The Russian Invasion of the Alps

Anybody skiing in the Alps in the last twenty years can’t but help notice the large number of Russian tourists. Whether it is hearing Russian spoken in the resorts or Cyrillic estate agent listings, the Russians had clearly taken to the Alps in a big way since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But this was a popular invasion.

The Russian influx was welcomed in particular by the ski resorts. Wealthy Russians weren’t shy about buying chalets and luxury items. Russians also filled the quieter ski period in January because it coincided with the Russian Orthodox Christmas vacation season. Courchevel in January, in particular, is usually awash with Russian billionaires, their entourages and their dosh.

Resorts saw a downturn in the number of middle-class Russians after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However it did not affect the oligarchs who continued to flood in to the Alps, even though the resorts were sometimes less welcoming to the oligarchs than hitherto. In 2018 Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, applied for, but was denied, residency in Verbier. Swiss police arrested Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin on his way to Zermatt in 2021, and extradited him to the USA on charges of commercial espionage.

None the less, in the winter season 2018/19 Russians spent 140,000 night stays in hotels in the French Three Valleys resorts alone. Switzerland had 195,000 Russian night stays in the same season, with the main destinations being Verbier, Zermatt, St Moritz and Davos. Resorts in the Tyrol such as St Anton and Ischgl were particularly popular with a segment of the Russian market who liked the extensive pistes and hard core apres ski. Despite a small dip in 2014/15, luxury chalets in the main ski resorts continue to be purchased by wealthy Russians, or on behalf of wealthy Russians.

And it is not only wealthy and middle class Russians who enjoy the Alps. Le Monde established that Russian spooks have long favoured the Haute Savoie as a base for targeted assassinations around Europe, including that by the agents who planned the UK poisoning of ex Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Outside the Alps the Bulgarian ski resorts, such as Borovets and Bansko, have always been popular winter destinations for Russians. Before the Iron Curtain came down, I met many Russians in my ski trips to the country. There is a strong cultural bond between the people of Russia and the people of Bulgaria, and skiing in Bulgaria is significantly cheaper than Alpine ski resorts. Consequently Russian tourists have continued to flock to Bulgaria for winter sports even after the Iron Curtain came down and opened up the Alps as a ski destination. In the 2021/22 season Russian tourists came in even larger numbers because Bulgaria recognises Russian-made COVID vaccines.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military in February 2022 has changed everything for Russian winter tourists. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be impractical for Russians to get to the Alps, and – in any case – not affordable for many of them as the rouble plunges against the Euro and the Russian economy goes into recession. For Russian tourists on holiday in Europe and caught unaware by the invasion, the sanctions from the EU and Switzerland have left tens of thousands stranded in European ski resorts. Middle class Russians face an expensive trip home since all flights out of the EU to Russia have been grounded. Additionally many ATMs and  establishments will no longer approve Russian debit and credit cards.

Switzerland has long been a popular destination for the wealthy, but their presence is no longer as welcome as it once was. The 2022 Verbier Festival has cancelled all Russian artists and the Music Director, Valery Gergiev, a prominent Putin apologist, has been asked to resign. Aligning with EU restrictions, eight Russian oligarchs resident in Switzerland with close ties to Putin have received travel bans. Many oligarchs will see their chalets sequestrated. At least a dozen private planes owned by wealthy Russians are stranded at Basel airport. Billions of dollars worth of assets managed or held by Swiss banks on behalf of wealthy Russians have been frozen.

Still, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea remain friendly to the Russian regime and will no doubt welcome winter tourists from Russia – although the skiing options are limited. But there’s always Sochi, where the biggest ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, has 102 km of piste and still serves Russian vodka.

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Swiss Winter Sports in 1925

Skijoring on the lake at St Moritz 1925

Although I have been skiing for over 50 years, I don’t have a great sense of it changing much since I first tumbled down a Scottish mountain. OK, we did wear some uncool ski outfits back then, nobody snowboarded and there were a higher proportion of surface lifts. But I don’t remember it being so different. Largely the same resorts and the same vibe in them.

Track back another 50 years, and what was often called ski running involved very long wooden skis, one stick and a pair of stout leather ski boots. And it was by no means the major attraction for people visiting the Alps in winter.

I’ve been reading “Things Seen in Switzerland in Winter”, written by Charles Domville-Fife in 1925. He writes that interest in visiting Switzerland was divided between those for whom it was termed “The Playground of Europe”, and those who went hoping to recover from tubercolosis.

Until 1946 there was no effective medication to treat tubercolosis, a disease that killed as many as one in four people in England in the 19th Century. Swiss mountain air and sunshine achieved a remarkable recovery rate in the clinics that sprung up in hitherto sleepy hamlets like Davos and Arosa in the late nineteenth century. And the therapeutic benefits were enjoyed as much, or even more, in the winter.

St Moritz had also become a popular destination for its winter sun and the many diversions organised in the sophisticated hotels there – the hotelier Badrutt taking a lot of credit for popularising winter holidays in the Engadine. In 1873 for the first time St Moritz recorded more winter visitors than summer ones.

One English visitor to Switzerland in the late nineteenth century was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who stayed in Davos where his wife was recuperating from tuberculosis. Ever impatient to be doing something, he imported some skis from Norway (where skiing had long been a practical means of transport) and became the first person to ski from Davos to Arosa – still a popular back country route. In 1893 he wrote an article in the English press of his experiences and helped popularise what was to diverge from Norwegian ski techniques to become what we now know as the sport of downhill skiing.

Skiing was by no means the only winter sport that became popular in Switzerland. Domville-Fife records that skating was introduced as a winter sport in 1876 (from England), curling (from Scotland) in 1882, tobogganing (from Canada) in 1884, ice hockey (also from Canada) in 1992 and the quaint sport of skijoring (from Scandinavia) in 1906.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Switzerland benefitted from a growing electrified rail system, opening up destinations such as the new sanatoria in Montana and Leysin, and new winter sports destinations like Klosters, Celerina, Grindelwald, Wengen, Murren, Gstaad, Villars, Engelberg and Andermatt. Adelboden later emerged as both a health centre and a ski destination, with the world’s first winter sports holiday package organised by Sir Henry Lunn in 1903. Outside of Switzerland, Chamonix and St Anton – both with rail links – were early adopters of sport skiing, St Anton claiming to have founded the first ski club in 1901.

Skiers demonstrate Telemark, Jump Turn and Christiana in St Moritz 1925

Most of the new winter sports were introduced by the British, but soon became popular with the Swiss and visiting Germans. The opening of the cog railways in winter in Grindelwald, Wengen and Villars are attributed to British requests that they be available outside the summer timetable.

It’s noteworthy that, at this time, British tourists tended to come over only in December and January, and what we now largely associate with the peak winter sports period was left to the locals. Domville-Fife declares that “at nearly all the best known resorts the predominance of British people during Christmas and New Year festivities is usually so great that even the Swiss themselves are scarcely seen. It is during this period and for about five weeks afterwards that a sojourn at any of the winter sports centres becomes one of the most delightful experiences of life”.

Domville-Fife, writing in 1925, doesn’t mention a single ski destination in the canton of Valais, now probably the pre-eminent ski region in the world. Champéry, in the Portes du Soleil did not have its first lift access to the slopes until 1939, Verbier’s first lift arrived in 1946, Saas-Fee a popular summer spa destination did not have road access until 1950 and Zermatt, although it has had the Gornergrat cog railway since 1898, was primarily known as a summer destination for climbers, and did not open the railway to the summit during the winter season until 1941. Only Montana (later Crans-Montana), had adopted skiing by 1925, following the opening of the funicular railway in 1911. However the village was still mostly popular for its sanatoria and, from 1906, for golfing.

Skijoring, meanwhile, has its adherents but has achieved only a limited popularity. Although my Swiss mother-in-law recalls skiing to school on skis, I don’t think it looks anything like this today at Aiglon College!

Switzerland - school in the sun 1925.
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Ski Movies – Part One

With most people unable to go skiing this season, what is there better to do than curl up with a good ski movie. Or a bad one. Or even one that features a few scenes in a ski resort.

Here are some suggestions:

Slalom (2021) – French

The Guardian film critic asks “Is this a tale of abuse, or forbidden love? Or is there something insidious in asking that question, suggesting an ambiguity that will err leniently on the side of love?” Well, that’s for you to find out in this well regarded French movie from Charlène Favier, who drew on her own experiences in Val-d’Isère in the making of her debut feature.

Nordwand (2008) – German

This film is about mountaineering rather than skiing, but it all takes place on the North face of the Eiger in 1936, above Grindelwald, and is compelling viewing – which is more than can be said for some of the movies I’m going to review that feature a lot more slope-side action.

Chalet Girl (2011)

This story of a working class girl becoming a snowboard champion in St Anton is entertainingly watchable dross. It has Bill Nighy in it. Do you need to know anything more?

Claim (2008)

Full movie

The press release says: “CLAIM, The Greatest Ski Movie… EVER!” A truly epic film shot in the most amazing locations, featuring the best and boldest skiers in the world today: Mark Abma, Jon Olsson, Shane McConkey, Eric Hjorleifson and more. I would add it only takes an astonishingly awesome 2 minutes before the film features “The Final Countdown”.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Trailer

This is one of my favourite Bond films, despite starring the relatively unpopular George Lazenby. A whole bunch of the action takes place on the Schilthorn, above Mürren in Switzerland, including a memorable ski chase.

There’s five to start with. If nothing takes your fancy here, I will be adding a couple of dozen more in upcoming posts.

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Snow’n’Rail

SBB Train

The Swiss Railways provide an excellent discount deal for skiers, called Snow’n’Rail, which typically discounts the price of a rail ticket to a ski resort by 20% and the lift pass by 10%. it is available online or at Swiss Railway stations.

The new schedule for 2020/21 is out, and it is always interesting to see which new resorts have been added and which have fallen off the scheme. Sadly there have been some substantial losses this year – Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Gstaad Mountain Rides and the Vaud resorts (Leysin, les Diablerets and Villars-Gryon).

That still leaves a number of outstanding destinations such as Engelberg, Andermatt, Davos, St Moritz, Wengen, Portes du Soleil and Verbier, amongst others.

The brochure available at railway stations is thin on details this year, relying on you to see what is available at the Swiss Railways web site. Where routes include buses or cableways, these are also included in the offer. Swiss Railways also offer discounts on a number of other rail and winter sports combinations, such as tobogganing, snowshoe walking and cross-country skiing.

The Austrian Railways, ÖBB, offer a similar scheme which includes world class resorts like St Anton and Kitzbühel. They also run overnight services from Amsterdam, Hamburg and Düsseldorf to the ski resorts and a shuttle to Kitzbühel from Munich.

A full list of Alpine resorts which have a railway station is at the Snow and Rail web site. Daniel Elkan at SnowCarbon can assist people wanting to get to the Alps from the UK by train, offering a wider selection of resorts where the last leg might require a bus or taxi transfer.

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