Inside the Abandoned Lair of Russia's Donald Trump
This is the story of Russian oligarch Sergei Polonsky's adventures in exile on his private island covered with stone penises, and what's left of his crumbling empire.
Sergei Polonsky made his first million dollars at 23 in the booming Russian property market of the 1990s and is responsible for building Europe's tallest skyscraper. A deeply strange and unpredictable man whose ego knows no bounds, Polonsky is something like Russia's answer to Donald Trump. But where Trump decided to get really into Twitter and then run for President, Polonsky was charged in 2013 for ripping off investors in Russia and never willingly came back to his homeland, instead building a fugitive empire in Cambodia's tropical coast.
During his time in the small Southeast Asian nation, Polonsky purchased a string of beautiful islands (one of which had a forest of stone penises erected on it), served time in Cambodian jails twice, embroiled himself in an all-out war with a Russian herpetologist, and developed a quirky self-help philosophy centered around entrepreneurship and spirituality.
Polonsky, who considered the 2013 charges completely trumped up, defiantly enjoyed his playboy lifestyle in Cambodia. In a post to his personal LiveJournal in March, he even wished Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov a happy birthday and invited him to Cambodia so they could "look each other in the eyes" and "hunt barracudas."
But in May of this year, Polonsky was finally arrested and deported to his home country. Although the magnate now sits in a Moscow jail awaiting trial, he won't be easily forgotten in Cambodia.
Today, Polonsky's island empire is under military and police occupation. According to one source who used to work for Polonsky but declined to be named, of all the gear on his private island of Koh Damlong, "only the walls" are left, with the rest looted by police and random sailors. But perhaps in an even sadder state is Polonsky's massive headquarters on the rocky outcrop of Koh Dek Koul.
I made multiple visits there to interview Polonsky before his arrest and deportation. During these visits, the massive lair buzzed with activity from Polonsky's at least 30 full-time staffers. Polonsky's countless legal cases and real estate projects kept them busy working across several time zones.
Almost every room on Koh Dek Koul had flatscreen TVs blaring Russian news, while Polonsky's extensive library featured a copy of The Prince and the Cambodian criminal code—the operation had an air of the headquarters of a guy a Roger Moore-era James Bond might have been hunting, down to the pool overlooking the ocean, complete with a giant fake shark fixed menacingly above a Jacuzzi.
When I visited the place six months after Polonsky's deportation, the Angkor-styled mansion was being slowly overtaken by jungle, similar to the ancient Cambodian temples it imitated.
Rotting garbage lay around everywhere, a giant section of a wall was caved in, and Polonsky's office gear and collection of oriental curios seemed to have disappeared.
This is the story of Polonsky's adventures in exile, and what's left of his crumbling empire.
I first met Sergei Polonsky in December 2014 as a journalist covering his antics in Cambodia. The eccentric oligarch had permitted the press to observe "business trainings" he was holding on Koh Damlong, some 34 miles off the Cambodian coast. His fans had each paid at least $2,500 to join their hyperactive hero on the ten day seminar to "Pimp [Your] Business" and "Pimp [Your] Personality."
We were ferried by speedboat through the silky waters of the Gulf of Thailand to the island, where Polonsky awaited his followers wearing nothing but grey sweatpants, welcoming them nonchalantly to his abode.
I interviewed Polonsky a couple times during the trainings and afterwards, but my most striking memory of the man's mystical aura was during this seminar, when he led a flock of over two dozen bumbling Russian admirers through the island's thick jungle for a strange, almost cultish gathering.
Polonsky's devotees arrived at a small clearing on a cliff, where a bonfire was waiting. An extended Q&A session with Polonsky began, in which the exiled oligarch delivered rambling responses on everything from business to religion with gusto, enrapturing the crowd despite the mosquitoes buzzing about.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" he yelled, bare-chested, into the darkness at one point. The participants were in awe.
"I believe he is a genius," attendee Natalya Ganina told me.
"He does things and doesn't care what other people say," she continued, speculating his boundless energy came from "the cosmos."
Surrounded by fawning admirers, Polonsky was clearly in his element.
The charismatic oligarch clearly enjoyed imparting his wisdom to his fans, who he made play business games, the losers of which were forced to run around a large tree on the other end of his private island as punishment.
At times, his ego seemed limitless. "After God, developers were the first to build up the earth," he once remarked to me at his private island's bar. He's also infamous in Russia for once saying that anyone who doesn't have a billion dollars can go to hell (though he claims the quote was taken out of context).
Polonsky has suffered a series of blows since the financial crisis of 2008, during which the property market crashed and sent the oligarch's real estate company in the red to the tune of nearly $900 million. On top of his massive debts, Polonsky has claimed he's been cheated out of hundreds of millions of dollars by his business rivals in Russia, as well as gotten screwed by his own lawyer while restructuring his company to alleviate said debt.
"I've been robbed of $1.1 billion, you understand?!" he exclaimed during an interview I did with him in his breezy bungalow on Koh Damlong during the business trainings.
Perhaps as a way to relive his past glories as a developer, in 2014 Polonsky began pouring cash in a massive idealistic scheme he dubbed "Project Archipelago." The idea was to transform a string of eight private islands Polonsky had bought from the government into an interconnected tourism hub that would rival Angkor Wat.
"Here there wouldn't be any nationalities, there wouldn't be any religious dogmas, there would be no warlike aggression," Polonsky told me in his bungalow again, gushing about the project's potential to unify a divided planet.
Koh Damlong was the only island in the plan that saw significant development, with several dozen elegant wooden bungalows built in harmony with the jungle.
Less tasteful were the dozens of oversized stone penises interspersed around the island, sometimes clustering into mini dick-forests. They were supposedly set up there for an epic party in 2012 aimed at building "a portal to an astral plane," according to his former partner. Polonsky blamed the partner—more on him soon—for putting the dicks up, but there's no question that they remained erect under Polonsky's sole watch.
Yet there remained two major hurdles on the path to building Polonsky's peculiar paradise.
The first, obviously, was that he had criminal charges in Russia hanging over his head. In November 2013, Polonsky came remarkably close to being sent back to his motherland following an extradition request from Russia.
Around 30 Cambodian cops tried to arrest the wily oligarch, but he fled into the thick jungle of the island of Koh Rong and was only arrested after being chased for hours. He was released after two months and Cambodia's Supreme Court eventually ruled against sending him to Russia due to Cambodia's lack of an extradition treaty with the country.
The second major obstacle came from a dispute with his former business partner Nikolai Doroshenko, a Soviet-trained herpetologist with deep roots in Cambodia who had helped develop the islands.
Their relationship soured in early 2013, when Polonsky spent his first stint in a Cambodian prison for allegedly forcing Cambodian sailors off a boat at knifepoint, for which Polonsky was released in April 2013.
Polonsky was convinced the whole thing was a setup on the part of Doroshenko. "He helped the sailors write the statement about me to police," Polonsky told me in January as we spoke atop his 98-foot yacht. "When I was sitting in prison he sold my islands."
The Doroshenko family, for their part, claim that Polonsky has orchestrated a beating on a member of their family as well as rigged an exploding Land Rover near their home. Doroshenko has directly accused Polonsky of trying to murder him and his family. (For what it's worth, Polonsky has offered to take a lie detector test to prove he did not try to harm the Doroshenkos.) They also used Polonsky's wealth and eccentricity against him, claiming he massively corrupted Cambodian courts and spreading embarrassing pictures of the playboy's antics, like one of him posing almost naked and another holding up what appears to be two marijuana joints.
Polonsky was either drunk or high "from morning until night" when they worked together, Doroshenko told me in a February interview in his home base of Snake House, a hotel/zoo filled with hundreds of snakes and crocodiles. He also said Polonsky's Archipelago project was his idea in the first place.
As we cruised the open sea, Polonsky called Doroshenko a "scoundrel."
"The court! Where is the court, the laws?!" he said, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. "On this beautiful day, I don't want to hear about it."
To Polonsky's glee, Doroshenko was jailed in March for allegedly forging signatures in order to take control of one of Polonsky's islands. With Doroshenko finally in jail, Polonsky's island dream was one step closer to reality.
But all was not well in Polonsky's coastal kingdom—his high-profile feud with the Doroshenkos provided plenty of negative publicity for Sihanoukville, the nearby tourism hotspot located on Cambodia's coast. The bad publicity spurred a shakeup within Cambodian police, who vowed to crack down on foreign "mafia."
"[Polonsky] operated with impunity, which gave carte blanche to everyone else," said Douglas McColl, vice president of the Sihanoukville Tourism Association. McColl attributed that impunity to Polonsky's "shitloads of money."
Things were quickly heating up for Polonsky.
In March, high-level Russian and Cambodian officials discussed Polonsky's potential extradition in a public conference. Not long after that, Polonsky temporarily ran out of funds to pay his many staffers in Cambodia, according to current and former employees I spoke with who declined to be named.
On May 8, in a last-ditch effort to demonstrate the benefits he brought to Cambodia, Polonsky donated $5,000 to the Cambodian Red Cross, whose head is the wife of Cambodia's strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.
It did nothing. On May 15, military police stormed Polonsky's yacht moored off Koh Damlong, arresting him, many of his senior staff, and even his two hairless Mexican dogs, Flint and Pharaoh. (Both are safely in Russia, according to Polonsky's wife, after journeys worth their own separate article.)
A sunburned Polonsky was sent to the mainland and then to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh by helicopter wearing only board shorts and flip flops. Two days later, he was in custody in Moscow.
Cambodian police claimed Polonsky's arrest was for an invalid passport and had nothing to do with Russian pressure—a somewhat absurd assertion given that high-level Cambodian authorities were just happening to be reviewing Moscow's latest extradition request the day before his arrest.
Mysteriously, Polonsky's long-awaited deportation did nothing to end his 14 cases against the Doroshenkos, who are being forced to respond to Polonsky's charges in Cambodian courts despite the fact that man suing them is being forcibly held in another country.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Polonsky is also in limbo, awaiting his trial behind bars.
Naturally, he hasn't strayed far from the limelight. He has managed to propose to his girlfriend with a ring he made out of scrap, undergo a psychiatric exam, request a saxophone so he could play music, and release a book of poems.
His fate is uncertain. According to Polonsky's spokesperson Ilya Rosenfeld, the notorious official Oleg Silchenko, who was Polonsky's original investigator and was blacklisted by the United States for his involvement in the death of imprisoned accountant Sergei Magnitsky, is still pulling strings behind the scenes.
Still, hopes for Polonsky are running higher after Russia's chief business ombudsman vouched for his innocence in October.
Regardless of his chances at freedom, Polonsky has now taken up the mantle of a martyred entrepreneur shackled by a biased Russian justice system.
In video of an impassioned courtroom rant delivered in August that I managed to obtain, Polonsky said he met several businesspeople languishing in jail on swindling charges despite being "wonderful" people with children.
"These tales are the destruction of Russian business, do you understand, your honor?" he told the judge, taking on a typically proud and indignant tone later in his speech.
"I... you know, I don't feel as if I have to prove or explain something to these gentlemen," Polonsky said.
"My words are encased in concrete. That concrete is created in Cambodia, from Cambodia to America... I have projects in England, in France, in Chernigov [Ukraine]."
"My projects are the best in the world."
Follow Charles on Twitter.