Dictators have always fussed over interior decor, the furniture and soft furnishings, the accoutrements, color schemes and wall art that say so much about a tyrant. No matter how much stolen money the despot spends on his gold taps and marble-lined mega-jacuzzi, the result always ends up looking cheap and hideous.
Nicolae Ceausescu, the last Communist ruler of Romania, favored gilded Balkan kitsch in his many palaces, interiors of mismatching charcoal and pink, leopard skin everywhere, rococo bathrooms with bizarre body-cleansing gadgets and gaudy chandeliers as big as cars.
Colonel Gaddhafi splurged on a huge gold sofa shaped like a mermaid and depicting his daughter’s face. Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic spent a quarter of his country’s total budget in 1977 on a garish coronation ceremony for himself, seated on a gold-plated eagle seven feet high, surrounded by fake Napoleonic tat.
In his 65 palaces Saddam Hussein favored gold-inlaid light switches, swords and sorcery fantasy art on the walls, and mother-of-pearl lavatory paper holders. “If a reason to invade Iraq was wanted,” the late American political satirist PJ O’Rourke wrote when describing Saddam’s homes and interiors, “felony interior decorating would have done.”
The fashion writer Peter York coined the term “dictator style” to describe the combination of bad taste and bling common to all despots, in which every object and design statement must be ornate, oversize, overpriced and spanking new. The despots’ world of interiors is not about style, comfort or even real value, but intimidation, display and indulgence. These places are not meant to be seen by the oppressed masses, but to cow courtiers, dazzle sycophants and impress visiting dignitaries.
Colonel Gaddhafi splurged on a huge gold sofa shaped like a mermaid and depicting his daughter’s face.
Boris Johnson is no dictator but now that we know the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat cost $239,000, who wouldn’t want to peer inside at the $7,100 lamp, the $4,400 drinks trolley and the notorious Lulu Lytle wallpaper?
Vladimir Putin has taken dictator style to new extremes, displaying a level of crass bad taste and extravagance that makes Imelda Marcos look positively restrained and refined. The Russian president’s Italianate palace on the Black Sea has a good claim to be the ugliest, flashiest and nastiest building ever built, a pleasure dome decreed by a man entirely devoid of taste, and built on corruption.
The full horror of the place was revealed last year by the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s investigative team. The vast complex is an emetic riot of chandeliers, frescoes, gilded stucco, wood paneling and plush velvet.
The swimming pool is flanked by neoclassical marble columns and decorated with busts of Greek gods; the hookah lounge includes a pole-dancing platform; the building cost an estimated $1.2 billion, and includes a wine cellar, ornate theater, aqua-discotheque, helipad, arboretum, saunas, a storage room for therapeutic mud, underground ice hockey rink, Turkish baths and a casino. The master bedroom is 260 square meters. Almost every wall features a golden image of Russia’s two-headed eagle. The walls are entirely free of art, but there are slot machines in the corridors, like Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A single, horrible, leather sofa cost 20 million rubles ($237,000), according to plans obtained by Navalny’s team. A tunnel leads to the waterfront.
The Putin palace style might best be described as “Soviet bordello owner meets Louis XIV (while drunk)”. The grounds are roughly 39 times the size of Monaco. The furniture is Italian, gruesome, and vast, in keeping with the 20-foot-long white, lacquered and gilded table Putin has put in the Kremlin, with himself at one end and visiting heads of state, in the distance, at the other.
The Russian president loves a monstrous table. A week ago, Putin was photographed at the far side of a Kazakh conference table the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Hitler also used tables to project power. The Paris interior decorator House of Jansen was brought in to design a lavish banqueting room for the Reichsbank headquarters, with a table seating 150 guests replete with a gold dinner service.
Putin usually ignores Navalny. But after the video mocking his palace was watched 121 million times on YouTube within a few weeks, he felt obliged to respond. It was “boring”, Putin said. And he is right. The entire grotesque display manages to be simultaneously wildly ostentatious and very tedious. Most pleasing of all, it is also falling down.
There is an “Ozymandias” coda to every tyranny, a defining moment when the great monuments to ego built by the dictator are ransacked, torn down, or collapse. Shelley’s great poem captured the transitory nature of excessive power, the pharaoh’s huge statue crumbling to desert dust: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
The walls are entirely free of art, but there are slot machines in the corridors.
Images of American GIs lounging in the shattered remnants of Saddam’s gilded halls came to define the end of his rule. Uncovering the private vanity and luxury of the despot is a ritual of regime change: Elena Ceausescu’s diamond-encrusted high heels; Hermann Göring’s stolen art collection; Idi Amin’s Rolls-Royce Phantom V.
In 2002, a year after the fall of the Taliban, I stayed in the Kabul home once owned and furnished by Osama bin Laden, which had been taken over by US troops. It was a joy to discover that the supposedly ascetic terrorist had favored expensive French bidets in his green-tiled en-suite bathrooms. By the time I got there, every one had been smashed.
Putin’s palace has rising damp and a collapsing roof. The place is riddled with mold. Even before completion, it is having to be stripped out and entirely refurbished, which is what happens when you employ a bent builder. A state propaganda television team was dispatched to counter Navalny’s accusations of opulence, but succeeded in demonstrating only how badly it had been built: walls that had been adorned just a few months ago with the most expensive coverings stolen money can buy are now just bare, seeping concrete and exposed wiring.
The Russian strongman is still in power, but the tacky excesses of his palace, and its disintegration, have already been exposed to the world: look on my colossal tables and mold patches, ye mighty, and snigger.
Ben Macintyre is a writer at large for The Times of London and the best-selling author of The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work