January 21, 2021 - 7:00am

It’s been called ‘Putin’s secret palace’ — a £1billion complex built upon on the Black Sea coast. But contrary to the impression given by the latest set of breathless reports, the existence of the palace is not a secret. It’s been known about (though shrouded in mystery) for several years.

As to its ownership, the Kremlin denies it was built for the use of the Russian President — or that he has any relationship to the project. That is disputed by opposition activists — most recently Alexei Navalny, who was detained on his return to Russia this week.

At first sight, a palace might not seem to be the smartest way of hiding ill-gotten gains. If secrecy is of the essence, then a store of value that can be seen from space isn’t exactly subtle. A Swiss bank account is discreet; a private estate 19 times the size of Monaco, not so much.

Of course, if you happen to control the courts in your country then that probably doesn’t matter. Indeed, it may be the verdict of history that you really care about. Long after you’ve left your Earthly rewards behind, what will posterity think about your little indulgences? Given enough time, people won’t care about where the money came from, they’ll be too busy gawping at the fixtures and fittings.

Look at our own stately homes and castles. Do we imagine that every penny used to build them was honestly arrived at? Obviously not. The fact is that the grand monuments left behind by our ancestors — from Stonehenge onward — owes their existence to the extreme concentration of wealth.

That said, good taste is essential. A legacy of tacky decor and dodgy architecture will do nothing to rehabilitate a ruler’s reputation.

What, then, are we to make of the (alleged) ‘Putin palace’? Italianate in style, if gargantuan in scale, it doesn’t look too shabby. Yes, it’s bit of a wedding cake, but then so is Buckingham Palace. This week we got to see some photographs that are claimed to be of the interior. The tabloids were especially interested in the casino room and what The Sun describes as a “red velvet pole dancing boudoir”.

This does raise aesthetic concerns, but if you think about it, much-loved landmarks like the Brighton Pavilion aren’t exactly models of restraint. And don’t forget about the solid gold toilet of Blenheim Palace (the thieves who made off with it certainly didn’t). Lavishness doesn’t have to be tacky — not if the craftsmanship is of a sufficiently high standard.

So when it comes down to it, what’s the real difference between spectacular state corruption and precious national heritage?

About a hundred years, I’d say.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.