The Kremlin cruisers who love to mess about in boats

As poverty grips ordinary Russians, Simon O'Hagan looks at how the ruling elite enjoys ships off the old bloc
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Indy Lifestyle Online
No Waterfront dacha would be complete without one: a luxury motor cruiser for those lazy summer holidays, or for entertaining one's rich and powerful guests. In a post-Soviet Russia where for a few at any rate, there is big money to be made, they are not so unusual - and certainly the President of the Republic did not want to miss out.

As a result, two very desirable craft, built by the prestigious Fairline company in Oundle in Northamptonshire and costing a combined total of more than pounds 300,000, are now at the disposal of Boris Yeltsin and senior Russian officials - one moored at Yeltsin's dacha on a lake near the Finnish border, the other in dock on the river Moskva in Moscow, thought to be awaiting transfer to another Yeltsin dacha being built at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

As the Russian economy continues to lurch along in crisis, and life for many citizens is blighted by near-poverty, such indulgences seem surprising to say the least. But more startling still are the lengths to which the authorities went to get the boats to Russia from the south of France - using the full panoply of military back-up.

The boats were not bought directly by the Russian government, but by a Swiss intermediary - a multi-national construction firm called Mabetex, based in Lugano. Mabetex has been hired by the Russian government for numerous building projects - including refurbishment of the Kremlin - and its president, Behgjet Pacolli, counts himself a close friend of Yeltsin's.

While Russian officials were last week saying they had "no information" about the boats Mr Pacolli confirmed that his firm had delivered them and that it was paid by the Russians. It was part of Mabetex's deal with the government to provide add-on services of this kind. "The boats are for security use or if the President wants to receive guests," Mr Pacolli said.

The 29-foot Targa (on the water for pounds 66,016 excluding VAT) "packs a punch that even some larger boats can't match", according the Fairline brochure. The 42-foot Phantom (pounds 193,312 excluding VAT) is described as offering "a near-perfect solution to family cruising". Both boats were supplied by a French dealer, Arie de Boom Marine, based at La Napoule just outside Cannes - the luxury cruiser capital of the world.

By the standards of many of the boats Arie de Boom deals in, these were quite modest. But that may have had less to do with presidential self- restraint than the height limits of the Russian airforce Antonov cargo plane that was sent to collect them from Marseilles airport last June. Length was not a problem, and in weight terms the plane flew back to Russia virtually empty: capable of carrying 350 tons, its load came to a mere 18 tons.

It was when the boats arrived at St Petersburg airport that the full scale of the operation became apparent. Murray Bray, the Arie de Boom representative who oversaw delivery, was there to witness it: "At least 200 soldiers were on duty at the airport," Mr Bray, who is British, said. "The boats were then checked for explosives."

The smaller of the two boats was taken to a lake north of the nearby town of Petrozadovsk. A couple of weeks later Yeltsin was seen on board it on television. The second boat was transported to Moscow, where it is understood to be awaiting transfer to Sochi. Earlier this month an Arie de Boom engineer went to pack it up for the winter and reported that he had found little trace that it had been used at all. No doubt its time will come.