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


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

They constituted 7 per cent of its tourist population, but in terms of the town’s income, Russia’s elite were a goldmine.

Courchevel, or “Courchevelovo” as it is often referred to in Russian, lies in the French Alps and boasts the largest ski area in the world. 

People in ski gear are seen from behind, ascend a set of stairs. One wears a white suit with red trim and RUSSIA in red letters
Courchevel has been a popular spot for Russia’s elite since the early 2000s.(Getty Images: Jean-Francois Deroubaix/Gamma-Rapho)

On its snow-lined streets sit the most luxurious boutique stores you can find — Dior, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Fendi and Prada.

For over 20 years, Russia’s richest have flocked to the resort for Orthodox Christmas, celebrated on January 6.

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

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

Snow is piled up on the roofs and balconies of a ski chalet. A sign saying Courchevel Tourisme is out front
Courchevel is dotted with high-end boutiques, luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. (Flickr: Ben J Gibbs)

Among the Moscow social set that regularly decamp to Courchevel is celebrity influencer Ilona Kotelynkh, the partner of billionaire insurance tycoon Nikolai Sarkisov, a major investor in the ski resort town.

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 has rapidly turned into a mirage for many well-heeled Russians, as well as for the town’s high-end boutiques, luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants that have seen their highest-spending clients vanish.

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

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

“I live next door to Fendi and often come across Russian couples walking out of the store with multiple bags worth thousands of euros.”

The outbreak of fighting in the eastern Donbas region in 2014 took its toll on Russians’ enthusiasm to show up and spend big in Courchevel.

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

Since the war started, the Russian flag has been removed from the top of one of the main slopes in Courchevel and replaced with a peace flag.

A post on social media showing the peace flag flying over Courchevel
A post on social media showing the peace flag flying over Courchevel in place of the Russian flag.(YouTube: 150 Days of Winter)

Jacques-Yves Gehant, a seasonal worker at La Société des Trois-Vallées (S3V), has been active in condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine and backed the unprecedented move of removing the flag.

With few guests to entertain, he and some of his colleagues have been working together to help Ukrainians displaced in the crisis.

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

“On our way back, we helped 12 refugees find a home in Albertville.

“The war in Ukraine will impact negatively on the hospitality sector 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.(Supplied)

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

The stunning slopes of Courchevel are not the only place where French locals have been paying attention to Russian influence. 

France’s south-west coast has been attracting wealthy Russians since the middle of the 19th century.

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

Vladimir Putin was on holiday in Biarritz with his family in the summer of 1999 when he received a call from then-president Boris Yeltsin urging him to fly back to Moscow to become his successor. 

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

A large house sits on a picturesque hill overlooking a beach in Biarritz.
This house, owned by Vladimir Putin’s former son-in-law, sits above a picturesque beach in Biarritz.(Reuters: Regis Duvignau)

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

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

An activist raises a Ukraine flag on the balcony of a beachside mansion.
Activists broke into the Biarritz property of Russian billionaire Kirill Shamalov and raised the Ukraine flag on a balcony.(YouTube)

It wasn’t the only mansion targeted by activists.

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

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

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

In the French Riviera, superyachts sit idle

Almost a decade after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, elites close to Vladimir Putin had accumulated tremendous wealth.

The mix of luxury and new-found freedom to travel led them to places such as Courchevel and Côte d’Azur in the south of 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 has largely come to an end.

At the start of March, in the port of La Ciotat, French Customs officials seized the 86-metre superyacht Amore Vero.

A white superyacht is seen docked near a crane
French authorities seized the Amore Vero in early March as part of EU sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.(AP: 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 dock it was moored at without its repairs being finished.

“At the moment the inspection was carried out, the boat was readying to weigh anchor urgently, without having finished 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, the Port Camille Rayon — nestled between Cannes and Antibes — is usually packed with tourists and residents alike.

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

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

One way some oligarchs hide their multi-million-dollar assets is by purchasing them via offshore shell companies that are registered outside France.

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



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