Russian elites speaking against Putin's war from lush Scottish estates

The oligarch lairds (and their very glamorous wives) who are daring to defy Putin: Handful of Russian elites are raising their voices against war in Ukraine from their plush Scottish estates

  • Some Russian oligarchs on Scottish estates are speaking out against Putin’s war
  • As economic sanctions squeeze some, others are bravely standing up
  • They include a steel magnate, a banker and a former lingerie model among their ranks dissenting against the invasion of Ukraine

On one of the many winding tracks that snake around the rolling hills of Perthshire’s Aberuchill estate, a curious road sign has been erected. ‘Welcome to Aberuchill’ it proclaims, before going on to list its distance, in kilometres, from various Russian cities. Ivanovo, 2,697km. Novokuznetsk, 5,367km. Moscow, 2,547km.

No one is quite sure when it appeared but there is little doubt over who is behind it: Vladimir Lisin. Russian oligarch, rumoured Scottish estate owner and now unlikely critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Lisin, a steel magnate who is currently estimated by Forbes to be worth $21.9billion (£16.6billion) and who is believed to have owned Aberuchill estate since 2005, is understood at one time to have been a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Magnate: Vladimir Lisin is said to be worth £16.6bn

Yet last week, in a letter to steelworkers at his company NLMK Group, he wrote that ‘the death of people in Ukraine is a tragedy that is hard to justify or explain’.

Calling for an end to the war as soon as possible, he added: ‘I am convinced that peaceful diplomatic conflict resolution is always preferable to the use of force.’

It is an extraordinary U-turn for a man who was photographed shaking hands with Putin as recently as 2017, was once named Russia’s richest man and whose business has undoubtedly benefited hugely from the Russian regime.

But when it comes to the oligarchs with supposed slices of land in Scotland – and there are more than you might think – he is not the only one who has spoken out.

Yuri Shefler, an exiled alcohol tycoon and the man behind Stolichnaya vodka, who is thought to own the 22,000-acre Tulchan estate on the River Spey, has also criticised the Putin regime, going so far as to change the name of the vodka brand from Stolichnaya to Stoli in direct response to the invasion.

‘While I have been exiled from Russia since 2000 due to my opposition to Putin, I have remained proud of the Stolichnaya brand,’ Shefler said in a press release.

Country life: Former lingerie model Tatiana Kovylina, the wife of Yuri Shefler, opposes the war

‘We have made the decision to rebrand entirely as the name no longer represents our organisation. More than anything, I wish for ‘‘Stoli’’ to represent peace in Europe and solidarity with Ukraine.’

He went on to state: ‘I have personally experienced persecution by Putin’s regime and I share the pain of Ukraine and its people.’

Another critic with Scottish interests is Dr Boris Mints, a Russian oligarch-turned-exile who once ran Russia’s largest private bank but is wanted by the state on charges of embezzlement.

He is understood to split his time between his London home and Tower of Lethendy, near Blairgowrie, Perthshire, and last month went as far as to describe Putin’s invasion as ‘the most tragic event of the 21st century to date, tantamount to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939’.

In an outspoken article for the Times of Israel condemning Russian actions, he highlighted the bravery of those Russians criticising Putin from inside the regime.

‘I am not pro-Putin and I do not stand with his kleptocracy. It has been all too easy for people to assume that anyone who has built a successful business in Russia is pro-Putin,’ he wrote.

‘But for those of us who have refused to comply, the response from Putin and his associates has been ruthless.

‘Whole businesses have been seized and, more than this, the authorities have targeted anyone who resists their corruption and illegality with fabricated criminal cases.’

Putin critic: Yuri Shefler is ‘in exile’ from Russia

It is perhaps tricky to discern the motivation of the oligarchs who have spoken out against Putin.

Could it be self-preservation against sanctions, which have hit other Russian billionaires such as Roman Abramovich who, alongside six other oligarchs, recently had their UK assets frozen?

Are they fearful their businesses will collapse? Or could it be that they are motivated simply by compassion, as the tragic images of the dead and injured in Ukraine continue to flood the airwaves?

Back in the halcyon days of the Putin regime, owning a piece of Scottish land along with an impressive London pad became something of a trophy for Russian oligarchs, a status symbol for an elite class of the super-rich who travelled the world in private jets and luxury yachts,.

In 2018, the US Treasury released the ‘Putin List’, a roll call of 210 prominent Russians, many with close ties to the Kremlin. Of the 96 oligarchs listed, three of them are understood to own – at arm’s length at least – properties in Scotland: Lisin, Shefler and Mints.

Meanwhile, a number of lesser Russian oligarchs (those worth less than $1billion by US Treasury estimates) and businessmen also have interests in various properties here, including, until recently, a whisky distillery.

But in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these often shadowy figures are under unwanted scrutiny, as evidenced by the UK Government’s move to sanction seven Russian oligarchs.

While none of those with interests in Scotland have yet been personally sanctioned by the international community, concerns have been raised north of the Border about Lisin in particular.

Astonishingly, despite Lisin’s personal wealth, Aberuchill received almost £700,000 of public money in agricultural subsidies between 2016 and 2019.

Nicola Sturgeon now says she has sought urgent advice on the ‘maximum possible action’ the Scottish Government could take against individuals and entities identified as having close links with the Russian regime, whether or not they are currently on the UK sanctions list.

Andy Wightman, a former MSP and land reform campaigner, said the Scottish Government should act sooner rather than later.

‘It’s open to governments ultimately to seize assets,’ he said. ‘It’s possible to do that and worry about the legal niceties later.

Banker: Dr Boris Mints is ‘wanted’ by Russian regime

‘You do need to have a legal basis to seize someone’s assets but you don’t need to over-worry about the exact legalities at the moment. I think governments should be bold in that respect because the only way effectively to deprive Russian oligarchs of the benefits they have accrued through property investment in the UK is to seize those assets.’

But sanctions from within Scotland may prove difficult, not least because most oligarch-owned land is held in secretive offshore firms. Aberuchill, for example, was bought not by Lisin, but by a company called Forestborne Limited, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.

While locals in the nearby village of Comrie talk of well-heeled Russian visitors to the estate, many of whom are then ferried into the hills for grouse shooting and deer stalking, strictly speaking the estate is not Russian-owned, although the curious sign on that winding track suggests otherwise.

Indeed, the sign itself could be read as a brief biography of 65-year-old Lisin, who so far has managed to avoid sanctions inside and outside the UK.

Born into humble beginnings in the city of Ivanovo, around 150 miles north of Moscow, he started out as an electrical fitter in a coal mine in Siberia before working as a steelworker in central Russia.

Rising through the ranks, he became a shop manager and then a factory manager before, in 1992, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, joining a group of traders who won control of Russia’s steel and aluminium industry.

When the group split in 2000, he became the sole owner of Novolipetsk Steel, one of the country’s biggest steel firms.

The company flourished under his management and in 2010 he was named Russia’s richest man.

The sign names Novokuznetsk, home to his biggest steel plant, Temirtau, a city in Kazakhstan where he is understood to have interests in another metal plant; Moscow, where he has a home; and, most intriguingly, Foxlodge, his hunting lodge outside the Russian capital.

In his spare time Lisin is a shooting enthusiast, and president of the European Shooting Confederation. It was perhaps this that led to his interest in Aberuchill, which was purchased in 2005 for £6.8million. Its 3,300 acres include the spectacular 16th century Aberuchill castle, and some of the finest deer stalking and grouse shooting in Britain.

At the time, it was suggested that Abramovich had also been interested in the property. It is believed that around £800,000 over the asking price was paid in order to snap it up.

About 35 miles north of Aberuchill sits the Tower of Lethendy, near Blairgowrie, described as a ‘fairytale castle’ with 39 acres, an 18-hole golf course, two tennis courts and a swimming pool.

It was bought in 2016 through a Cayman Islands-registered company, MFT Braveheart, for £2.5million, and is now understood to be an occasional home to Mints, 63, who once had a personal wealth of $1.2billion. In 2017 his private Russian bank, Otkritie, collapsed and was bailed out, alongside two other private banks, by the Russian central bank for almost $50billion.

In 2019 the Russian central bank filed a $1.3billion lawsuit against Otkritie’s former owners in order to cover part of the losses incurred during the bailout.

By 2020 relations had deteriorated so much that Russian authorities announced they were seeking Mints on embezzlement charges and asked Interpol to issue an international arrest warrant for him and two of his sons.

Interpol eventually turned down the application but Mints has been in exile in Britain, dividing his time between his London home and the Tower of Lethendy, ever since.

In contrast, how much time 54-year-old Shefler spends at the Tulchan estate on the River Spey with his wife, former Victoria’s Secret model Tatiana Kovylina, and their four children, is unclear.

The estate has a glossy website offering memberships that promise ‘the most private of private members’ clubs’, with five-star accommodation, shooting and fishing trips, and ‘unforgettable’ dining experiences.

Membership prices are reported to start at £95,000 a year.

Yet again, Shefler’s rumoured ownership of Tulchan is at arm’s length. The estate is actually owned by Tulchan Sporting Estates Ltd, which in turn is owned by a limited company and trust in the tax haven of Guernsey.

Still, the sale of Tulchan caused a stir in 2017: it went for £25million, the most expensive sporting estate ever sold in Scotland.

Shefler’s SPI Group supplies alcohol to 170 countries, but not Russia, which he claims he has been exiled from since 2000 ‘due to my opposition to Putin’.

His wife, who runs a clothing brand and is active on Instagram, has also been critical. She posted in English wishing her followers a happy International Women’s Day and adding ‘may we all live in peace and love’ – and has also written plaintively in Russian on her feed criticising the war.

Not all Russians with interests in Scotland have spoken out. In 2017, Evgeny Strzhalkovsky is believed to have bought Knockdow House on the Cowal peninsula.

s said to be worth £16.6bn Road to riches: The sign at Aberuchill estate, Perthshire

He is the son of Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former KGB agent who served alongside Putin before making around $400million in nickel mining. Both generations of the family clearly spend time here – in June 2021 Strzhalkovsky Snr’s £59million yacht the Ragnar was spotted at Greenock cruise terminal – but both have been silent on the Russian invasion.

Others have pulled out of Scotland. Fife whisky maker Lindores was majority-owned by a group of Russian businessmen until last week, when the distillery confirmed that the Russian investors had resigned as non-executive directors of the company.

In a clipped statement the company said it had never hidden the fact that it had Russian investors.

‘They are certainly not oligarchs and certainly not on any sanctions list. They are first and foremost whisky lovers,’ the company said.

‘We at Lindores, however, utterly deplore and condemn the current situation in Ukraine. We have been in frequent discussions with our Russian shareholders and today they are resigning as non-executive directors of the company.’

Back at Aberuchill, as spring starts to bloom on the low-lying hills, there is one last destination on that strange Russian road sign.

‘Future’ it reads, followed by the mathematical symbol for infinity.

A future that now, as the war continues to rage in Ukraine, has never seemed more uncertain, both for those who have benefited from the Putin regime, and those who have had their entire livelihoods ripped apart by it.

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