A superyacht that Kremlin opponents claim secretly belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin shared the same construction manager and European crew members as several other yachts owned by Russian tycoons that Western governments have either seized or targeted with sanctions, an investigation by RFE/RL has found.
RFE/RL also discovered that a senior Russian crew member on the Scheherazade, which is worth an estimated $700 million, previously worked for a Russian yachting company that secured millions of dollars in contracts from the Kremlin’s security service, whose officers have allegedly served on the crew of the yacht.
The investigation is based on an analysis of a crew list for the Scheherazade -- whose ownership is being probed by Italian authorities -- that was published on March 21 by associates of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
The mystery of who owns the 140-meter ship, now docked in the posh port of Marina di Carrara in Tuscany, has swelled in recent weeks amid the Italian probe and an unprecedented Western sanctions campaign following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month.
Navalny’s team claimed to have identified multiple crew members as officers in Russia’s Federal Guard Service (FSO), which is responsible for Putin’s security, adding to evidence of the ship’s possible ties to the Russian president.
WATCH: Exiled supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny have released a video with what they say is evidence that a $700 million yacht anchored in an Italian harbor belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The ship was even shrouded in mystery for the crew, a source who worked aboard the Scheherazade told RFE/RL. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said the absence of the yacht’s name and port of registry was “very unusual,” and that crew members would refer to the vessel by a numeric code rather than its name.
“It was a very big secret,” the source said.
All The Oligarchs' Yachts
Construction of the Scheherazade, which was completed by the German company Lurssen in 2020, was overseen by the Monaco-based Imperial Yachts, which also managed the construction of luxury ships linked to Putin confidant Igor Sechin, head of the Russian state oil giant Rosneft, and billionaire Alisher Usmanov, whom the White House identifies as “a close Putin ally.”
French authorities in early March announced that they had seized the alleged Sechin-linked Amore Vero, while the United States has targeted Usmanov’s yacht Dilbar with sanctions.
At least two individuals listed on the Scheherazade crew list have worked for Imperial Yachts, public records indicate, including New Zealand-born carpenter Nicholas Snooks, who also worked on Usmanov’s yacht. Both he and the other crew member who public records show has links to Imperial Yachts -- a British woman named Esme Leyland -- were listed as “additional workers” on the crew list published by Navalny’s team.
Attempts by RFE/RL to reach the ship’s crew members were unsuccessful.
A spokesman for Imperial Yachts told RFE/RL that the company’s involvement with the Scheherazade ended with its delivery in June 2020. He said that the company was aware of the identity of the yacht’s owner but said “as is customary in the industry, client confidentiality is considered paramount.”
He said that while the company “notes the recent press speculation” it is “not aware of any involvement [by Putin] whatsoever” with the yacht.
The ship’s British captain, Guy Bennett-Pearce, told The New York Times this month that Putin had never owned or set foot on the Scheherazade. He said that Italian investigators have been scrutinizing the ship’s paperwork.
The Scheherazade’s first captain, meanwhile, has also worked on other yachts that have been linked to Putin associates and have been hit with Western sanctions. The captain, a U.S. national named Alexander Scherbakov, piloted the ship for two months after its construction was complete, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The profile states that in 2017-19, Scherbakov served as captain on the 65-meter superyacht Rahil, which was owned by Grigory Bayevsky, a business partner of Putin’s longtime friend Arkady Rotenberg, who has been sanctioned by the United States and the EU.
A 2016 investigation by OCCRP revealed that Putin’s daughter Yekaterina Tikhonova listed her official residence as an apartment outside Moscow owned by Bayevsky.
In the summer of 2014, meanwhile, Scherbakov worked on the yacht St. Vitamin, owned by Kremlin-linked tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to his LinkedIn profile. In 2019, the United States targeted St. Vitamin and other Prigozhin-owned assets with sanctions.
The Russian Purser
The crew list released by Navalny’s team also revealed a link to a well-known Russian yachting company that has notched millions of dollars in state contracts with the FSO, whose officers are alleged by Navalny’s team to be crew members of the Scheherazade.
The Scheherazade’s purser -- who is responsible for various aspects of a yacht’s operation, including financial administration -- is listed as Viktoria Kulikova. A Facebook account of a woman listing the same name and date of birth as in the crew lists indicates her place of work as Burevestnik Group. In 2017, Kulikova was listed as a sales manager for Burevestnik.
Founded by prominent Russian businessman Andrei Boyko in 2003, Burevestnik is the most prominent company in the Russian yachting world. While Boyko was arrested in 2009 on smuggling charges that were ultimately dropped, his company has benefited since from lucrative state projects.
In 2018, Russia’s state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot granted Burevestnik the rights to manage the Sochi Grand Marina, which was built in the southern Russian resort town of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
An analysis of state tenders by RFE/RL’s Russian Service shows that between 2008 and 2012, Boyko’s company that owns the Burevestnik Group trademark -- AG Marin -- won a total of 38 contracts to provide patrol boats and related supplies to the FSO totaling 507.6 million rubles, or $17.2 million according to the average exchange rate during that period.
Kulikova did not respond to requests for comment about her work as a purser for the Scheherazade. A person who answered the phone at Burevestnik Group said she no longer worked there.
Burevestnik did not respond to an inquiry about whether it had any involvement with the Scheherazade, nor did the FSO.
Changing Of The Guards
Purportedly leaked images of the Scheherazade’s interior were published by the British tabloid The Sun on March 22. They show a tiled dance floor that can be lowered down to become a swimming pool, as well as a self-leveling billiards table that adjusts to the yacht’s movement, a jacuzzi on the deck, and a workout room featuring a framed photograph of a robe for judo -- one of Putin’s favorite sports.
The documents released by Navalny’s team show that the yacht is owned on paper by a company called Bielor Asset Ltd., an anonymous company registered in the Marshall Islands.
The spokesman for Imperial Yachts told RFE/RL that it has no business relationship with Bielor or with the FSO, as “crewing the yacht would have been after Imperial’s involvement.”
On March 23, the AFP news agency cited an unidentified source close to the probe being conducted by Italy’s financial police that the matter could be concluded within days.
"We are in a phase of delving deeper and it's generally more complicated," AFP quoted the source as saying. "It's not always easy to attribute ownership."
Meanwhile, both AFP and London’s The Times cited Paolo Gozzani, an official with the Italian union CGIL, as saying that a British crew had taken over for the Russians on the yacht for reasons that were not immediately clear.
The source who has worked on the Scheherazade told RFE/RL that the same type of exchange happened after the superyacht was delivered after completion in June 2020, but in the other direction: a British crew was replaced by a Russian one.