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.

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.

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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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