Putin’s Flagship Forum Offers Stage to Children of His Elite

Vladimir Putin turns his native St. Petersburg into the heart of power for his flagship economic event this week. Increasingly, the gathering in Russia’s former imperial capital is becoming a generational showcase for the children of the Kremlin elite.

The president’s daughters, Maria Vorontsova and Katerina Tikhonova, are among speakers at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that begins Wednesday. Former Defense Minister and current Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu’s daughter, Ksenia, also takes part in a panel event.

Katerina Tikhonova speaks via video link during a panel session at SPIEF in 2021.Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

So does Kremlin Chief of Staff Anton Vaino’s son, Alexander. Anna Tsivileva, named as a relative of Putin’s by the UK government and who’s married to Energy Minister Sergey Tsivilev, is also due to speak as head of a state fund set up by the president last year to help soldiers who’ve fought in the war on Ukraine.

Maria Vorontsova at SPIEF in 2022.Photographer: Alexei Danichev/Sputnik/AP Photo

“The rise of the princes – children of representatives of the political elite” has begun, Yevgeny Minchenko, a political scientist who’s worked with the Kremlin, said in a report on Russia’s power structure called “Politburo 2.0,” a reference to the former Soviet Union’s system of government. Kinship is now an “essential” factor under Putin, he said.

Children of some of the president’s closest allies are also listed as participants at the four-day event, including Roman Rotenberg, whose father Boris was among Putin’s childhood judo partners.

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Russian business chiefs and officials flock to St. Petersburg for SPIEF, eager to please a ruler whose February 2022 invasion of Ukraine drained much of the glitz and energy from an event that attracted global leaders before Russia was hit by unprecedented sanctions. Putin’s address to the forum’s plenary on Friday is the invitation-only hot ticket for attendees, who pay a hefty 1.35 million rubles ($15,200) to attend this year’s SPIE.

French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe all appeared at SPIEF in the past. Now there are few Western figures, and the forum has tilted toward “friendly” countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa in search of prominent guests.

Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi at SPIEF in 2017.Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Once aimed at luring US and European investors as a “window” into Russia, SPIEF now has a distinctly anti-Western agenda. This year’s schedule includes discussion panels such as “Requiem for Europe: A New Era of International Cooperation” and “‘The Empire of Evil’: Has the West Successfully Demonized Russia?”

Private and state companies still compete to throw the most lavish parties at venues including palaces of former counts and princes. The city’s Mariinsky Theater stages opera and ballet performances, and there’s a gala concert on the main Palace Square.

Putin hasn’t publicly acknowledged Vorontsova, 39, and Tikhonova, 37, are his daughters, even as they’ve gained increasingly prominent roles. The US, the European Union and the UK sanctioned both women over his war in Ukraine.

The US Treasury said Tikhonova’s work supported Russia’s defense industry while Vorontsova “leads state-funded programs that have received billions of dollars from the Kremlin toward genetics research and are personally overseen by Putin.”

Tikhonova, who’s head of the Innopraktika center that’s backed by many of Russia’s most powerful state companies, will speak on the military-industrial complex at SPIEF. Vorontsova, an endocrinologist, is due to speak on bioeconomics as a representative of the Russian Association for the Promotion of Science.

Anton VainoPhotographer: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Alexander Vaino, who’s in charge of youth work at the Kremlin’s Agency for Strategic Initiatives, is listed at a session on personnel issues alongside First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and two billionaire tycoons, Suek and EuroChem co-founder Andrey Melnichenko and Severstal owner Alexey Mordashov.

The forum later deleted Melnichenko from the speakers’ list, and his representative confirmed that he isn’t going to St. Petersburg.

Ksenia Shoigu, 33, whose father was ousted after 12 years as defense minister by Putin last month, is moderating a session on Russian sports. Rotenberg, 43, who’s first vice-president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, is listed as a speaker on a panel about media leagues in sport.

There’s a “gradual transfer of power to the heirs” taking place, said Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is an attempt to renew, rejuvenate the elite.”

Ksenia Shoigu, right, with Vladimir Putin and her father Sergei Shoigu, in Kronshtadt, in 2022.Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

That’s partly because Putin, 71, and his inner circle are growing old together as the president extends his quarter-century rule for another six years to 2030 after winning a fifth term in March’s election. He could remain president to 2036, when he’d be 83.

Putin’s own roots were the focus of one company’s exhibition stand at SPIEF that presented a family tree tracing his relatives back to the 17th century, according to the RBC news site. One of Putin’s relatives helped compile the tree, RBC reported, citing a company official.

Some of the second Kremlin generation already hold high positions. Dmitry Patrushev, who’s attending SPIEF, was promoted to deputy prime minister in the government shuffle that followed Putin’s inauguration last month. He’s the son of 72-year-old Nikolai Patrushev, the long-serving security council secretary whom Putin replaced with Shoigu, aged 69, last month.

Boris Kovalchuk, 46, was last month appointed to head the Audit Chamber that monitors state spending. His father Yuri, 72, is a sanctioned financier described as Putin’s “personal banker” by the US Treasury.

“To be safe, you have to be in the system” under Putin’s authoritarian rule, said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. While many of Russia’s elite sent their offspring abroad before the war, “now that this opportunity has become harder, the way to protect themselves is to appoint their children as bosses.