Russia’s famed Valaam Monastery, on an island on Lake Ladoga, is renowned for austere boreal beauty. Popular with tourists, it’s maintained in part by Russian Orthodox monks who take vows of chastity and poverty and practice a unique form of liturgical chanting:
A six-hour drive to the southwest, in the center of St. Petersburg, is another part of the monastery’s holdings: a “courtyard” that is one of Valaam’s most important. For many years, the staff there included a monk named Gavriil Frolov, who was the steward of the facility.
By 2020, however, Frolov had long since left the Orthodox monastic life. He was, and remains, the owner of a major real estate and property developer known for building and reconstructing shopping malls, sports arenas, and highway interchanges -- not to mention the Mariinsky Theater, the pride of Russia’s second-largest city.
According to a new investigation by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, he is also apparently the son-in-law of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants, and a prominent if secretive tycoon hit with multiple U.S. and European sanctions: billionaire Gennady Timchenko.
The RFE/RL investigation into how a former monk became a powerful property developer with high-level ties offers another glimpse into how power, money, and family relations are closely intertwined in Russia under Putin, whose innermost circle and closest friends have flourished -- wildly in some cases.
Timchenko’s wealth, estimated at $22 billion according to Forbes, derives mainly from his commodity trading company Gunvor, set up in the late 1990s. The Swiss company was once the largest exporter of Russian oil. Timchenko sold his stake to his Swedish partner in 2014, the day before he was hit with U.S. sanctions for Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
He is also known for his affinity for ice hockey. He has been the head of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and a regular member of Putin’s “night hockey league” -- heavily publicized games between members of the elite in which Putin tends to score the most goals.
The eldest of his three children, Natalia, 43, is known publicly as a graduate of Oxford University, where she reportedly studied English literature. In 2014, Timchenko told the state news agency TASS that she had returned to Russia a few years earlier “to realize herself here.”
According to documents seen by RFE/RL, Natalia was also a client of a medical clinic in St. Petersburg known as Sogaz, which is known for catering to the city’s powerful and wealthy and which has been linked to Putin’s eldest daughter. The clinic is also known for treating Russians who have served abroad as private mercenaries for a company called Vagner.
Natalia registered at the clinic under what appeared to be her former married name, Browning.
British records show that Natalia married a fellow Oxford student named Peter Browning in November 2002.
The name Natalia Browning appeared 10 years later, in 2012, in a corporate registry in Luxembourg, which recorded Timchenko transferring shares in an obscure company called Sogeco Participations to members of his family, including Natalia Browning. The recorded birth date of the registry entry matches that of the files from the St. Petersburg medical clinic for Natalia.
RFE/RL was not immediately able to locate Peter Browning in order to seek comment.
Russian news reports have also suggested that Natalia was involved in film in some capacity. The business portal FinParty said in 2018 that she “worked in the film industry.”
According to the Kontur.Fokus database, Natalia Browning in 2010 became the sole founder of Step Productions LLC. There is little public documentation on the company, which was transferred to another person in 2020. The company was also behind a never-released documentary called Mist; a short introductory clip for the film can be found on several websites.
Timchenko and his wife, Yelena, are known for their philanthropy in Russia, including helping to restore the Valaam Monastery, which was founded by Orthodox monks sometime in the 13th or 14th centuries.
In an interview with the news site Fontanka in 2012, Timchenko said the funding was aimed at “preserving the unique architectural complex and the beauty of Valaam's nature for future generations.”
In 2014, according to Russian corporate records, Natalia Timchenko was the sole founder of a company called Akantus Atelier, which specializes in the manufacture of religious furniture and iconostases -- the wall of icons and religious paintings in Orthodox churches that separate the altar from the wider congregation.
Corporate records show that Frolov was initially the general director of Akantus Atelier and became its sole owner two years later, when Natalia left the company.
Among Akantus’s customers: the Valaam Monastery.
In November 2014, an article published on the monastery’s web page lists several monks at the facility including a deacon-monk, or hierodeacon, described as “Gavriil (Frolov): housekeeper, assistant to the head of the courtyard.”
“A sociable person, he holds many meetings with builders, contractors, officials, solving issues of restoration and functioning of the courtyard,” the site says.
RFE/RL obtained photographs from the Mariinsky Theater of a social event held there that included members of the St. Petersburg construction company Gorka Group, and compared them with photographs published on the social-media site VK (below), on the page belonging to the Valaam Monastery’s St. Petersburg “courtyard.” RFE/RL also examined a photograph published on the Gorka Group website and another published at a business forum in Sochi in 2020.
All the photographs were similar. The VK photograph was identical to the photographs from the Gorka Group website.
Also, a phone number that appears in an online database that tracks online phone books is registered to Gavriil Frolov at Akantus Atelier. The same number appears in several other legal databases, under the names Victor-Gabriel Steward, Gavriil Monk, and Father Gavriil.
'In The Modern World, Everything Is Different'
It’s unclear exactly when Frolov may have left the priesthood. According to Yakov Krotov, a priest and church historian, it is uncommon but not unheard of.
“A hierodeacon is a monk who has been ordained a deacon. He makes vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. A hierodeacon always has the prospect of becoming both a priest and a bishop and a patriarch,” he told RFE/RL.
“The [position of] steward of the Valaam Monastery courtyard [involves] a huge amount of work and money passing through it, given that everything on Valaam was rebuilt practically from scratch,” he said. “How often do people leave monasticism? In principle, this is a scandal, since the vows are given for life. This is a medieval outlook on life: The enemy is forever, the monk is forever, the king is forever, and you cannot go anywhere. But in the modern world, of course, everything is different.”
It's also not fully clear how Frolov ended up as the head of Gorka Group, the construction company.
Frolov’s name appears under business registries for Akantus Atelier and an affiliated company, A-Atelier.
Also appearing in the same business records is Vladimir Lavlentsev, whose father both founded a construction group called GorKapStroy in the mid-2000s and was a partner with Timchenko in another development group that received billions of rubles in public contracts.
Lavlentsev served as a top official for the city of St. Petersburg in 2013-14 overseeing housing and communal services.
GorKapStroy, which renamed itself Gorka Group in 2020, gained prominence in St. Petersburg with its successful and eyebrow-raising bid for the construction of a new ice arena to be used when Russia hosts the 2023 World Ice Hockey Championships.
The construction project, whose costs have already nearly doubled to 40 billion rubles ($558 million), involves demolishing an existing sports complex. In January 2020, the demolition resulted in the accidental collapse of the older complex, resulting in the death of a worker.
In 2020, Lavlentsev left Gorka Group to work at another Timchenko company. That August, Frolov became a controlling shareholder of Gorka, holding 90 percent of the company’s shares, according to business records.
RFE/RL sought comment from Gorka Group, including on whether Gavriil Frolov is a former monk at the Valaam Monastery and the husband of Timchenko’s daughter Natalia. The company did not immediately respond.
RFE/RL also called the mobile phone number listed under Frolov’s name in several business registries. A recording said the mobile number was not in service.
It is not fully clear when, or whether, Natalia Timchenko and Gavriil Frolov were legally married. RFE/RL could not locate any marriage records.
However, according to flight travel records obtained by RFE/RL from the U.S.-based analytical company C4ADS, Gavriil Frolov and Natalia Timchenko, flying under the name Browning, were registered on flights to Moscow in September and December 2015 -- one from Cyprus, one from Finland. On the second flight, the two were marked in the system as flying together.
Medical records reviewed by RFE/RL also indicate that in 2014, a few months after Natalia Timchenko left Akantus Atelier, she gave birth to a daughter. By Russian tradition, children are given a middle name – a patronymic -- that is derived from the first name of the father.
In this case, the daughter’s patronymic was Gavriilovna, derived from Gavriil.