by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 21
January 2021

Does good taste excuse grand corruption?

There's little difference between state malfeasance and national heritage
by Peter Franklin
Putin’s corruption will be a footnote to these magnificent doors — in a hundred years. Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion

  • As so often, the headline bears no relation to the article. It might have done so had Putin and others of his ilk actually created structures of taste and discernment. Even then, the answer might be ‘No’.

    But such people will never create of leave anything of taste or discernment as they have spent their entire lives obsessed with politics or making money. Thus their minds either never held the capacity for taste or discernment, or they have not had the time to develop any taste or discernment. Much though I liked Trump’s policies as President, he is no different in this respect.

    This lack of taste or discernment seems particularly to affect the political and business leaders of our age, those of past ages often having left buildings and art collections etc of considerable merit.

  • And don’t forget about the solid gold toilet of Blenheim Palace (the thieves who made off with it certainly didn’t).

    Not a well-chosen example in this context. That was a work of art in an exhibition by conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, not a part of the plumbing installed by a duke in an excess of bad taste. I presume that part of the artist’s intention was to satirise the taste for opulence, not to pander to it.

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