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6 September, 2013  ▪  Olha Tokariuk

Oligarchs Under the Tuscan Sun

Post-Soviet millionaires are keeping Italian resorts afloat during the financial crisis. They are also changing the traditional atmosphere beyond recognition as skyrocketing prices encourage the locals to sell their property and leave

Sandy beaches, the scent of pines, and gorgeous mountains across the sea… The Forte dei Marmi resort embodies the typical eye-catching splendour of the Tuscany Coast. But a short stroll downtown will take you to a slew of expensive boutiques that look out of place in this town of 8,000 where most locals ride bicycles. Every third building in town is a real estate office, and that’s where the key to this paradox lies. The windows are full of ads for luxurious villas worth EUR 10-15mn, all in Russian.

In the good old days, Forte dei Marmi was a favourite holiday destination for writers Thomas Mann and Gabriele d’Annunzio and later became an exclusive resort for rich North Italian entrepreneurs. Today, Russian is heard more and more often here. Satiated with the French Riviera and the Emerald Coast of Sardinia, post-Soviet millionaires have taken a liking to the serenity of Tuscany. “What makes this place special is that it’s small, perfect for family holidays,” Francesca Sarti, an employee at a local five-star hotel, explains. “The sophistication of this resort is another factor. Forte dei Marmi is a synonym for fashion, style and elegance in Italy. That’s what Russians come here for.”

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The population of Forte dei Marmi grows by a third every summer when the Russians arrive. They are all VIPs. Politicians, businessmen and celebrities bring along their wives, children, in-laws, nannies, drivers and guards. They shop in boutiques, stay at high-end hotels and splurge on villas with gardens and pools. Most stay all summer, some come for the low seasons as well. According to the media, Forte dei Marmi is frequented by oligarchs Abramovich and Deripaska, the family of Russia’s late president Yeltsin, ex-mayor of Moscow Lushkov, tennis champion Kafelnikov, and popular Russian singers. Rich Ukrainians join the lot: Party of Regions MP Iryna Berezhna threw her birthday party here. Italians refer to all people from the former Soviet Union as Russians although one in every 5 “Russians” in Forte dei Marmi is actually Ukrainian.  

A HELICOPTER AT 4 A.M.

“Putin has never come here but people close to him have,” Sarti recalls. “Ministers, big businessmen, top people at Gazprom have stayed here too.” Half of all clients at the luxury hotel where one night costs EUR 500 to 1,500 are Russian. Some celebrities stay here all summer. “It’s mostly families with children that stay here longer,” a local Italian woman notes. “A family that brings a nanny along often books two adjacent suites or more.” Politicians and businessmen book the entire floor for their assistants and security.

Even those who own real estate at Forte dei Marmi stay at this hotel when they come for shopping and do not want to open their villa briefly. This is because the clients feel at home in the hotel, Sarti says, since the staff will fulfil their every whim. She recalls a client who woke up at dawn and had an idea to fly to Milan. The staff had to urgently order a helicopter for him. Another client filled his suite with white roses to surprise his wife. To please the clients, the hotel even changed the interior from calm and classical to pompous with velvet, red wood and gilding – something Russian clients particularly like. There is even a giant golden heart in the lobby that guests often pose in front of for photos.

RUSSIAN CURE FOR THE CRISIS

Post-Soviet VIPs do not look at prices and spare no expense. Italian newspapers have written about EUR 10,000 restaurant bills, EUR 1,500 tips left for waiters or an SUV driver who offers EUR 4,000 to a motorcyclist he cut off. A Russian tourist once shocked the local police when he reported the theft of his wallet containing EUR 20,000 in cash.

Many local Italians, especially homeowners, earned a fortune on Eastern European “money bags”: they sold one house to them and used the profits to buy two or three houses in nearby towns. Forte dei Marmi has the hottest real estate market in Italy. It is the only town where real estate prices have constantly climbed despite the crisis. The media report that a third to half of all villas there are owned by Russians. Christiano Pugniano who owns a real estate agency with his Russian-born wife claims that most of the 500 Russian families who come here for the summer just rent the villas. “Apartments and houses with small yards that fit just a parking spot are not popular,” he notes. “Most clients seek villas with gardens that are twice or three times the size of the house.”

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Once the Russians rushed to Forte dei Marmi, real estate prices skyrocketed. Now, the average price is EUR 10,000 per square metre. “When the Russians came here first and saw the villa they liked, they told their agents: ‘I want it at any cost.’ The agency that was selling it for EUR 2mn raised the price to EUR 3-4mn,” says Maria Innes Richie, the owner of a local grocery store. A few years ago, the town mayor tried to ban the sale of real estate to foreigners but the prospect of losing Russian money changed his mind. It is Russians that are sparing Fortre dei Marmi from the crisis today, Maria notes, since Italians who used to come here for holidays now opt for cheaper destinations. “Italians don’t buy houses here because they don’t have the money. And we’ve grown accustomed to the Russians. They come in, ask for a “paket” (plastic bag) and fill it with groceries without even looking at prices. If the Russians stop coming, we’ll go broke.”   

CULTURE SHOCK

Many residents of this Tuscany resort town see the inflow of wealthy Russians as a devastating tsunami. Small entrepreneurs that are an integral element of Italian towns are losing their business: family bakeries, butcheries, wineries and old movie theatres are closing down. Entrepreneurs can no longer afford to pay the skyrocketing rent, currently EUR 80-100,000 per year. Instead, big companies have moved in with luxury stores mushrooming where small family-owned stores once operated. In mid-summer, they sell fur coats and hats to the guests from the East. Traditional trattorias are replaced by pricey restaurants, unaffordable to average Italians. “Forte dei Marmi is becoming too expensive for normal people. But it’s a status symbol for the rich,” a real estate agent says. According to statistics, 100 locals leave the town annually. These are mostly young people who have no chance of buying a house in their hometown.

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Apart from this, the Russian invasion has left locals in a state of culture shock. The townspeople don’t understand the strange whims of the Russian millionaires who build villas that look like three-layer wedding cakes and install vodka taps in their pools. In his book Morte dei Marmi – the death of Marmi – writer Fabio Genovesi reflects on the transformation of preferences in this small Tuscany town where Italian communists used to gather and people had some sympathies for the USSR: “We didn’t notice when the Russians came. Nobody told us about post-Soviet nouveau riches, gas and oil tycoons. Until then, we had thought of the Russians as a proud and modest nation devoted to a common idea of giving the world a socialist paradise or burying it under nuclear bombs.” Now, the Italians see the new rich Russians, often with no manners and uncurbed consumerism as the biggest value. The local elite and press joke bitterly that Forte dei Marmi will have to change its name to “Moscow on the Sea” if the situation continues. However, the problem is not just the foreign oligarchs but Italians themselves who sold the unique ambience of their town without a second thought, Genovesi says.


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