The world’s richest person, according to official rankings, is tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, with a net worth of $333 billion.
But it’s a title the Tesla owner famously disputed; and not for the accuracy of the estimates about his wealth.
“I do think that Putin is significantly richer than me,” Musk sensationally claimed in an interview with German businessman and journalist Mathias Dopfner.
When asked by a shocked Dopfner to elaborate, the tech billionaire remained tight-lipped.
But his claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin is really the richest person in the world is one that’s been repeated at the highest levels for several years now.
Putin insists he earns just $140,000 a year as president, lives in a modest and pokey 74 sqm apartment in central Moscow, and has few other assets.
But his extraordinarily lavish lifestyle is hard to marry with his supposedly modest government salary.
According to reports, the dictator owns a fleet of luxury cars, dozens of private jets, palatial mega yachts, including one worth $900 million, an extensive designer wardrobe, and a high-end watch collection worth millions.
Experts claim his real estate holdings are in the billions too, including a castle-like mansion on the outskirts of Moscow that’s twice the size of Buckingham Palace.
Various holding companies and associates are used to mask his ownership of high-priced piles across the globe, reports claim, including in the South of France and even New York City.
But his pride and joy is a sprawling billion-dollar estate overlooking the Black Sea and boasting dozens of bedrooms, a private nightclub, a casino, an underground ice hockey rink, a movie theatre and a wine vineyard.
The enormous property, sitting on 65ha of manicured gardens, has been dubbed ‘Putin’s Palace’ by critics and is reportedly worth $2.08 billion. The president denies he owns it.
‘Mafia-like’ money model
The American-British financier Bill Browder, co-founder of the investment firm Hermitage Capital, once invested heavily in Russia before becoming a fierce critic of Putin.
In an interview with CNN in 2018, Mr Browder claimed the president’s wealth is “worth multiples” of what has been claimed.
“The wealth came as a result of extortion and massive theft from state funds,” he said.
At the time, he estimated Putin’s real net wealth to be in the order of US$200 billion (AU$304 billion).
That figure has substantially ballooned in the several years since, critics say.
Back in 2016, the explosive Panama Papers data leak, which combined the efforts of 370 journalists from 80 countries to reveal dodgy financial dealings contained in 11 million documents, offered some clues about Putin’s money movements.
“Though the president’s name does not appear in any of the records, the data reveals a pattern – his friends have earned millions from deals that seemingly could not have been secured without his patronage,” The Guardian reported at the time.
The main player in the documents related to Russia was a classical cellist named Sergei Roldugin, who previously claimed to drive an old second-hand car and play used instruments.
And yet, the Panama Papers seemed to indicate that Roldugin was really worth billions.
“Roldugin wasn’t just a cellist, but also Putin’s best friend going back to the 1970,” Mr Browder wrote in his book ‘Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath’.
“How had Roldugin become so wealthy? The answer, in my opinion, is that this cellist was serving as a nominee for his longtime friend, Vladimir Putin,” he added.
To get a sense of how much money Putin has, Browder suggested dividing the wealth of virtually any Russian oligarch by two.
“If you see an oligarch worth $20 billion, chances are, $10 billion of that belongs to Putin,” he said.
It’s a model the famed Forbes magazine believes is most likely, explaining in a 2022 feature that Putin helps friends and family get rich by “awarding them government contracts or ownership in businesses”.
“In return, the theory goes, he gets kickbacks of cash or stakes in the companies. In some ways, it sounds like a mafia structure, whereby soldiers and capos (in this case billionaires) are in perpetual debt to the boss (Putin). They do the dirty work, he takes a cut.”
Take the president’s former judo partner, Arkady Rotenberg.
In the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, Rotenberg ‘won’ some $7 billion worth of contracts for the construction of everything from ski resorts to a power plant.
Forbes magazine, which carefully calculates the riches of the world’s elite – whether they want it revealed or not – conceded even it couldn’t track Putin’s fortune.
It once described the task as “probably the most elusive riddle in wealth hunting”.
For his part, Putin has repeatedly swatted away the accusations – while wearing a $60,000 Patek Phillipe watch, mind you.
“I am the wealthiest man, not just in Europe but in the whole world because I collect emotions,” he once said.
“I am wealthy in that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with the leadership of a great nation such as Russia. I believe that is my greatest wealth.”