Sitting in front of a twinkling digital map of Russia, Vladimir Putin tried to laugh off an awkward question about a flurry of investigations into the business dealings of his nearest and dearest. “They are impossible to read,” he said, during his recent annual news conference. “I flicked through, since this seems to concern me, but everything is piled together and I didn’t get to the end.”

Unlike their president, many Russians were captivated by the reports. Emerging in the space of just a fortnight, the three investigations focused on what critics say is the nepotism and corruption at the heart of Putin’s 21-year rule. The first, by The Insider, an independent Web site, reported that Alina Kabaeva, an Olympic gymnastics champion who is said to be Putin’s lover, had been paid an annual salary of $10 million after being appointed to head a pro-Kremlin media group, despite having no relevant experience.

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