Three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, a series of Instagram photos showing a young Russian woman making a duck face into the camera from the back of a luxurious yacht and posing in a bikini next to an emerald-green pool went viral on Twitter.
Within days, Polina Kovaleva, said to be the unofficial stepdaughter of Russia’s foreign minister, was banned from entering the UK and all her property there was frozen.
There’s a lesson here: Partying can be dangerous in the age of Instagram. Ask any oligarch.
Their decades of fancy living at the highest possible level of luxury have turned out to be enormously useful for investigators tracking down the assets of Russia’s sanctioned elite. That’s because, in multiple cases, a few careless Instagram posts have blown up the best defense for their secret empires: Anonymity.
Oligarchs themselves rarely use Instagram to accidentally crack open a window into their high living. Rather, it’s the people partying with them: A stepdaughter, an ex-wife, or in least one infamous case, an escort.
The pictures show attractive young women posing on mega-yachts or decked out for tennis on a bright day in London, or rays of sunshine breaking through clouds over the coast. To the trained eye, they are evidence.
“To be an influencer, you have to show off,” said Alex Finley, a former CIA officer who now lives in Spain and engages in her own public-facing effort to track oligarchs’ yachts.
“They’re under a lot of social pressure to show off their wealth. They don’t understand the security rules that are in place, or all the things that people can figure out from a photo,” Finley said. “They think—‘Hey, cool shot!’ They’re a weak link.”
‘Darth Vader’ and the St. Princess Olga
The case of top Putin aide Igor Sechin represents a classic of the genre.
Sechin’s penchant for secrecy and toughness earned him the nickname “Darth Vader” in the Russian and international press. He rose to prominence as a Kremlin insider and also chairman, and later CEO, of Russian national oil company Rosneft.
But it was his ex-wife’s Instagram account that first linked him up with the $120 million mega-yacht, the Amore Vero. The 281-foot ship, which can accommodate 14 guests and 28 crew members, was impounded by French officials earlier this month.
A joint investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a report connecting Instagram photos posted by Sechin’s glamorous second wife, Olga, to the vessel’s leisurely route through the Mediterranean.
Pictures posted to Olga’s account appear to show her and a friend in black string bikinis posing on a sofa that bore a strong resemblance to one on the St. Princess Olga. Another showed a glorious sunburst through clouds over a pool that, once again, looked exactly like the pool on the deck of the yacht in question. Elsewhere, Olga posted photos on her social networks that indicated she’d been on a boat sporting the flag of the Cayman Islands, according to the report—which noted that the St. Princess Olga happened to be owned by a company registered in the Cayman Islands.
Sechin (and his company Rosneft) never confirmed that he owns the yacht. After Igor and Olga divorced, the yacht’s name was changed to Amore Vero—Italian for “true love.”
Sechin later sued the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in a Russian court over the article linking him to the yacht and won his case, prompting the paper to publish a retraction.
France’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, however, said this month that Sechin is the main shareholder of a company that owns the Amore Vero. But Imperial Yachts, a Monaco-based company that manages the ship, has insisted that Sechin does not own the vessel and isn’t connected to the company that does.
The Diplomat’s ‘Stepdaughter’
The online antics of a young woman close to Putin’s foreign policy chief caught up with them both last week.
The UK government sanctioned Polina Kovaleva, whom British authorities called the “stepdaughter” of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after Russian anti-corruption activists revealed her lavish lifestyle using her Instagram account as a data goldmine.
A team of activists founded by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently turned Kovaleva’s Instagram account into the basis of a video investigation and a viral Twitter thread.
Lavrov isn’t technically married to Kovaleva’s mother, although Navalny’s team claimed the two have been in a relationship for years. The UK sanctions announcement, likewise, endorsed that view. (And, yes, Lavrov has been legally married to someone else since 1971.)
Photos posted by Maria Pevchick, head of investigations at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, appear to show Kovaleva reveling in the good life. She’s pictured playing tennis in London’s Hyde Park, gazing playfully into the camera from the back of a yacht on a dazzling coastline, and posing in a bikini before large Greek-looking columns and an emerald-green pool.
According to the Financial Times, Kovaleva bought a £4.4 million apartment in London’s elite Kensington district in 2016 when she was a 21-year-old student at Loughborough University in the UK. Pevchikh tweeted that Kovaleva’s jet-set lifestyle is a “non-stop holiday” between luxury villas, from Austria to Sardinia.
The British government sanctioned Kovaleva just a few days after Pevchikh’s Twitter-thread went viral.
The Sex Huntress
Then there was the bizarre case of the billionaire, the yacht, and the self-described “sex huntress.”
An investigative video produced by Navalny linked Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska to a yacht trip in the waters of Norway.
Navalny used Anastasia Vashukevich’s NSFW Instagram account as raw material for a documentary about an alleged secret maritime meeting between Deripaska and a senior Russian government official. Among various scantily clad pictures of herself, Vashukevich also posted what appeared to be photos alongside Deripaska. Vashukevich described herself as Deripaska’s “mistress,” and the documentary makes ample use of her Instagram photos and videos to depict her joining Deripaska and a Russian deputy prime minister on a pleasure cruise in August 2016.
In a weird and never fully explained series of events, Vashukevich then claimed she had been a key eyewitness to high-level discussions about Russia’s involvement in the U.S. 2016 elections—and said she had tapes to back up her claims.
Soon after that, she was arrested in Thailand on charges of soliciting to provide sexual services along with a self-described “sex guru,” released, detained again in Moscow, released, and finally claimed that she gave Deripaska the tapes and wouldn’t say anything more about what she supposedly knew.
Deripaska repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying that the “false allegations” are “the result of a planned campaign aimed to damage my reputation.”
He dismissed Vashukevich’s claims about their relationship: “There have been endless fictitious stories told by her,” a representative for Deripaska told CNN.
The U.S. later sanctioned Deripaska, in part over his alleged close ties to the Kremlin.