Courchevel, once the French playground of Russian oligarchs, is virtually empty as sanctions hit Vladimir Putin’s elites

Before the start of the war against Ukraine just over a month ago, the exclusive French ski resort of Courchevel was buzzing with wealthy Russians.

They made up 7% of its tourist population, but in terms of the city’s income, the Russian elite was a gold mine.

Courchevel, or “Courchevelovo” as it is often called in Russian, is located in the French Alps and has the largest ski area in the world.

Courchevel has been a favorite spot for the Russian elite since the early 2000s.(Getty Images: Jean-François Deroubaix/Gamma-Rapho)

In its snow-lined streets are the most luxurious boutiques you can find – Dior, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Fendi and Prada.

For more than 20 years, Russia’s wealthiest have flocked to the seaside resort for Orthodox Christmas, celebrated on January 6.

International Women’s Day on March 8 is also an official holiday in Russia and is usually celebrated at La Croisette, the center of Courchevel, with furs and champagne.

In an ordinary bar on the main street, a bottle of Petrus wine or Rémy Martin cognac is on the menu for around 10,000 euros ($14,600).

Snow piles up on the roofs and balconies of a ski lodge.  A sign indicating that Courchevel Tourisme is ahead
Courchevel is dotted with high-end boutiques, luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. (Flickr: Ben J Gibbs)

Among the Moscow social ensemble who regularly decamps to Courchevel is celebrity influencer Ilona Kotelynkh, the partner of billionaire insurance tycoon Nikolai Sarkisov, a major investor in the ski resort.

Last year Mr Sarkisov bought an unfinished 30,000 square foot chalet, the Apopka, for 24 million euros ($35.6 million).

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But the winter oasis quickly turned into a mirage for many well-to-do Russians, as well as the city’s high-end boutiques, luxury hotels and star restaurants that saw their biggest spenders disappear.

An employee of the chic local restaurant La Mangeoire said that this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations had been “cancelled” because their regulars failed to show up at the resort.

“Russians are generous and not necessarily a show-off clientele,” the employee, who declined to be named, told the ABC.

“I live next to Fendi and I often meet Russian couples who come out of the store with several bags worth several thousand euros.”

The outbreak of fighting in the eastern Donbass region in 2014 weighed on Russians’ enthusiasm to show up and spend big in Courchevel.

Now, the invasion of Ukraine has seen those numbers drop even further.

Since the start of the war, the Russian flag has been removed from the top of one of Courchevel’s main pistes and replaced with a peace flag.

A social media post showing the peace flag flying over Courchevel
A social media post showing the peace flag flying over Courchevel instead of the Russian flag.(YouTube: 150 days of winter)

Jacques-Yves Gehant, seasonal at the Société des Trois-Vallées (S3V), was active in condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine and supported the unprecedented decision to remove the flag.

With few guests to entertain, he and some of his colleagues worked together to help displaced Ukrainians in crisis.

“We drove from Courchevel to Chelm in Poland, where we unloaded humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees,” he told the ABC.

“On their return, we helped 12 refugees find accommodation in Albertville.

“The war in Ukraine will have a negative impact on the hospitality industry, but we will survive by encouraging new customers to visit the resort.”

Volunteers in Courchevel pack humanitarian aid
Volunteers in Courchevel pack humanitarian aid to send to Poland for Ukrainian refugees.(Provided)

From coast to coast, France has been a getaway for Russian elites

Courchevel’s stunning slopes aren’t the only place where French locals have paid attention to the Russian influence.

The southwest coast of France has been attracting wealthy Russians since the mid-19th century.

It was nicknamed “the queen of resorts and the resort of kings”, and often hosted members of the Russian imperial court in search of its warm climate and luxurious palaces.

Vladimir Putin was vacationing in Biarritz with his family in the summer of 1999 when he received a call from then-President Boris Yeltsin urging him to return to Moscow to become his successor.

In 2012, the deputy mayor of Biarritz told Time magazine that a property bought by Kirill Shamalov, Mr Putin’s former son-in-law, was one of at least two homes in the area linked to the Russian president.

A large house sits on a picturesque hill overlooking a beach in Biarritz.
This house, owned by the former son-in-law of Vladimir Poutine, is located above a picturesque beach in Biarritz.(Reuters: Régis Duvignau)

In mid-March, two activists, Pierre Haffner and Sergey Saveliev, broke into the eight-bedroom Alta Mira property, displaying the Ukrainian flag on one of its balconies.

They said they would offer the house to displaced Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, but were later arrested by police before being released.

An activist hoists a Ukrainian flag on the balcony of a beachside mansion.
Activists broke into the Biarritz property of Russian billionaire Kirill Shamalov and hoisted the Ukrainian flag on a balcony.(Youtube)

It was not the only mansion targeted by militants.

Just north of Biarritz, in Anglet, is the 1927 art deco mansion, Villa Suzanna, owned by Mr Poutine’s ex-wife, Lyudmila Putina, and her new husband.

In late February, he was tagged by opponents of Mr Putin with graffiti reading “Putin Suka” (F***Putin) and “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine).

While issues of protest and vandalism have so far posed a relatively minor threat to Russians with interests in France, the authorities are coming for their greatest assets.

On the French Riviera, superyachts are inactive

Nearly a decade after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, elites close to Vladimir Putin had amassed enormous wealth.

The mix of luxury and newfound freedom to travel has taken them to places like Courchevel and the French Riviera in southern France.

It also led them into the world of superyachts – huge private boats the size of small ocean liners that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But their time on the high seas is largely over.

At the beginning of March, in the port of La Ciotat, French customs officers seized the 86-meter superyacht Amore Vero.

A white superyacht is seen moored near a crane
French authorities seized the Amore Vero in early March as part of EU sanctions against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.(PA: Bishr Eltoni)

Owner Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian oil company Rosneft, was described in an EU sanction document as one of Vladimir Putin’s “most trusted and closest advisers”.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the superyacht was trying to leave the quay it was moored to without its repairs being completed.

“At the time the inspection was carried out, the boat was preparing to weigh anchor urgently, without having completed the planned work,” he said.

A marina containing superyachts in France.
Vallauris, teeming with superyachts, sits between Antibes and Cannes on the French Riviera.(Olivier Azpitarte)

At this time of year, Port Camille Rayon, nestled between Cannes and Antibes, is usually packed with tourists and locals.

But on a sunny weekend in late March, the marina looks abandoned.

Andre, a local restaurant owner, told the ABC the marina had been deserted since late February.

Some oligarchs hide their multi-million dollar assets by buying them through offshore shell companies registered outside France.

Sara Brimbeuf of Transparency International France told the ABC that these companies have no obligation to disclose the identity of their owners.

“So if you’re an oligarch and you want to hide your money in France, the easiest way to do that is to use a foreign company, and then you escape your obligations,” she said.

A woman who lives next to a Russian-owned property in Cap d’Antibes told the ABC that since the crackdown on dodgy Russian money, estate agents have been knocking on her door to buy her property at double the price. average price in the region. .

Agents, keen to buy into this luxury venue, seem to suspect that Russian residents will have to sell quickly before their money potentially comes under sanctions.

Until the war in Ukraine, many Western countries had largely turned a blind eye to investments by Russian oligarchs.

That was until the invasion took place and Russian banks were locked out of the SWIFT international payment system, preventing depositors from transferring money overseas.

This was followed by severe sanctions from the EU, US and UK.

Despite the oligarchs’ expertise in offshore mechanisms, multiple passports and the extreme opacity of their acquisitions, they deserted Europe last month for more welcoming shores, such as the Gulf countries.

“We have to distinguish between freezing assets and seizing assets,” Ms Brimbeuf told the ABC.

“The freezing of assets is only an economic sanction, a political sanction: the seizure of assets is a criminal response in France.

“The final step after asset seizure is asset forfeiture, which means depriving the person of property.

“It’s really strong, a symbol of justice, because it would mean an acknowledgment of the role that corruption has played in… the building of [Putin’s] regime, its influence.

Harold B. McConnell