Marat Khousnullin, from the Moscow metro to the ruins of Mariupol
A technocrat who shaped the new face of Moscow, Marat Khousnulline is Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in charge of the country’s major construction sites. The war against Ukraine made him the prime contractor for the Kremlin in the occupied territories.
Outside of Russia, Marat Khousnoulline had probably never attracted so much attention. On March 19, it was he who accompanied Vladimir Putin during his nocturnal – and unexpected – visit to Mariupol. This Deputy Prime Minister served as a guide to the Russian President through a devastated but “liberated” city. The excursion is filmed and broadcast by the Kremlin. A snub to kyiv and its allies, when the International Criminal Court had just issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin. In Mariupol, the darkness hides the desolation. Black cap and jacket, Marat Khousnoulline presents the president with a new residential area, with games for children and a street workout area, and outlines the city’s reconstruction plan. Communication is perfectly controlled, or almost : Internet users have spotted the furtive voice, out of frame, of a resident daring to denounce the trickery of the staging.
Still little known to the general public, Marat Khousnoulline has nevertheless acquired a good place in the entourage of Vladimir Putin. Vice Prime Minister, he is now the one responsible for reporting to the president on the actions undertaken in the “new regions”, according to the terminology used by the Russian state. Already in December 2022, the two men were inspecting together the damage caused to the Crimean bridge, partially destroyed two months earlier. More recently, Marat Khousnullin was the first senior Russian official to visit Bakhmout : a preliminary visit to anticipate the reconstruction, he said on his Telegram account.
From Kazan to Moscow
Marat Khousnulline, 56, began his career in his native Tatarstan: for nine years, he held the post of Minister of Construction of this Russian Republic. “He had a rapid rise in Tatarstan, which he helped transform by developing big projects. The capital of the Republic, Kazan, is the only city in post-Soviet Russia that has equipped itself with a subway”, recalls Vladimir Pawlotsky, doctor in geography and teacher at the French Institute of Geopolitics. Its know-how and efficiency go all the way back to Moscow. In 2010, he was called to the capital and was given the construction department there. He doesn’t come alone : in 2018, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper revealed how Marat Khousnulline had placed his “zemliaki” – relatives from the same place, in this case from Tatarstan – in influential positions.
The specifications he receives are ambitious: to put some order in the contracts concluded under former mayor Yuri Luzhkov and modernize the city. Extension of its surface area and its metropolitan network, new residential districts, bypasses. Moscow’s transformation is rapid, sometimes contested, but generally welcomed. Among these successes, the renovation of the Luzhniki stadium, which impresses foreign visitors during the FIFA World Cup in 2018 ; the Zariadié urban park, winner of a prize at the Mipim (International market for real estate professionals) and the capital’s new calling card. Deputy Mayor Sergei Sobianin, Marat Khousnoulline has worked to make Moscow more attractive internationally, in particular through a forum devoted to town planning. For this, he also recruited a foreign friend, Maurice Leroy, former French Minister for the City (2010-2012).
“Orchestrate the work”
In January 2020, he leaves the Moscow City Hall to take federal responsibilities: the technocrat Khousnulline becomes one of the Deputy Prime Ministers of the government of Mikhaïl Michoustine. Its mission remains the same, but extended to the entire country. “I am above all a technocrat who must carry out policies”, he said then to the newspaper Les Echos, in a rare interview granted to the foreign press. “The government in Russia is not a political entity like in France. It is a management body. My mission is therefore not to engage in politics but to orchestrate the work”. During the Covid-19 health crisis, he provided regular and detailed reports to President Putin, by videoconference, on the work undertaken in the different regions of the country. “Marat Khousnullin has a real oriental profile”, assured a source at the Moscow City Hall, in an informed portrait published in 2020 by the site Meduza. The man avoids conflicts, he does not display not his disagreements and argue his positions privately.
The offensive launched against Ukraine inevitably led him towards “ideological” politics : by hastily decreeing the annexation of the occupied Ukrainian territories – and despite the scandal caused by this – the Kremlin gave another dimension to the mission of the Deputy Prime Minister. Marat Khousnulline is now leading the reconstruction of cities destroyed in Ukraine… by Russian forces. Having become a builder of Putin in a country at war, the former promoter of Moscow is now one of the Russian personalities sanctioned by the European Union and the United States. Very active on the Telegram network, he documents his many trips across Russia and, since 2022, in Ukraine under Russian control – he has notably visited Luhansk, Donetsk and the Zaporizhia region. Last November, he presented the rehabilitation of the invaded Ukrainian territories as “the largest construction project in Russia”, estimated, according to the authorities, at 223 billion rubles, (2.6 Billions of Euro’s).
“Marat Khousnoulline is one of those civil servants who does not chant delirious slogans like [Dmitri] Medvedev, and who does not photograph himself with a hammer [référence à une vidéo violente partagée par le chef du groupe Wagner Evguéni Prigojine]. He serves Vladimir Putin faithfully and efficiently,” comments Ilya Rozhdestvenski, a journalist with Dossier, an investigative center founded by exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “In exchange, he receives the opportunity to enrich himself. We call this type of character ‘effective managers’, but their effectiveness is shown above all in the way in which they know how to enrich their family”, he adds, in reference to a survey of the Khousnoulline family carried out by the Dossier center. Published last month, this investigation affirms that the sanctions do not reach his relatives and their real estate abroad.
The future of Mariupol, the largest Ukrainian city taken by Russia last year, is an image issue for the authorities : it is a question of imposing the idea according to which Russian sovereignty is no longer debatable. An official document of around thirty pages details a “development plan” for Mariupol by 2035, as if it were any city in Russia. Faithful to his approach as a performer, Marat Khousnoulline implements the policy to be followed. “For him who, in the post-Crimean context [l’annexion de la Crimée en 2014, NDLR]has done a lot to improve the image of Moscow, that of a global city open to foreign investment, Mariupol appears to be poisonous ground,” observes researcher Vladimir Pawlotsky.
In early May, Vladimir Putin attended the launch of the Mariupol tram service via videoconference from St. Petersburg. On the spot, veterans “compared the destruction in Mariupol with that which occurred during the blockade [de Leningrad] during the Great Patriotic War [nom donné à la Seconde Guerre mondiale]“, underlines, in an ideological acrobatics, a state media. The two cities have been “twinned”. In the same spirit, the city of Moscow has been associated with Luhansk. The mayor of the Russian capital, who had seemed to observe a certain reserve with regard to the “special military operation”, went there last year. A visible commitment imposed by the reality of the war, in favor of such a toxic political adventure than uncertain.