Moscow on the Mediterranean

Attention! The Côte d’Azur is now the Côte-d’Russe, as Russians — some carrying cash in Vuitton bags – buy up the best there is in London and the Med. Much of Cap-Ferrat, the most beautiful cap in the South of France, is now owned by Russians. Cap-Ferrat used to be a privileged escape for the English and Americans. Those homeowners are thinning out as many sell their homes. It is hard to say no to a Russian so rich he can offer you 150 million euros or more in a Vuitton bag for your house.

It used to be the custom to take a good healthy run around the top of Cap-Ferrat in the morning – but no more. I don’t know where they found them but the Russians who bought houses there have Spiderman dogs that fly through the air — growling through their perfect white teeth. You don’t need police in Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat. No thief is going to mess with Spiderman dogs.

Russia has a currency reserve of four hundred thirteen billion rubles, the largest per capita foreign currency reserve of any major economy including China’s. It’s not just coming from oil. Foreign investment is flowing into Russia, and Putin is suggesting that the world’s central banks should begin holding reserves in rubles as well as dollars and euros. He’s building a white Greek Revival building you can see from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg that will open to market traders. Soon transactions will be dominated by rubles. The ruble is strong and Putin is not the only one with a smug smile these days. There is a lot of pleased joking about the weak dollar in Moscow.

Russians feel rich and it feels good. They want the best of the best. At dinner recently, a very attractive Russian told me I should not be surprised that his country wants its turn at the good life. “My family has never known what tomorrow may bring. There have been terrible uncertainties. There are still uncertainties. Who knows what you will have next year — or when what you have will be taken away from you? We know too well that we can lose everything. Look at Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, now he’s in jail, and every day, he is worth less in every way.” He said quietly, “No, when we have money we spend it, we enjoy it, we just hope we can keep our houses in Forte dei Marmi.”

Forte dei Marmi! The summer beach town that is the Hamptons of Florence and Milan is now owned 25% by Florentines, 25% by Milanese and 50% by Russians. The shop owners there told me they had a great summer thanks to Russians. “They are good for this town, they spend money here. They are trillionaires!” one of them told me. Not so in Capri, you find less enthusiasm in Capri. “Yes they spend a lot of money, one lovely woman who owns a shop says, “but they are rude to us. They take the pleasure out of my business.” Rude is a word I heard frequently. Especially in the wine shops. “They think they run my country now,” said a Frenchman. “ They call me at 2 a.m. and want 12 cases of champagne delivered to their boat immediately. Immediately. I am supposed to jump out of bed at 2 a.m. and find a truck to deliver 12 cases of champagne! And they are rude! I am to get that champagne there – or else.”

Club 55, the luxe beach restaurant in St. Tropez had such a roaring Russian summer that one of the waiters told me the Tropezians want to take Russian language lessons. He asked me what the Russian word for bikini is. I haven’t a clue, but I told him I thought a bikini is a bikini is a bikini. “The only trouble is, they don’t tip,” he shrugged, “we miss the Americans.” Americans are the big tippers and they are scarce in the Med because of the strong euro.

It does appear that — after so many lean and, well, terrifying years — the Russians want what they believe is top of the line. They want Cap-Ferrat, St. Tropez, Sardinia, George Clooney’s Como, Monte Carlo. Woo! In Monte Carlo, they spread their wings. The most beautiful prostitutes in Monte Carlo — maybe in the world — are young Russians. As one Italian pointed out, they look a little mass produced with the same long legs, same wide eyes and same pale hair cut the same long length. They also have the same Prada and Gucci as well as this year’s status symbol: Chanel’s diamond studded metal watches on their wrists. It is not unusual to see an exquisite Russian prostitute holding one arm of her benefactor, while an exquisite Russian wife holds the other.

However, as luxe as these concepts may be, it is also in Monte Carlo where you see the ultimate symbols of success for the Russian male: very large boats. Like the Saudis in the 1970s, the Russian are snapping up yachts. Of the new yachts — 300 feet and up — 30 to 35 percent of them are going to Russians. Yachts still under construction for American and English hedge fund stars are now being sold to Russians before they are even completed.

Many Russian buyers know little about boats. They have not grown up in a land of charters. If they offer a high price and the owner says “no” they offer a higher price until they get the boats. When you put this much new money into an industry, you change the scene. The new oligarchs use their yachts in a different way from previous yacht owners. Swim? Rarely. They don’t buy boats to swim. They use their megayachts as super-private homes and business hideaways safe from government and personal inspection. Business meetings are known to take place in megayachts anchored James Bond style among the rocks of places like Corsica and Sardinia.

Helicopters are no longer optional on megayachts; they are essential ways to travel unseen. If you want to be top of the line, luxury submarines that can dive 300 feet to the ocean floor are the new big toys, the must-haves parked inside your yacht. Believe it or not, there are now 100 megayacht submarines carousing the oceans, seas and gulfs. There is a submarine showroom in Dubai where you can choose from 14 models.

An American yacht owner with a 40-foot submarine was entertaining a group of guests when it got stuck on the floor of the sea, causing a bit of excitement. Many hours and heart flutters later it was lifted to safety. Ooh la la.

In Mediterranean society, Roman Abramovich is mentioned in something like a whisper. He is the icon of the new class of tsars with his Chelsea Football Club in England, his 767 plane and his Belgravia townhouse. His fleet of boats include “Pelorus” — with 6 decks and elevator. His new yacht, “Eclipse,”, is supposed to be the best of the best, at probably 557 feet. Abramovich, who is said to be the UK’s second wealthiest resident and perhaps Russia’s richest man, is nice looking, too. And, ladies, he is rumored to be divorced.

Since my memory of Russians is thugs in mafias running drug gangs in Marseille, I have to remind myself that Russia was, not so long ago, the home of aristocrats who were perfectly at home on yachts – the Emperor surrounded his with torpedo boats and his boat had masts of gold leaf! Princesses and Counts, Tatianas and Anastasias and of course Nicholases and Alexandras – were educated travelers – it may be that the young, rich tsars in expensive silk tee shirts who are so busy buying up the Med are their great, great grandchildren.

Why does it matter what Russians buy, what they wear or what they do with their billions? Well, Putin makes his ambitions clear and is taken seriously with headaches in Europe. Putin’s Russia is referred to as a potential menace that must be carefully understood. Even my sweetest Russian friends warn me that Russia is a jungle that contains a jaguar sharpening its claws — with the United States in mind. They are bewildered that Americans seem disinterested.

There is nothing wrong with the Russians buying half of Forte dei Marmi. However, when you live in a community and see its personality disappearing before your eyes and a new, colder, less humanitarian one taking its place – one that is rooted in a different kind of political belief or empty of belief – you start listening more closely to the bankers and philosophers who are telling you that Russia is threatening to shove aside the United States as the central leader in global economic affairs. You look into the eyes of the people who are selling to the wealthy Russians in their towns and who are trying to express something complicated and unpleasant to you. You start looking at the way boat life has changed in the Mediterranean. Gone are the times when boats were about vacations with friends and families who could swim and splash about in the sea while eating on deck under the stars. You see what it is becoming — a world of power yachts doing business and living in the sea for safety.

Putin and the Russians want the best of the best now. That’s understandable. But maybe what they want is something we hold dear. Maybe we should be paying more attention. Forgive me, but maybe we are missing the boat.

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