MOSCOW—Russian elite have a long-lasting passion for palaces and kitsch interior designs in the fashion of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles. Villa owners love to show off their own versions of the glamorous and extravagant style of pre-revolutionary France, overloading homes with golden décor, massive crystal lamps, marble floors, and heavy royal staircases. But there is one phenomenon currently inspiring discussions among psychologists, historians, and corruption fighters: The post-Soviet obsession with golden toilets.
As it turns out, one such golden toilet owner is the head of traffic police in the Stavropol region, Colonel Aleksey Safonov, who became the town clown this week after getting arrested on corruption charges, after which photos of his ultra-extravagant house were leaked and shared widely. Known for bragging about fighting corruption at work, Safanov had even spoken in front of cameras about policemen’s temptation to take bribes: “Unfortunately, some police inspectors cannot resist the offer,” he told local reporters. Then the colonel would take bribes, return home, cross his glamorous lobby floored with what seems like dangerously slippery marble, and ascend his royal staircase to a giant bathroom with a golden toilet seat and matching golden bidet.
Safonov and his employees are accused of taking a $254,889 bribe and forging fake documents for transportation companies in the Stavropol region. The National Guard of Russia and Interior Ministry forces arrested more than 30 police officers in a special operation on Monday, according to RIA Novosti. The public official’s “golden palace turned out cooler than palaces of some Tsars in the past,” Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper said on Monday.
MP Alexander Khinshtein published the photographs of Colonel Safonov’s toilet on his Telegram messenger on Monday, turning the police officer into the butt of jokes for Russian media outlets, including Russia Today. Along with Safonov, authorities arrested 35 other policemen for corruption. The shaming campaign was aggressive, as if the Kremlin was trying to send a message: Enough is enough. Stavropol is a provincial region in the southern part of Russia, where police run “a real mafia ring,” MP Khinshtein said.
Elena Panfilova, the founder of Transparency International in Russia, believes that the majority of Russian uniformed commanders share the same passion for golden interior. “Think of golden toilets as part of their uniform, a must-have, just like those royal round staircases from Santa Barbara soap operas they’ve watched. They all wear the same watches and identical Brioni suits. Safonov must have thought other colonel guys would not understand if he didn’t have a golden toilet,” Panfilova said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Then there is that smooth marble floor, a killer for old people.”
Panfilova does not believe that it was a part of a genuine major anti-corruption campaign. “This is just the Kremlin’s traditional series of arrests before the elections, something people want to see; also, authorities let the other guys know they might want to change their golden toilets. I wonder how many corrupt bosses are calling their designers right now, looking into switching for maybe something less kitsch and more Scandinavian,” Panfilova added.
Safonov was not the first walking joke with a golden toilet in his house in the post-Soviet era. Former President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovych had several golden décor elements in his luxurious house. His toilet also stood on golden legs. Yanukovych’s toilet seat and a golden loaf of bread discovered at the presidential villa became symbols of the ousted leader’s corrupt wealth after Ukraine’s revolution in 2014.
Technocrats in Northern Caucasus republics often decorate their homes with furniture covered in golden paint. “Putin’s soldier” Ramzan Kadyrov has several palatial villas in the towns of Gudermes and Grozny, all heavily decorated with fake gold and marble.
Many Russian regions, including Chechnya, are struggling with poverty and unemployment. “Poverty wins in Russia’s struggle against poverty,” MP Sergei Mironov, the leader of Just Russia, said at his party’s recent meeting. The number of dirt-poor Russians has increased by 1.3 million during the pandemic, up to nearly 20 million people.
Every now and then, Russians hear about one more senior colonel or general or Federal Security Service agent getting arrested with millions of dollars hidden in bags or pillowcases or under their beds. One of the most shocking examples was the arrest of FSB colonel Kirill Cherkalin. Police found piles of cash worth $185 million packed up in bags in his house.
Even veterans of security services were ashamed of Cherkalin and his mobsters robbing Russian banks. Cherkalin’s house, too, was decorated with gold, crystal, and marble. He was no different from thousands of other corrupt Russian public officials.
“Psychologists tell us this is a new form of overcompensating superiority goals, striving for power for ex-Komsomol, ex-Soviet men who never experienced luxury in the past and now they have money running out of their ears,” Ilya Shumanov, director of Transparency International in Moscow, told The Daily Beast. “See, the Kremlin banned police and FSB officers from traveling outside of Russia after Crimea annexation,” she added. “So they cannot invest their huge money abroad and spend it on something like a golden toilet.”