In spotlessly-clean streets that weave between Cartier, Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores, mega-rich Russians stroll with their pampered pooches.
Far from the murderous cruelty destroying Ukrainian cities, the opulent Swiss lakeside idyll of Lugano is rumoured to be where Vladimir Putin ’s lover has been holed up since her partner started his devastating invasion.
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Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Alina Kabaeva – once described as “Russia ’s most flexible woman“ – reportedly travelled to a “very private and very secure” chalet near here with the couple’s young children as the tanks rolled in.
Widely believed to be the mother of Putin’s two sons and a daughter – or possibly two daughters – Kabaeva, 38, lives in a luxurious bubble, shielded from the horrors her 69-year-old partner is inflicting on innocent children.
Switzerland has a long history of providing low-tax secrecy to the world’s most powerful. Here, the Kremlin tyrant’s family is unlikely to be exposed.
A source in Lugano, close to the Italian border, said: “Before the coronavirus pandemic there was often gossip about Putin’s mistress being in town. They are known to have strong connections here, but anyone who knows them has been sworn to secrecy.
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“While Russia falls apart because of the sanctions, this is the perfect place for Putin to send Alina and their kids.”
Claims of Putin’s links to Lugano first surfaced seven years ago.
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In February 2015, a local TV station reported that Kabeava had given birth at a private VIP maternity clinic in Sorengo, on the periphery of the city.
They were said to have reserved two rooms at the discreet private maternity hospital Clinic Sant’Anna – a favourite of wealthy Russians.
One suite was for the birth; the second for family and bodyguards. According to insiders, President Putin was present.
The Kremlin, of course, dismissed the rumours, as it does any query about Putin’s private life.
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Kabaeva, one of the most decorated rhythmic gymnasts in history, has never confirmed whether they have one daughter, or twin girls.
Likewise, neither has ever addressed claims they got married in a secret ceremony after Putin divorced his first wife.Bathed in balmy spring sunshine this week, the contrast between the restful serenity of the Sant’Anna and the maternity hospital bombed by Russian troops in Mariupol, Ukraine , could not be more stark.
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High-end clients drove expensive vehicles into an underground car park beneath a carefully manicured lawn, with a topiaried flamingo at the entrance.
Birdsong could be heard in the little vineyard nearby.
Meanwhile shells still pounded Mariupol at the other end of Europe, after heavily pregnant mums had been carried out on stretchers through the rubble.
In Lugano’s glistening Piazza Della Riforma, where Kabeava is said to have been seen on occasions, grey-haired men stroll past the café terraces with statuesque supermodel girlfriends.
Occasional snippets of Russian puncture predominantly Italian background chatter.
It is a sedate place dominated by banks, pharmacies and designer goods, and restaurants with eye-wateringly expensive menus.
Above Lake Lugano, modernist four-storey villas with infinity pools are embedded into the mountains.
Their owners drive directly onto the roof, and go downstairs in private elevators.
These are perfect properties for people wanting to keep clear of prying eyes,
Alina Kabaeva is not the only person close to Putin with links to Lugano.
Oligarch Alexey Mordashov, Russia’s second-richest man with a personal fortune estimated at £22bn last year, was added to the EU sanctions list last week.
Steel and mining baron Mordashov, 56, was targeted because of Rossiya Bank, in which he has a stake.
Rossiya was described as the “personal bank” of Russian officials who benefited from the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 .
The EU also said it believes media businesses Mordashov is invested in helped destabilise Ukraine through pro-Russian television stations.
The export arm of Mordashov’s steel and mining empire, Severstal, is located in an anonymous office building in a drab industrial park in Manno, on the outskirts of Lugano.
Mordashov’s below-the-radar presence is marked only on a list of business names on a sign in the car park.
Last week the billionaire’s private jet was tracked as flying back to the Seychelles from Moscow.
In a statement, Mordashov said he did not understand how his name was on the sanctions list, adding: “I have absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of the current geopolitical tension.”
Calling for an end to the current war, he went on: “It is terrible that Ukrainians and Russians are dying, people are suffering hardships, the economy is collapsing.”
Russia’s richest 0 .01% – who together possess wealth greater than the remaining 99 .9% of the population – are not only attracted by Switzerland’s pleasant climate and stunning vistas.
Recent data shows that around a third of their bank balances worldwide are in the Alpine nation.
According to a 2020 survey by Ernst&Young, banks in Zurich and Geneva are favoured by the oligarchs.
Putin’s childhood friend from St Petersburg, Gennady Timchenko, was based in Switzerland until 2014, when he was sanctioned by the US over the Crimean invasion.
When Russia invaded Ukraine a fortnight ago, Timchenko was one of the first oligarchs sanctioned by Britain.
Much of his wealth derived from being granted an oil export licence by Putin, his ice hockey buddy, in 1991 .
He still owns a gigantic mansion on Lake Geneva.
Like upmarket Belgravia in London, Switzerland has long been a playground for Putin’s oligarch friends with their limitless wealth.
For Alina Kabaeva and Putin’s unseen children, it could also remain the ideal bolthole while her despot partner keeps shelling innocent civilians.
Previously given high-profile political appointments because of her relationship, she is accustomed to obeying her bullying partner.
As global outrage against Putin’s despicable war gets louder, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis still purr around Lake Lugano.
Photo Credit: Getty