Photographs by Laetitia Vancon
ROTTACH-EGERN, Germany — Nestled among snow-capped mountains an hour’s drive south of Munich, the villages around the Alpine lake of Tegernsee have been a playground of the superrich for centuries — whether Bavarian kings, Russian czars, Nazi elites or pop stars.
They have been drawn not just by the pristine views, but also by the cozy air of discretion that in more recent years has made the area a favorite destination for Russian oligarchs, too.
“This valley has been a hideaway not only for the rich, but for the very opaque. It is a long tradition,” said Martin Calsow, an author of German crime novels, who lives in Tegernsee and sets many of his stories there. “We live off them, they are the source of our wealth, and as long as we don’t mention it, everybody can prosper. It’s like a silent contract.”
But Russia’s war in Ukraine — and the sanctions targeting Russian elites in response — have roiled the placid waters of Tegernsee, upsetting the calm veneer with nagging questions about whether it is right anymore to look the other way from the sources of wealth of those the area has hosted.
At least, that is the intention of Thomas Tomaschek, a Green politician who sits on the council for Rottach-Egern, a village on the Tegernsee where some prominent Russian oligarchs maintain their lakeside hideaways.
Mr. Tomaschek has done an unusual thing in these parts: challenging the local complacency by pushing the federal government to seize or freeze assets — no easy task given the financial shields that are as much a part of the superrich lifestyle as the neon-colored Lamborghinis that speed along the mountain roads.
“We have a moral problem here with these oligarchs,” Mr. Tomaschek said. “Many tell me, ‘Don’t make noise, it’s not our business.’ Well, I think it is our business.”
He has taken aim, in particular, at Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born tycoon and ally of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Usmanov made his fortune through metal and mining operations and owns three villas on the lake.
Nearby is a sprawling hillside estate tied to Ivan Shabalov, a Russian pipeline magnate. He has not had sanctions imposed against him, but some question how he made his billions because his company works with the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom.
The doubts in Tegernsee reflect a similar soul searching at a national level. The decision to freeze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia symbolized how politicians and businesspeople have been forced to acknowledge that their motto of “change through trade” has not moderated Moscow’s approach but rather compromised their own reputations.
But the arguments in Tegernsee show that despite the government’s change in stance, some who profited from ties to Moscow’s elite still seem intent to wait out the current furor and quietly return to business as usual.
Mr. Usmanov, who locals say visited at least three times a year, was staying at Tegernsee when he was added to the European Union’s sanctions list in February.
Nonetheless, his private jet was able to depart from Munich several hours later. Airport officials told local news media that the plane was registered to a company in the Isle of Man, not to Mr. Usmanov himself, and that none of the passengers had used Russian passports.
“That shows that the authorities were asleep,” Mr. Tomaschek said.
Mr. Usmanov’s press team, in response to queries from The New York Times, said the properties in question had been transferred to a trust years ago in a “fully transparent and legal” fashion. Mr. Usmanov had nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis and was not close to Mr. Putin, the team added.
“Demands for the expropriation of someone else’s legally acquired property is legal nihilism in its purest form,” the press team said, noting that Rottach-Egern had “a special place in his heart.”
Mr. Tomaschek disagrees and compares Germany’s response unfavorably with that of Italy, where the authorities deployed anti-mafia laws to identify and seize oligarch yachts and villas relatively quickly.
In recent weeks, Germany has been trying to shore up its legal framework, spearheaded by a new task force. But it could still take months — potentially providing time to move or hide assets.
In late March, Mr. Tomaschek organized a protest outside the Usmanov villas. Some 300 people turned up, shocking many in the usually sleepy Bavarian district.
“You don’t protest in Tegernsee. That takes a lot, quite a lot indeed,” said Josef Bogner, the owner of the Voitlhof, an upscale Bavarian restaurant in Rottach-Egern.
“It has something to do with these mountains,” he added. “Your view out to the world is narrow.”
The mayor of Rottach-Egern tried to dissuade Mr. Tomaschek from staging the protest, calling it a “witch hunt,” a phrase he repeated on television. Nor was the plan popular with others on the council — one of whom worked as an architect for Mr. Usmanov.
Since then, Mr. Tomaschek said that he had regularly received hate mail and angry phone calls, and had been accused of being a troublemaker or a “Nazi pig.”
So has Christina Häussinger, the editor of the Tegernseerstimme, a local newspaper. As she strolled the streets trying to interview locals one recent afternoon, many refused. “You bring shame and trouble here,” one man grumbled.
Ms. Häussinger’s newspaper regularly investigates the properties of oligarchs and other superrich residents.
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“We live in an idyll, which most people here only want to have affirmed, not questioned,” she said.
One reader who dislikes her articles is Andreas Kitzerow, a local craftsman renovating the Usmanov villas.
“I just find it outrageous. He has always been reserved, and he has nothing to do with the war in any way, as far as I can tell,” Mr. Kitzerow said of Mr. Usmanov. “But they think just because he knows Putin or because he’s Russian, they can do this. You shouldn’t pass judgment.”
Mr. Kitzerow said that he and other workers were owed about a million dollars for work that the oligarch cannot pay now because of sanctions.
Tegernsee’s roots as a glamorous getaway started with the Bavarian king Maximilian I Josef. He invited Czar Nicholas I of Russia to visit in 1837.
It was also a favorite of the SS officer Karl Wolff, Himmler’s chief of staff and a liaison to Hitler, who often hosted guests there. The property used to entertain Nazi elites is the villa said to be Mr. Usmanov’s favorite today.
The international superrich arrived in the 2000s, with the opening of the Hotel Überfahrt, a lakeside “five star plus” hotel with a gold fountain.
Mr. Usmanov, a former competitive fencer, is said by locals to have asked waiters to open champagne bottles with sabers at parties he hosted there.
Some residents say that critics like Ms. Häussinger represent a silent majority ignored by politicians and businesspeople who benefit even as locals are pushed out by ever-higher prices.
A few weeks after Mr. Usmanov’s departure from Tegernsee, two of his neighbors noticed a pair of luxury cars in the parking garage of a building where Mr. Usmanov’s bodyguards lived.
The residents asked not to be identified because they feared reprisals. But they said that they had repeatedly asked officials to check the vehicles in case they could be seized under sanctions.
After a journalist caught wind and published photographs of the cars, they disappeared. Mr. Usmanov’s neighbors said that they had witnessed one of the bodyguards absconding with the vehicles.
Even if investigators had tried to seize the cars, they might have struggled. Assets reputedly owned by Mr. Usmanov and Mr. Shabalov — as is common with the superrich — are hard to trace through shell companies and relatives who own them on paper.
Germany’s current laws do not help: Not all of the authorities responsible for tracking assets have access to the country’s transparency registry. Nor is it clear, in many cases, which government body is responsible for what.
“Germany really lagged behind on these laws on an international level,” said Konrad Duffy, an official with the independent watchdog Finanzwende. “And the only explanation for that is a feeling here that as long as it does us good, that’s good for Germany.”
As the war in Ukraine drags on, the Tegernsee villas remain shuttered and untouched. Some worry momentum to take action is flagging because that is how local leaders like it.
Mr. Tomaschek is not planning any more protests. “We sent a message,” he said. “We did what we could. Now the state has to take action.”