The town of Montreux on Lake Geneva has attracted Russians of all sorts for more than a century – and might soon be welcoming another famous Russian resident: Mikhail Khodorkovsky. swissinfo.ch went to find out what life there is like.This content was published on January 13, 2014 - 17:00
Not for nothing is Montreux sometimes called a “Russian village”. Of the 25,000 people living there, about 49% are foreigners. According to the mayor, Laurent Wehrli, about 800 of them are Russian.
“Russians are attracted by the atmosphere of Montreux. Nabokov [author of Lolita] spent 17 years here; it was here that [19th century author] Gogol wrote Dead Souls and Stravinsky composed some of his music. Nikita Mikhalkov shot his film Sunstroke here, using Lake Geneva for the Volga. This is a must-see location for Russian visitors,” said Yuliya Gigon-Yegorova, who has been living in Montreux for several years.
Hurdles to overcome
It isn’t easy for foreigners to buy real estate in Switzerland. There is an annual limit on the number of properties that can be sold to them in tourist areas.
“A large proportion of the housing that can be sold to foreigners is in the cantons of Vaud and Valais [in south western Switzerland] and in the Bernese Oberland. Although the selection in Montreux is not large, it does exist,” said Sergey Sander, head of the real estate company, The Leading Properties of the World. Sander, who originally trained as a lawyer in Russia, has been living in Switzerland since 1999.
Property prices in Montreux vary between CHF10,000 and 30,000 ($11 - 33,000) per square metre, he told swissinfo.ch. Foreigners can take out a mortgage with a Swiss bank and for Russians at least the rate compares very favourably with what they would get at home.
A fabulous view – for a million francs
The village of Chernex, where Khodorkovsky’s wife Inna has a flat, is just ten minutes’ drive from Montreux. Or you can walk there, enjoying the scenery, in the same amount of time. The people around here joke that the view of the lake automatically adds a million to the price. That wouldn’t actually be so surprising: the sight of the setting sun, when the last rays light up the mountain peaks and the dark waters of the lake sparkle with gold is truly breath-taking …
Old chalets alternate with modern houses in the village, but it’s all very tasteful. The only thing that attracts the visitor’s attention is the old street fountains, each bearing the date when it was set up. Looking at the dates was a favourite game among the exiles from the USSR: this one was built in 1861, the year the serfs were emancipated; that one in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution…
There are not many people around, but everyone greets each other. Chernex has a station, two restaurants, a small grocery store and a butcher’s.
The butcher is happy to talk to swissinfo.ch. He has plenty of Russian customers. “They are nice people, but not very forthcoming. They buy good cuts, sometimes spending hundreds of francs, but they don’t like it when you tell them what to buy. As for Khodorkovsky, we haven’t heard anything about him. They say he has two school-age sons, but we’ve never seen them. It’s a strange business…”
Not everyone likes Russian cuisine
If you walk along the lake front in Montreux, you can’t help but notice the Metropole restaurant. Its owner, Natalia Yudochkina, was originally a Muscovite. When she was 15, her father - who already owned a chain of restaurants - sent her to study in Switzerland, where she trained in hotel management.
“The Metropole has been here since 1985, the year I was born. Its elderly owner was looking for a buyer. I got Swiss nationality in 2009 and bought it together with my father,” she explained to swissinfo.ch
The restaurant, which can seat 500, has a terrace and bar. Yudochkina has kept the Swiss menu. “Russian cuisine isn’t that popular in Europe. It’s expensive and too fatty. The only Russian thing people like is vodka.”
What will she do if Khodorkovsky turns up at the Metropole? “I’ll treat him with the same courtesy as any other guest. I shan’t hassle him.” But that does not mean she is not interested in him. She is currently reading the book he wrote in prison. “He has a good literary style and interesting ideas,” she commented.
Entrepreneurs from the former USSR
There are several businesses here run by former citizens of the USSR. They include the Origitea slimming clinic, the Ukrainian jeweller Natkina and a number of Russian-owned picture galleries and beauty salons.
The filling station behind the Montreux Palace hotel belongs to the Azeri oil company Socar, which entered the Swiss market in 2012 when it bought 163 ExxonMobil filling stations. Socar is also one of the major sponsors of the Montreux Jazz Festival.
The Du Parc Kempinski residential complex in Mont Pèlerin, on the heights above Vevey, a few kilometres along the lake, was built by the Swiss Development Group, headed by Ilyas Khrapunov. Khrapunov’s father, Viktor, was mayor of Almaty before he fell out with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and fled Kazakhstan for Switzerland along with his family. Khrapunov junior sold his company to a Swiss businessman in April 2013.
And what about those who don’t have millions to invest in business? Most of them work in the service industries or trade. Former Russians – especially women - who have settled on the shores of Lake Geneva often go solo, setting themselves up as consultants to wealthy compatriots.
They help with registering children at school, they act as interpreters, drivers, gardeners, security guards, personal shoppers – and all in Russian.
Whether Khodorkovsky really comes or not, the little town on the lake shore looks like remaining a Russian comfort zone for residents and visitors alike.
The former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s wealthiest man, was imprisoned in 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion.
In the West these were considered to be trumped-up charges, since Khodorkovsky, a critic of President Vladimir Putin, was seen as a political threat.
Khodorkovsky was released in December 2013 and immediately flew to Berlin. He paid tribute to Switzerland for its support when he was in prison.
He arrived in Switzerland at the beginning of January.
His wife and two sons have been living in Switzerland for several years.
Rumour is rife that he intends eventually to settle in Montreux; however, according to an interview given to the online Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta by his former associate Leonid Nevzlin, who he visited in Israel earlier this month, he initially intends to rent a flat or house near Zurich, close to the place where his sons are at school.
Nevzlin said he was certain that Khodorkovsky had no intention of taking any foreign citizenship.End of insertion
Real estate and residency
The purchase of real estate in Switzerland does not give the owner an automatic residence permit.
“The main argument for foreigners to buy property on the Vaud Riviera is to give their children the chance to study here,” said Sergey Sander. There are a number of private schools and colleges in the area for students of all ages.
Students do get a residence permit and if they later want to take Swiss nationality, every year they have spent in the country before the age of 18 counts double.
Their parents, however, only get an annual visa. There are various ways to qualify for a full permit: by opening a business or finding work; by making a tax deal with the canton; at the age of 55 by requesting a permit to settle and showing that they can live off their savings.End of insertion
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