One of Putin’s former palace guards has spoken out about working to protect him in Crimea.
Vitaly Brizhaty described to Insider a toxic environment with sharp-elbowed colleagues vying for power.
You have to watch everything you say “because every word may be used against you,” he said.
A former security officer has described working at one of President Vladimir Putin’s luxury palaces, where ultra-loyal staff vie for power and advancement.
Vitaly Brizhaty, who left Russia’s Federal Protective Service and fled the country earlier this year, described a toxic atmosphere where everyone worked for the security agency and you had to watch what you said for fear of reprisals.
Insider, who spoke to Brizhaty via an interpreter, has seen documents attesting to his former role at the Federal Protective Service — or FSO — the government agency concerned with guarding high-ranking officials, including Putin himself.
Insider has also seen Brizhaty’s resignation letter, which he wrote on February 24, 2022, citing the war in Ukraine as his reason for wanting to leave the service.
But the luxury of the Olivye palace compound, compared to ordinary Russian lives, also disgusted Brizhaty, he now says.
“I could never understand why Russia, such a rich country, has to suffer — why Russians cannot live well and only the government can live so well.”
Looking out for “Number One”
According to documents seen by Insider, Brizhaty, a dog handler, joined the FSO in 2021. He told Insider he was stationed at the palace of Olivye, a Soviet-era state-owned complex that has been in Putin’s use since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The FSO has an estimated 50,000 people protecting Putin and his senior officials.
Brizhaty’s job was to help make security arrangements for Putin’s arrival at the palace, or around Crimea.
If Putin — known internally as “Number One” — were due to visit a school, for example, “our service would arrive nine hours prior to the visit and check the entire territory thoroughly,” he said.
The arrival of “Number One” in Crimea demonstrated how little Putin trusts his own security service.
It was handled in two different ways, with most of Putin’s own officers unaware of the real route. “Ninety percent of the people do not know how he would arrive,” said Brizhaty.
There could either be a huge fanfare, with every airport on alert with a flurry of cars, helicopters, and ranks of guards, with a cortege moving between airports pretending that Putin was in one of the cars.
Or, Brizhaty said, there would be total silence. “Suddenly the police gets word that Putin is somewhere in Crimea,” he said, and barely anybody would know how.
A lavish “little town” behind 10-foot walls
According to a 2019 investigation by the independent Russian outlet Proekt, the palace at Olivye is a vast complex and includes a competition-standard ice hockey rink, swimming pools, saunas, a 60-bed staff dormitory with marble walls and a marble elevator, and a winter garden.
Satellite images of the site also appear to show woodlands, beaches, a small port, and a helipad.
“It’s a fantasy place,” Brizhaty said, according to The Telegraph’s translation of an interview he gave independent Russian outlet TV Rain. “There are fitness halls, fountains, beautiful parks, tea houses, barbecue zones and beaches.”
Armed divers also scour the beach for assassins, he told TV Rain.
One key aspect of the compound was that no matter their actual job, every single member of staff there was a security officer, Brizhaty told Insider.
“Everybody who works there, [even] a person who is cutting the grass or washing the linen, works for the FSO,” he said.
While Brizhaty had long quietly supported the views of dissident Russian campaigner Alexei Navalny, he says that as far as he knew, everybody else there was loyal.
“Some people truly believe that they are doing an important job,” he said, adding: “They don’t notice the luxury, or they believe that the president has a right to have this luxury.”
Brizhaty said he earned 68,000 rubles (about $700) a month, but said a sharp-elbowed working culture kept him on his toes.
While some co-workers were more agreeable, many appeared to take a leaf out of Putin’s book.
“There are people there who are like him. It’s hard to explain,” he said.
“They are trying to find faults with you,” he added. “You have to watch everything you are saying in front of them, because every word may be used against you.”
“The thing is, this is the kind of service where nothing happens,” he continued. “And the only way to make a career and to promote yourself is to tell on others.”
Forced to protect a warmonger
That culture was a particular problem for Brizhaty when Putin’s tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders.
Brizhaty, who was under no illusions that it was a full-scale invasion – despite everyone around him calling it a “special military operation” — offered his resignation the same day.
It was torn up and thrown in the trash, he said.
“I was told that my anti-war position may result in an arrest, and I may end up in prison for about eight years,” he said.
He was under such pressure after that that even the psychologist he reached out to passed information from their private sessions straight back to his superiors, he said.
Eventually, Brizhaty found a loophole that would allow him to leave: his wife found a job abroad and he was able to accompany her to Ecuador.
But in the weeks before that he was under immense pressure to renounce his views, he said, which forced him to stay quiet while forming a secret plan to get out.
Now in exile, Brizhaty says that the 10-foot-high fence that surrounds the palace at Olivye is a potent symbol of the divide between Putin and the Russian people.
“He works for the people, and he should work in people’s interests,” he said. “He should not protect himself against his own people.”
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