KHUTOR SOKOLSKY, Russia — The livestock stalls hold around 150 head of cattle. The reservoir contains at least 200 tons of fish. Two geese that managed to survive New Year’s Eve stand sentry over the ducks.
But this is no ordinary farm.
The food grown on these acres in southern Russia is produced with one main customer in mind: the metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, whose power in his home district resonates like that of a modern-day feudal lord.
His riches paid for the district’s schools, kindergartens, churches, rural gas pipelines and sports facilities, and trips to Paris for his former teachers. He has negotiated agreements specifying how his tax money is spent. The district court consistently rules in his favor.
His home — and the adjoining hotel, offices, employee residences and farm — occupy an entire village in southern Russia.
“He likes domestic, traditional kinds of sausage. They’re fatty, of course,” said Deripaska’s farm manager, Ralf Dreeris. The recipe for a Ukrainian-style sausage that Dreeris makes was given to Deripaska by Ukraine’s ousted pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych.
The immense wealth and influence of the men known as oligarchs, who won control of assets after the fall of the Soviet Union, is one of the hallmarks of modern Russia.
Here in the district of Ust-Labinsk — a swath of plain where Deripaska grew up, and which he still calls home — the union of riches and privilege in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia may have reached its apogee.
“They call this district his property,” said Alexander Savelyev, who also hails from this mostly rural area and works as a journalist and at the regional office of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny. “He can do whatever he wants here.”
The U.S. Senate last month upheld a Trump administration move to lift sanctions on Deripaska’s companies after he reduced his stake and stepped down from their boards, sending share prices back up.
The many critics of the deal in Washington claimed that Deripaska, 51, still retained control of the companies, and questioned the propriety of easing the penalty on a figure on the fringes of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Deripaska’s ties to Paul Manafort, President Trump’s now-jailed former campaign chairman and a former consultant to Yanukovych, stoked speculation that Deripaska may have played a role in linking the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Deripaska called the allegations “beyond absurd” and said he had no contact with Manafort for more than seven years.
“While I realize I’ve involuntarily become a lightning rod for the anger some Americans have about the elections result, they need to look elsewhere for a scapegoat,” Deripaska said. “I am nobody’s man, in Russia, the U.S., or anywhere else, for that matter.”
In April 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on him in response to Russia’s “worldwide malign activity,” costing Deripaska billions as his companies’ stock price cratered.
Weeks earlier, social media posts emerged showing a self-proclaimed sex expert known as Nastya Rybka and Deripaska relaxing on his yacht with a Russian deputy prime minister. Deripaska then sued Rybka — whose real name is Anastasia Vashukevich — in the Ust-Labinsk district court. A favorable verdict arrived within 29 minutes, along with a rare order forcing Instagram to take down the posts that irked Deripaska.
In Ust-Labinsk, few people seemed willing to criticize Deripaska. Not even the priest who leads Deripaska’s congregation.
“If he did something somewhere that was morally or ethically wrong, then that is his personal problem,” said the Rev. Grigory Gureyev. “The man takes care of his home region.”
Gureyev preaches at the Deripaska-built Church of St. Vladimir. Deripaska’s father, Vladimir, is buried in the adjacent graveyard. An architect on Deripaska’s staff who specializes in churches designed it as a replica of the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, one of Russia’s most famous medieval buildings. Another staff member procured a rare relic of Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki.
In the district’s main town, Ust-Labinsk, population 40,000, Deripaska is building a boarding school. The central quad’s columned arcade is already complete, set against the town’s vegetable-oil-extraction plant and the grain elevator.
“He believes that classical architecture, in particular, allows schoolchildren, in particular, to study academic subjects more deeply,” said Yury Ryabchenyuk, who heads Deripaska’s economic development fund focused on the region. “This isn’t a campus. This is an Italian palazzo.”
The surrounding small-town roads don’t radiate Roman grace. So Deripaska will also help pay to renovate the streets in the boarding school’s vicinity.
Public officials in Ust-Labinsk at times described themselves as stewards and executors of Deripaska’s wishes rather than as decision-makers in their own right. They spoke in interviews set up by Deripaska’s foundation after The Washington Post reached out to the foundation regarding a story about Ust-Labinsk.
“I’m like the manager, dealing with things like infrastructure,” said Ust-Labinsk’s mayor, Sergey Vyskubov. Referring to Deripaska in the respectful patronymic form, he added: “Oleg Vladimirovich thinks much more long-term, in terms of strategic projects.”
Deripaska has negotiated agreements with regional authorities specifying how his tax money is to be spent. One of his long-term interests is kaizen — a Japanese business-management approach emphasizing continuous improvement. A kaizen suggestion box greets visitors to City Hall, and even the kindergartens are designed according to the philosophy’s teachings.
Other projects appear to come together on a whim.
Last spring, after a meeting with the governor, Deripaska ordered his staff to come up with a comprehensive plan to get children in the Krasnodar region, which includes Ust-Labinsk, to play rugby. He had played the sport growing up.
Over the summer, Deripaska’s staff brought in professional rugby players to teach the rules to Ust-Labinsk gym teachers. They bought uniforms and equipment. They hired a former member of Russia’s national team to help run the program. By the start of the school year in September, eight Ust-Labinsk schools were offering rugby classes.
He also persuaded his old karate teacher, Pavel Pisarenko, who years ago emigrated to the United States, to come back to Ust-
Labinsk from Colorado Springs to head a new martial arts center.
In the village of Oktyabrsky, Deripaska had his grandmother’s one-story wooden house preserved to look just like it did when she was alive — down to the napkins.
Deripaska moved to Moscow for university and became a metals trader after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Starting out with a stake in a Siberian smelter, he built one of the world’s largest aluminum conglomerates. Along the way, according to the Treasury notice announcing sanctions against him last year, Deripaska “has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering.”
Deripaska has denied those allegations, but he’s been open about his support for Putin — and the Kremlin has supported him. As recently as 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry for assistance in getting Deripaska a U.S. visa, The Post reported.
In a written statement, Deripaska said that he considered Ust-Labinsk home and that he spent more time there than in Moscow.
“Our efforts are a drop in the ocean,” he said. “Until the residents of the district start to get involved themselves, fundamentally, nothing will change.”
The area has come to rely on Deripaska’s money. He paid for the seed and fertilizer for the children’s sugar-beet cultivation contest and for the sand for a village beach volleyball court. When the director of the district history museum heard about a site where the invading Germans may have massacred local Jews in World War II, he asked Deripaska’s foundation for funding to examine it.
The museum director, Furkat Baychibayev, said it was a no-brainer to seek money from the foundation rather than the local government.
“It’s a more flexible system,” he said.
Although the U.S. Treasury lifted sanctions on his companies, Deripaska himself remains banned from doing business with any Americans. Sanctions helped cut Deripaska’s wealth to $3.6 billion from $6.7 billion in the past year, according to Forbes.
The sanctions have been felt in Ust-Labinsk, too.
Deripaska’s effort to bring foreign companies into an industrial park he built in the district broke down after the U.S. sanctions were announced, Ryabchenyuk said. So did a deal to buy a combine harvester from John Deere, according to Dreeris, the farm manager.
Dreeris said Deripaska has been spending more time on the property lately and has shown interest in expanding his farming operation. It already boasts plums, apricots, 56 varieties of apples, dairy and beef cows, quail, rabbits, a food-safety laboratory and an animal-feed processing plant. Much of what Deripaska doesn’t consume is sold in local markets.
“It’s said that the locals eat what the oligarch eats,” Dreeris said. “It’s very prestigious for them.”