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Serving Rich Russians In Germany's Black Forest

Baden-Baden's Kurhaus casino
Baden-Baden's Kurhaus casino
Hannelore Crolly and Michael Gassmann

BADEN-BADEN — There is no fur in sight here — no wraps, mink collars, not even real-fur trim on a hood at Baden-Baden’s casino. Granted, this is not ideal fur weather, as the Sparkasse Bank thermometer reads 22° Celsius. But for rich Russians, it is still very much the winter travel season, and one wonders whether the Moscow and Saint Petersburg elite have started to keep their distance because of the Crimea crisis.

Tiny Baden-Baden, in the foothills of Germany’s Black Forest, has a major reputation in Russia. Everyone around here will confirm this fact: the tourism board, the city marketing office, the mayor, but also the Russians we eventually discovered. Since the days of the tsars, aristocrats and tradesmen, estate owners and poets have come to take the waters and gamble in the “green paradise on the Oos River.”

While Russians today also love shopping in Berlin and Munich and other Western European cities, Baden-Baden is Germany’s most Russian city, as there are 18,800 Russian tourists a year here and an estimated 1,800 pieces of real estate in Russian hands in this town of 50,000 inhabitants. The small German spa venue even has a partnership with Sochi, and another has been added: with Crimea’s Yalta, which was part of Ukraine until the last few days.

And here the question arises as to just how much the encroaching chill between East and West will impact Baden-Baden. If the town should fear for its future, then there should be some signs. Our search took us first to the casino. Here, the roulette chips were rolling as usual their sound dampened in the distinguished rococo-style space where Tolstoy and gambling addict Dostoevsky lost their shirts. The space is now accessible to anybody who pays a five-euro entry fee and shows credible ID. Once past the double dark-wood doors, they enter another world.

In the darkened rooms, eyes seek orientation in the grand plush-and-stucco setting where the atmosphere hovers somewhere between tension and indolence. We don’t hear any Russian being spoken, and the croupiers become ever more expressionless when asked about clientele.

After some hesitation, one of them does allow that “the Russians who come here have enough money.” But on the subject of how many come here, and for how much longer will they be coming, he’s mum.

Low ceiling

Outside, a German local tells us about the latest word circulating: that the casino’s upper betting limit — a “paltry 7,000 euros,” says the man — has made it less attractive for really rich Russians. They would rather play for high stakes in some out-of-the-way private hunting lodge or well-guarded suite at the grand Brenners Park Hotel. There’s no way to prove this particular claim, but Brenners is an excellent venue to try next.

So off we go to our second stop, the hotel that caters to the even richer and more powerful. Here, however, everything is geared more to Royals than Russians. The Dutch king and queen, for example, are expected for an award ceremony and with them all manner of prominent folk. Yet an absence of Russian guests would hit the five-star palace hard because 15% of their guests come from Russia. And while expense-account living is dying out in Germany, it’s apparently alive and well in Russia.

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Baden-Baden's Brenners Park-Hotel — Photo: Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa

When Brenners sommelier Heinz Schopf showed us through the hotel’s impressively stocked wine cellar, he pointed out all the big Bordeaux names that cost 1,000 euros a bottle. “The Russians prefer young women and young wines,” he says.

Travel and other sanctions could seriously impact the flow of these moneyed Russian clients. The United States has already imposed visa sanctions and blocked Russian accounts. This worries Valentina Jushenka, who since 2007 has been the chair of the city’s Russo-German Cultural Association, and is committed to bridge-building.

German sanctions could boomerang, she warns, as she strolls past Brenners and the Turgenev memorial. “If the sanctions are tightened, I’m afraid that it’s mainly the rich Russians who would no longer be coming here. And their absence would do a lot of damage.” Former Brenners director Richard Schmitz, giving a media interview, put it this way: “If you were to cross Russia out of the Baden-Baden equation, the lights would go out.”

Ten minutes on foot later, we are at Baden-Baden’s Russian Orthodox Church with its golden onion dome. German priest Andrei Gottfried is worried too, and is praying as much for Russia as Ukraine. There are both Russians and Ukrainians in his parish, he says, and most of them have known each other for years. “We’re just hoping there’s no war between Russians and Ukrainians,” he says. “It would be a war of brothers."

But at the ornate town hall, Lord Mayor Wolfgang Gerstner tries for a relaxed approach to the issue. He’s been to Crimea, to Yalta, twice, he says. “And I always felt it had a pro-Russian vibe." As for Baden-Baden, he says it doesn’t have any “dominant dependencies” on Russia.

[rebelmouse-image 27087903 alt="""" original_size="1920x2560" expand=1]

Baden-Baden’s Russian Orthodox Church — Photo: Frank C. Müller

Big brands

He points to German and Arab investors. Two-thirds of tourists are, after all, German, he says. Only 5% are Russian, although their numbers are growing steadily as the middle classes are also being bitten by the travel bug. But Gerstner admits, “If there were to be trade and travel sanctions, it would be painful for us."

The Russians not only stay longer, they spend more. They buy things that are authentic and expensive, the owner of a specialty shop tells us. “They’re totally into big brand names.” Many of the luxury brands are cheaper here than in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Others are trying to come to terms with what’s happening through a kind of forced optimism. Katharina Lill is one such person. Her luxury boutique Antora features an Etro dress in the window priced at more than 1,000 euros. If some Russian clients have stayed away, she attributes this to the Sochi Games. “It’s not dramatic,” she insists, even if her dependence on her Russian clientele is obvious: four of her 12 saleswomen are Russian.

At least one Russian has his treasure trove in a safe place. We caught up with this Moscovite in the place that every Russian visits when in Baden-Baden: the Fabergé Museum.

Peter Carl Fabergé was the jeweler to the tsars, and was especially known for making bejeweled decorative eggs. Alexander Ivanov, who after the fall of the Iron Curtain made millions in the computer business, collects the luxury eggs and even financed the museum to house them.

As he often does, he recently visited the city, where there are more than 3,000 Fabergés on display at the museum. A sheik offered him two billion euros for the collection a couple of years ago, says the 51-year-old collector, “but I declined the offer.”

Why did he choose Baden-Baden for his museum? Ivanov evokes the past and cites the absence of crime. Ivanov is not a friend to Vladimir Putin, and even goes so far as to say that at home he’s considered something of a revolutionary because he’s got all these amazing Fabergés on view abroad and not at home.

“I’m not dependent on the government. I do what I want,” he says. But he does express some understanding for developments in Crimea. There was, after all, a referendum, which is to say a “democratic vote.”

Meanwhile, his best Fabergé piece, a 12.5 million euro egg with a Rothschild provenance, is currently in Moscow. At Putin’s behest.

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