For 200 years, the Black Forest spa town of Baden-Baden has been the destination of choice for Russian tourists, with oligarchs shopping in the luxury boutiques and buying up swathes of property. Now Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed all that and the town's once-bustling streets are empty.
BADEN-BADEN — Some idiot hung a bag of cartridges on the door of the hotel, receptionist Juri tells us. He says it happened one night towards the end of February, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. “It had live ammunition in it,” he adds, shaking his head as though he can hardly believe it.
The perpetrator must have had insider knowledge of the hotel world because who else would know that a nondescript three-star hotel in the center of Baden-Baden, a popular tourist destination in southwest Germany, was owned by a Russian family? That is why Juri does not want us to use his full name here or that of the hotel.
When Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago, the “most Russian town in Germany” felt the impact straightaway. The spa took down its Russian flag, and the town hall started flying a Ukrainian one.
A 52-year-old Ukrainian bartender at the upmarket restaurant Rizzi was fired for posting an anti-Russian rant online. His dismissal prompted Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba to condemn the restaurant’s management. Kuleba posted on Facebook all the way from Kyiv, calling them “Putin sympathizers” and saying they shared the blame for the deaths of Ukrainian children and civilians. He accused the restaurant of being more concerned about holding on to their wealthy Russian clientele than showing solidarity with innocent people under attack.
"Only a very small number of people support Putin"
Alexius Schneider, who used to work with Russian visitors to Baden-Baden, says he was worried in the early days of the war, as the atmosphere was very tense. He says “political powers” tried to “sow discord, hostility and resentment” towards the Russian-speaking community in the town. At the same time, Schneider says there was so much that needed to be done, especially helping refugees.
The small spa town near the Black Forest is home to around 1,150 Russian citizens, and a similar number of people with dual nationality. There are around 750 Ukrainians living there, and in recent months, almost 1,800 Ukrainian refugees have arrived. There is also an unknown but significant number of people of German origin who emigrated from Eastern Europe after the Second World War. People like I.T. expert Schneider, who was born in the North Caucasus region 43 years ago and has lived in Germany since 1994.
Schneider helped to register Ukrainian refugees and collect donations. He is against the war, and has even stopped working for certain clients who support Putin. “But we can’t allow ourselves to be played off against each other,” he insists, saying that people who tar all Russians with the same brush are simply giving Putin “fuel for his propaganda”. He says almost all the Russians living in Baden-Baden are against the war. “Only a very small number of people support Putin.”
From fashionable destination to empty streets
However, it only took a few small acts to raise tensions, such as a chain of bakeries in the region announcing that they would rename their “Russian Zupfkuchen” – a traditional chocolate cheesecake – as simply “Zupfkuchen”.
The announcement sparked outrage and the company did a swift U-turn, claiming they had never intended the change to be “racist towards Russians or imply that they are all in favor of the war against Ukraine”.
Many Russians invested in the town when it was struggling.
Even the head of Baden-Baden’s tourist office, Nora Waggershauser, got into hot water for saying she was worried that the town’s doctors, museums, luxury hotels and high-end boutiques would suffer from losing wealthy Russian clients.
Many of the luxury boutiques on Baden-Baden’s Sophienstraße are indeed standing empty, and the pedestrianized streets are similarly deserted. However, critics say that when there is a war raging, we shouldn’t be worrying about Escada and Hermès losing out on a few extra euros.
The quiet streets are an unfamiliar sight in a city that has grown rich from the Russian tourists who have poured in over the last 200 years. Since 1793, when Princess Luise from Baden-Baden married the man who would later become Tsar Alexander, the fashionable spa town has attracted nobility and diplomats, literary greats and wealthy people from the East.
Dostoevsky came to Baden-Baden to flee his creditors, and played his last hand in the majestic casino. Ivan Turgenev immortalized the town in his novel Smoke, which is on the school syllabus in Russia, meaning that almost all Russian children know about the area.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Boris Yeltsin visited Baden-Baden to receive an award, and hot on his heels came a stream of oligarchs who cleaned out the luxury boutiques and invested in the property market.
Later, it was the educated classes and middle classes who came to Baden-Baden. The Russian invasion of Crimea also put a serious dent in visitor numbers, with tourists from Russia feeling less welcome than before.
A Russian Orthodox Easter service held at Christ the Redeemer Parish in Baden-Baden
Baden-Baden is twinned with both Yalta in Ukraine and Sochi in Russia. The Festspielhaus – the largest opera house in Germany, with a capacity of 2,500 – has distanced itself from star conductor Valery Gergiev due to his connections to Putin, although Gergiev saved it from bankruptcy about 25 years ago. It has also cancelled a performance by soprano Anna Netrebko with the Berlin Philharmonic.
“Shameful political posturing,” according to René Lohs, a politician representing Germany’s Free Democratic Party. He is the former mayor of Müllheim in Baden-Württemberg and practices as a lawyer, with impressive chambers in the center of Baden-Baden. He is also chair of the German-Russian Cultural Association, and a lover of Russian literature and music. He is concerned to see that Russian artists such as Gergiev are being dropped indiscriminately.
At the end of the day, Lohs says, Baden-Baden is cutting off its nose to spite its face. “Many Russians invested in the town when it was struggling.” And its economy is dependent on the affluent Russian clientele. Lohs says many people don’t seem to appreciate that.
We made a good profit from the Russians in the past.
The tourist board doesn’t seem overly concerned. They say that the proportion of Russian visitors has been decreasing for years and tourists from other countries are plugging the gaps. Henning Matthiesen, director of the luxury hotel Brenners, says he has not had many cancellations due to the war in Ukraine.
Besides, Russian oligarchs never came to Baden-Baden in quite the numbers that were expected. In 2014, Matthiesen’s predecessor Frank Marrenbach said that Russian billionaires preferred to vacation on yachts in the Côte d’Azur.
Monika Schulz, the owner of the Blanc Du Nil on Lichtentaler Straße, a boutique selling only white clothes, says that for some years now the Russians have been tempted by new destinations. They prefer to go to Dubai or St. Moritz, rather than the River Oos, she says. “We made a good profit from the Russians in the past.”
But that time is over, for the foreseeable future – perhaps forever.
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