not artistic directors consider themselves political functionaries, the Russian state treats them as such.) In any case, Gergiev is far more than the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater. It would be reasonable to expect him to make his tax returns public, at least those concerning his assets within Russia. Between 2014 and 2016, he published his Russian tax returns while excluding his international holdings; since 2017, he hasn’t released his tax returns at all.

Gergiev also does not lack for property in Russia. The Navalny team’s investigation found three apartments in Saint Petersburg which total 7,200 square feet and are worth around 140 million rubles (approximately $1.7 million USD as of April 14). Gergiev also owns an apartment on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street, worth around 130 million rubles ($1.57 million USD), and both a vacation home and concert hall in the nearby village of Repino, where he reportedly gives private concerts to Putin himself. 

The investigation also alleges that Gergiev has used his Valery Gergiev Charitable Foundation—which defines its mission as supporting young musicians and “increasing Russia’s cultural influence in the world”—as his personal ATM. Until recently, the foundation’s financial backers included international corporations like Mastercard and Nestlé. Its board of trustees includes internationally-sanctioned billionaires Gennady Timchenko and Alisher Usmanov; its co-presidents are Sberbank CEO Herman Gref and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin. 

According to bank statements published along with the report, Gergiev spent over $5,500 at a Munich restaurant on February 19, 2019—the same day he conducted a Munich Philharmonic concert with Denis Matsuev. On March 7, 2020, while in town to conduct “Der fliegende Holländer” at the Metropolitan Opera, he incurred a bill in excess of $2,550 at Lincoln Center’s Café Fiorello. Apparently, the Foundation picked up the tab for both meals. 

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Foundation funds were also used to purchase luxury properties, according to the investigation: three apartments in Saint Petersburg’s luxury Art View House complex, totalling about $3.2 million; four apartments in central Moscow for some $8.7 million; and land in the oligarchs’ playground of Rublyovka for $2.7 million. In the documents obtained by the investigation, the Valery Gergiev Charitable Foundation is listed as the owner of these properties. 

Gergiev met Putin in the 1990s, and the investigation claims that the conductor is the “court musician of all those who have been plundering the country for decades.” But Gergiev also functions as a sort of shadow Secretary of State, tasked with improving Russia’s image abroad and “distracting people from the fact that Putin is robbing and destroying Russia (and its neighbors): ‘Don’t look at Putin, look at me! I’ll conduct Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, just don’t look at Putin’s crimes.” Navalny’s team believes this was strategic. Gergiev is a friend of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; in a 2016 speech, Gergiev said that “as an ambassador for Russia, who appears in difficult places, [I hope to] contribute to the understanding for the Russian leadership and especially for the president, so that [relationships abroad] become deeper, more direct, and more honest; so that others understand what Russia is today.” 

Gergiev’s close relationship with Putin is not new. He publicly supported the annexation of Crimea and appeared at Putin’s campaign events. At the same time, he was one of the world’s most successful and best-paid classical music stars. His seven-figure salary as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic made him the city’s best-paid employee. He lost that post, along with other engagements across Europe and North America, in March of 2022 after refusing to distance himself from the latest war of aggression in Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, Putin suggested combining the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theaters under Gergiev’s leadership. As the Navalny team concludes, the world doesn’t need an ambassador for Russian culture “if that ambassador is a fraud, a cheat, and a coward.” ¶

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This summary was written by a Russian journalist who prefers to be identified by a pseudonym in light of the recent crackdowns on independent Russian media.