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It is a Tuesday morning in Moscow. A French count is sitting opposite me, the ex-wife of Vladimir Putin’s spokesman is perched to my right and a 3ft portrait of Karl Marx is looming down on us. The soundtrack is Sade’s “Smooth Operator”. It will be another two hours until the vodka comes out. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The last time I was in Count Jacques von Polier’s flat was February 2012. I arrived with two friends in the middle of a party celebrating the Romanov family. Inside was the Romanov family heir — a Chicago-born twenty-something named Rostislav, or “Rosty” for short — a dozen of his and von Polier’s friends, and a 2ft-tall platter of French macarons. The conversation veered from arranged marriages to art to the virtues of Vladivostok versus the Greek islands. Out of respect to the Romanovs, von Polier had draped the entire flat in white sheets to hide his numerous Soviet artworks.
A count with a title dating back to the Huguenot era, von Polier, 35, grew up in France but moved to Moscow as a student in 1996 to explore his roots: one of his forebears ran logistics for Napoleon’s army (unsuccessfully) and settled in Russia after the war; the family fled during the 1917 revolution.
With a couple of Russian university friends — and just $400 to his name, he claims — von Polier founded a series of real estate and human resource companies in the late 1990s, before losing almost everything in Russia’s 1998 financial crisis. By 2000, he was working as a stockbroker for one of Moscow’s first brokerages. A few years later, he and a partner acquired Raketa, Russia’s oldest watch company. A well-known brand in the Soviet era, which in its heyday produced 5m mechanical watches a year, the company faltered in the 1990s and 2000s. Under von Polier’s ownership, business has started to improve, but revenue took a hit last year with the devaluation of the rouble.
Outside the watch business, von Polier is also known for his raucous house parties, a combination of Animal House meets 19th-century Parisian salon. At the last party a few days before our interview, the supermodel Natalia Vodianova was a guest, von Polier says. As evidence, he pulls up a video of him and Vodianova engaged in a frenetic pas de deux, while a live gypsy band and dozens of guests cheer them on.
On a similar night, a few years earlier, von Polier met Ekaterina Peskova, the then wife of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman since 2000 and a lion of Moscow politics. Peskova and her husband divorced last May and a few months later, she and von Polier came out publicly as a couple in a six-page spread in Russian Tatler. “I know some other people in Moscow who have these parties where all these other people come. But they don’t have gypsies. I don’t know anyone else here who invites gypsies,” says Peskova, who has come to perch next to von Polier in leather pants and four-inch heels.
While VIP guests may be part of the draw to von Polier’s parties, the star attraction is the flat, which is located on the top floor of a pre-revolutionary building on Moscow’s famous boulevard ring. The building was built in 1805 and is one of the few in central Moscow that survived the Napoleonic war. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks turned the flat into a centre to re-educate the Moscow bourgeois about Leninism. In the second half of the 20th century, it was converted into a kommunalka, or shared apartment, for five families.
In 2000, when von Polier first looked around the flat, all five families were still living there. Employing a practice common in Moscow at the time, he bought out the families and purchased new apartments for each of them on the outskirts of Moscow, spending a total of $150,000, he says. He then spent a further $20,000 on renovating the flat.
The result is a brightly coloured, Bohemian-style, three-bedroom apartment that pays homage to everyone from the poets Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky to Karl Marx and the scientist Ivan Pavlov. Vladimir Lenin’s likeness appears half-a-dozen times around the flat in various two and three-dimensional forms.
“People started bringing Lenins because they thought I was a collector. But I’m not a collector at all. I don’t really like the guy to be perfectly honest,” says von Polier. It is a somewhat dubious claim. One large portrait of the revolutionary leader hangs directly above the apartment’s standalone bathtub, the politician’s gaze pointing almost directly at where the naked bather would be.
Von Polier says he found one of his Lenin busts after emerging “sort of drunk” from a nightclub. “I tried to catch a taxi with it but it was impossible: first I was drunk and then there’s Lenin. The taxi drivers were quite afraid,” he recalls. “I put it in a backyard somewhere nearby and hid it and then went home. And when I woke up I remembered: I had a Lenin last night!” The bust now sits proudly in his foyer.
The flat is a strange place to find Peskova, who for years lived a life confined to Russian overseas embassies, diplomatic functions and in Moscow’s exclusive Rublyovka neighbourhood, the suburban hideaway where most of the country’s business and political elite live.
The Peskovs’ split was the latest in a spate of high-profile Moscow political divorces, coming just months after Putin’s own. Yet while the former Mrs Putin has disappeared from view, Peskova has taken the direct opposite approach, flaunting her new footloose and jet-set lifestyle on Instagram and doling out a tell-all interview to Tatler. It has not garnered her the best reputation. “In Russia people like victims. I am not a victim,” says Peskova. “I don’t know why they hate me so much. It’s like I had to die and be poor and stay crying for the rest of my life. When they see that I survived and that I’m OK, they hate it.”
Peskova’s new life hasn’t been hassle free. When she tried to go on holiday with her children to Disney World, Florida, she was refused a US visa because of her connections, regardless of the fact her husband is not under US sanctions.
Despite this, Peskova says the current geopolitical climate has done nothing to dampen her warm feelings towards Europe and the US. Her new French boyfriend, meanwhile, has become a vocal supporter of the Putin regime, even though he has no direct ties to the administration. The count says he doesn’t agree with all Putin’s policies but has publicly backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Last year, after the west and the US levied sanctions against Russia, von Polier threatened to stop selling one of his watch brands abroad in his own symbolic counter sanctions.
Not long after the terrorist attack on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Raketa released T-shirts bearing the slogan “Je suis Rossiya”.
“Russians and those who support Russia are far from terrorists as the western press writes but rather a peaceful people who since the moment of the Soviet Union’s collapse have participated less in wars than Nato countries,” wrote von Polier in a statement announcing the release of the T-shirt. An accompanying photograph shows him with two young brunette models, all sporting the new design.
“It makes me really sad that Europe is behaving like a small dog to whom [the US] is saying go left, go right, sit, stand up,” says von Polier, shaking his head. “Economically Europe is suffering from [the sanctions] and politically getting totally lost and losing its identity.”
It is time to leave. But first von Polier goads the FT’s photographer into taking vodka shots with him (or perhaps it is vice versa). Soon the two, plus Peskova, are gamely clinking and downing multiple glasses. “Our goal is that in a few years Raketa will be the same for Russia that Louis Vuitton is for France!” declares von Polier. Viva la revolution.
Painted by a friend, this portrait is meant to convey “the life of an aristocrat,” says von Polier, “but it’s her interpretation, not mine”. While the scattered lingerie, naked girls and plates of crustaceans may be a figment of the artist’s imagination, a couple of details are true to life: von Polier admits he has a weakness for Taittinger Brut and is obsessed with Machiavelli’s The Prince. “It’s my favourite book,” he says. The portrait, together with its subjects and props, was painted over the course of multiple sittings. “We had a pig here for a week,” adds Von Polier.
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s deputy Moscow bureau chief
Photographs: Frank Herfort