What do Snowmass, Colorado and the Cote d'Azur have in common? Just like the Texans who, when I was a child, were disliked in Colorado because they had bought up all the prime real estate for ski resorts, Russian tycoons are buying up select properties from some of the largest and most expensive private homes in the world to the most luxurious hotels along the Mediterranean. But the Russians arriving are not just the wealthy ones. No, they have also sent out the working class women, and -- lower down the totem pole -- mafia thugs. (You can see this all depicted in James Gray's films, Little Odessa and We Own The Night, which capture this world beautifully and painfully.)
Heck, even out at a lobster house at the end of Long Island, in Montauk just yesterday, the women at the window serving us were all blond Russians. Then there was the family-style restaurant a few nights earlier where the waitress could not understand what I was saying... when I asked where she was from... "Ukraine," she said smiling! We are almost all immigrants to the U.S., I thought, so why does this worry me?
In the South of France, there is a similar trend. A few summers back, a friend told me the story of a villa rented by wealthy Russians that was robbed, and did the local police get involved? No! The Russians found the robbers, flew them up in their helicopter and dropped them into the Med! Supposedly no one died and they swam to shore... but you can rest assured the Russian villas remain out of bounds for cat burglers. Kind of reminds me of Texas...
Last year during the Cannes film festival, parties were held at the chic Hotel du Cap, and at one party in particular, former French Legionnaires held back the Russian women trying to force their way inside to rub shoulders with George Clooney and Brad Pitt. This year a Russian billionaire bought the Hotel du Cap. Another one bought the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat. People with homes along that stretch of the Cote d'Azur are being offered phenomenal prices for their beachfront homes.
Up in the Swiss Alps, in beautiful small villages, the Russians began moving in a decade or so ago. Now it is rumored that Putin has bought a chalet. Bulletproof windows on Hummers somehow clash against the idyllic green peaceful landscape of the Vaud, but the children of the new oil money from both Russia and the former Soviet Union must indeed be protected.
But I keep thinking, being from Texas, it really is no different than when the Texans struck black gold, or the Saudis came into their oil gazillions. Except that... it is. Why? Because although there is a bit of the gambler in every wildcatter, these were not gamblers but something closer to gangsters. Someone once said to me they were like Texans without religion. Or perhaps the religion is one that we know all too well... that of hyper-capitalism gone wild. Robber barons in our country often pay people to do their dirty work, then they sit down with their wives and families who live inside protected shells of denial. These guys wear guns to board meetings, as one friend who works in the oil business in Russia confessed, and they are not afraid to use them. The former head of BP Russia has learned the hard way that a foreigner cannot run a company while hidden away in a barricade for protection. He had to simply get out of Russia.
This all has a lot to do with something that happened as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain, and with the expansion of NATO, the oil deals made by U.S. companies in places like Kazakhstan, the paths of pipelines, and the fact that Russia is a very proud country, one in which sadly, a great deal of racism and anti-Semitism are ever-present. The rolling into Georgia to protect Russians there must also remind us that Russia has begun to feel surrounded with the expansion of NATO troops into former Communist areas. But the new tool being used to crush the opposition is funded by a new menace, that of capitalism built on a phenomenal wealth in commodities and oil.
Remember that as you fill up your car for a small fortune at your local Lukoil station. Maybe the good ole boy Texans in the White House and the oil patch have met their match.