April 8 (Al Jazeera) – The latest round of sanctions by the United States on Russia has drawn renewed scrutiny to the family life of Russian President Vladimir Putin, unveiling two new targets: Katerina and Maria, his eldest daughters.
Despite Putin’s domination of Russian politics, he rarely talks about his family and little is known about his personal life or children.
Katerina and Maria have never confirmed publicly the Russian leader is their father. Putin’s marriage to their mother Lyudmila, who was once part of the cabin crew with national carrier Aeroflot, ended with divorce in 2013.
The US says that Katerina Tikhonova, 35, is a tech executive whose work supports the Russian government and its defence industry. Her 36-year-old sister, Maria Vorontsova, leads government-funded programmes that have received billions of dollars from the Kremlin towards genetics research and are personally overseen by Putin, it added.
A senior US official said Washington believes “Putin’s assets are hidden with family members”.
According to the Kremlin’s web site, Maria was born in 1985 and Katerina a year later after the family moved to Dresden, then in East Germany, where Putin was a KGB spy.
Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, co-authors of Who is Mr Putin?, note in their 2015 biography of the Russian president that “personal information is remarkably scant for such a prominent public figure. His wife, daughters, and other family members, for example, are conspicuously absent from the public domain.”
Katerina is most known – at least on YouTube – as an acrobatic rock ‘n’ roll dancer where videos show her performing exhausting routines including flips and somersaults at major international competitions.
But a Reuters news agency investigation from 2015 exposed her in a rather different light, highlighting her connections and influence among Moscow’s elite.
The report says Katerina, who is now deputy director of the Institute for Mathematical Research of Complex Systems at Moscow State University, described herself at the time as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of Putin who is also a shareholder in Bank Rossiya. The report estimated the pair’s corporate holdings to be worth about $2bn, in addition to other property and assets. Kirill is already under sanctions.
Maria, meanwhile, studied biology at St Petersburg University and medicine at Moscow State University, and is heavily involved in genetic research work.
Reports in Russian and Western media say she married a Dutch businessman and lived in the Netherlands for a time.
The Reuters report noted that while Maria was specialising in the endocrine system, her husband used to work for Gazprombank, a lender with strong links to the Kremlin elite. No estimates were immediately available for their assets and holdings, and Leonid Volkov, chief strategist for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said the marriage was over.
Navalny has long worked to expose Putin’s wealth and Volkov said the latest sanctions were welcome.
“It’s a very important symbolic move,” he said, given the gravity of the situation in Ukraine. “It’s a very important symbolic move that means that we are going after Putin personally, we realise how huge is his very personal guilt in the inception of this bloody war.”
The extent of Putin’s wealth is a sensitive subject in Russia.
The Kremlin last year denied that he was the owner of an opulent palace on the Black Sea, as Navalny alleged in a video that went viral on YouTube.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in February that sanctions involved “absurd claims” about some of Putin’s assets.
“The president has no assets other than those he has declared,” Peskov said.
During a press conference in 2019, Putin declined to directly answer a question about his daughters’ growing business clout and their ties to the government. He referred to Vorontsova and Tikhonova as “women”, never acknowledging them as his children.
“I am proud of them. They continue to study and they work,” Putin had said at a press conference several years earlier.
“They are not involved in any business activity and they are not involved in politics. They are not trying to push their way anywhere,” he added.
In an interview in 2020, Putin said he did not want to share any information about his family because of “security concerns”.
He did reveal that he had grandchildren, but would not say how many.
“I have grandkids, I am happy. They are very good, so sweet. I really enjoy spending time with them.”
Navalny’s group is also urging sanctions against Alina Kabaeva, a former gymnast and parliamentarian, who they say is Putin’s second wife and the mother of his two youngest children. She also chairs the National Media Group, Russia’s largest media group.