Putin’s daughters and anti-western hawks rule at this year’s ‘Russian Davos’

<span>The 27th St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which ended yesterday, drew delegates from around the world – though western representatives were conspicuously absent.</span><span>Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock</span>
The 27th St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which ended yesterday, drew delegates from around the world – though western representatives were conspicuously absent.Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

At Vladimir Putin’s premier economic forum, dubbed the “Russian Davos” and held each year in the president’s home town of St Petersburg, two women spoke at length. Their identities were an open secret, yet no one dared utter it aloud: they were Putin’s adult daughters.

The older daughter, Maria Vorontsova, 39, a scientist specialising in genetic research, chaired a discussion at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) on “Bioeconomics”.

The same day, Katerina Tikhonova, 37, a tech executive and dancer of acrobatic rock’n’roll, spoke proudly about the defence industry’s role in ensuring Russia’s technological sovereignty.

The identities of Putin’s daughters from his marriage to Lyudmila Putina, a former Aeroflot steward whom he divorced in 2013, have never been confirmed by the Kremlin, and no photographs of them as adults have been officially released. Despite their growing influence and the fact that they have been sanctioned by the west, Putin has never publicly acknowledged them as his daughters. Once asked by reporters, he simply referred to them as “these women”.

Their names were also conspicuously absent from a detailed Putin family tree presented to the public at SPIEF 2024. The display, held on a stand which guests could take pictures next to, traced the president’s lineage back to the 17th-century Time of Troubles, revealing his humble origins from a peasant family.

But the two women’s rising public profiles indicate a broader trend: the children of Putin and his allies are increasingly assuming positions in business and government, suggesting that their ageing parents are working to secure a steady transition of power and influence.

There was Ksenia Shoigu, the daughter of former defence minister and current security council secretary Sergei Shoigu, who chaired a discussion on the country’s triathlon federation, which she heads.

Roman Rotenberg, a senior ice hockey executive whose father, Boris, was among Putin’s childhood judo partners, also spoke, somewhat ironically rallying against what he called “nepotism in sport”.

In a recent report entitled Politburo 2.0, a nod to the former Soviet Union’s system of government, Yevgeny Minchenko, a political scientist close to the Kremlin, described this process as the “rise of the princess”.

“The children of political elite representatives have achieved long-awaited career advancements,” he wrote.

This year was a far cry from the forum before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 when multinationals and Russian companies would vie for expensive partnerships or hold flashy parties featuring pop stars, including Sting, to prove they were committed to the Russian market.

Among its speakers, SPIEF once boasted world leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and former German chancellor Angela Merkel.

To replace western delegations, Russia has courted officials from South America, Africa, India and China. President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe and Bolivian President Luis Arce were this year’s guests of honour.

A delegation from the Taliban also attended, despite the organisation being formally banned in Russia.

Discussions on enhancing cooperation with the west now belong to the past, supplanted by lectures from far-right activists, including philosopher Alexander Dugin, who passionately advocated total war. Other officials called for the elimination of the “LGBT movement”.

On sale at the conference were T-shirts printed with a combative phrase attributed to Putin. “If a fight is inevitable, throw the first punch,” it said, referring to a saying Putin reportedly picked up while growing up on the streets of Leningrad.”

In a sign of the times, the hawkish Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov, who recently advocated a preemptive nuclear strike, was chosen to moderate the closing ceremony traditionally headlined by Putin.

Still, some participants said the mood at the summit was optimistic, buoyed up by a positive economic outlook. Despite the dubious distinction of being the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, Russia’s economy is forecast to grow faster than most other advanced economies, according to the International Monetary Fund – highlighting the country’s surprising resilience and raising questions over the effectiveness of sanction policies.

Russia’s oil and gas revenue in April almost doubled year on year to £11bn thanks to rising prices, underscoring the difficulties countries in the west face as they seek to limit the Kremlin’s income and stifle its military might.

“There is a clear optimism felt this year compared with 2023,” said an official at a state financial institution, who was attending SPIEF for the third time. “A sense of pride is in the air that we have defeated the west’s economic war.”

When a visibly confident Putin gave his plenary speech on Friday, he promised the audience a victory in Ukraine and touted the country’s economic growth.

“Despite all the obstacles and illegitimate sanctions, Russia remains one of the key participants in world trade,” he said.