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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians at Home on Streets of Vienna

MTNovy Vensky Zhurnal monthly magazine
VIENNA, Austria -- The Soviet Soldier monument on Schwarzenbergplatz, which was unveiled in August 1945, just four months after Vienna was liberated -- or occupied -- by the Soviet Army, is one of many signs of the Russian presence in this quiet European capital.

Just to the left of the monument, which sharp-tongued Wiener have nicknamed "The Unknown Plunderer," stands a gray building with brass letters reading LUKoil, the oil giant's representative office in Austria.

Several blocks east, the palatial Russian Embassy and adjacent Orthodox Church are reminders of a centuries-old Russian diplomatic presence in this city of Hapsburg emperors and Strauss, and of the special role that neutral Austria played in East-West relations during the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy met in the embassy in 1961.

Just one block west, posters outside the world-famous Musikverein philharmonic hall in October advertised performances by conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev, pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja and violinist Maxim Vengerov.

The Russian language can be heard on just about every other street corner and in expensive stores, restaurants and hotels. And it is not just tourists who are speaking it.

While politicians and pundits fervently discuss whether Russia is going to become part of Europe, hundreds of thousands of Russians have already become a part of Europe by moving West. Many well-established businessmen have settled in Vienna, where they live in upscale forested suburbs and use Austria's reliable and confidential banks to operate their businesses.

Perhaps the most well-known Russian living in Austria is Alexander Smolensky, the founder of SBS-Agro bank, which was one of the biggest private retail banks in Russia until the 1998 economic meltdown. While running the bank, Smolensky commuted to Austria on weekends to see his family, who rarely came to Moscow.

Vienna also has penniless refugees and adventurers, as well as Russian women who married Austrian men with various degrees of success. There are Soviet Jews who passed through Vienna in the 1970s on their way to Israel or the United States and later returned.

But most Russians seem to be upper class and upper middle class businessmen and their families.

There are no accurate statistics for how many Russians live in Vienna or Austria. The press attache at the Russian Embassy, Andrei Seryogin, said there are about 2,000 people including families assigned to Russia's four missions in Vienna -- to Vienna-based UN organizations, talks on conventional weapons in Europe, the OSCE and the embassy.

But the embassy does not keep track of private individuals, he said.

Pyotr Ulyanov, the general manager of RTI Rosstradehandels Gmbh, estimated that tens of thousands of former Soviet citizens are living in Vienna. Ulyanov, whose father started the export-import company in 1992 when he retired from his job at a Soviet trade office in Austria, lives in a suburb of Vienna. Other well-off Russians are concentrated in the central first district and in the luxurious suburban 17th, 18th and 19th districts.

"Today, you cannot draw a border saying here is Russia and here is abroad," Ulyanov said in a telephone interview. "People come and go; globalization has become a reality. But Austria is such a comfortable country that few of those who come here want to leave."

Until the mid-1990s, it was relatively easy for well-to-do foreigners to settle in Austria, Ulyanov said. It was sufficient to start a company, invest a minimal charter capital of the equivalent of 37,000 euros and receive a residence permit that allowed visa-free travel to other European countries. "That attracted people," Ulyanov said.

But with immigration becoming a growing political issue, it has become increasingly hard to settle in Austria. In addition, a crackdown on money laundering has done away with anonymous bank accounts and other staples of banking confidentiality.

The right-wing coalition government, which recently collapsed, adopted a law that will markedly complicate residency and work permits for foreigners as of Jan. 1. With elections looming this month, the opposition Social Democratic Party has promised to cancel the law if it comes to power.

Gerhard Hofer, a reporter with Die Presse, a conservative newspaper, said he has tried and failed to find the Russian mafia in Austria. Hofer said that after dozens of interviews with police, tax officials and even private bodyguards, he concluded that even if there are some shady Russians living in Vienna, they live here with their families and don't carry out any criminal activities.

"After the Iron Curtain fell, there was a paranoia of Russian immigration, and a lot of Austrians were afraid," Hofer said. "Today, there is no problem with Russians. It's nicer to be rich in Vienna than in Vladivostok, I believe. They like to live in luxury. But they don't drive too fast, and they don't kill each other here."

Ulyanov, however, said he has had to fight off the mafia image.

"As soon as some crime happens in which East Europeans are involved, they immediately blame it on the Russian mafia," he said. "Of course it is very unpleasant for us, especially since denials appear in small font in the middle of the paper or nowhere at all."

Hofer, citing police, said about 5,000 Austrian companies are formed every year with at least one former Soviet on the board. Most of these companies are formed to get board members residency permits in Austria, he said.

Irina Muchkina, the publisher and editor of Novy Vensky Zhurnal, a monthly Russian-language magazine with a circulation of 20,000, said that whenever a villa or luxury residence goes up for sale in Vienna, it is usually advertised in her magazine. She said about half of all buyers are Russians.

But her Russian Service Bureau -- a consultancy that she runs out of the same office near Stephansplatz that her three-woman team uses to produce the magazine -- has to deal with another kind of Russian.

About half way through the interview for this story, a young man walked into the office looking for a job.

Mikhail Samykin, a 26-year-old river boatman from the Moskva-Volga canal who speaks no German, said he arrived in early October with three friends who got tourist visas by signing up for a bus tour. After arriving in Vienna, they went to the Caritas refugee center, where they were given shelter and assistance in filing papers to obtain refugee status.

"What kind of refugee are you?" Muchkina asked with reproach. "You will not get any status and will be deported. Better go home on your own."

Asked why he picked Vienna, Samykin replied: "Austria is beautiful, with lakes and the Alps, and Vienna is beautiful. And the living standard here is higher."

He acknowledged that without any German-language skills or any legal status it would be more difficult to find work in Vienna than Moscow, whose many opportunities attract hundreds of thousands of people looking for better lives. But he wasn't convinced. "While I am still single, why not test myself?" he said with a dreamy look in his eyes.