Since the 18th century, Russians have flocked to the healing waters of Karlovy Vary. Now, the Czech government has barred them from visiting the country, and the town must reinvent itself.
James Bond, poisoned by a villain in the film “Casino Royale,” almost died in the forecourt of the Grandhotel Pupp, a majestic reinvention of what, under Communism, was called the Grand Hotel Moskva, a shabby lodge popular with members of the Czech and Soviet nomenklatura.
Rival hotels in the area have complained that widespread hostility to Russia and its people engendered by the carnage in Ukraine is crippling their business, built up over centuries around serving visitors from Russia. But the Pupp is doing well with a different approach.
“Our focus now is fully on the West, not the East,” said the hotel’s general manager, Jindrich Krausz. “Russia for us is the past, and it was not pleasant.”
A favorite playground for wealthy Russians since Peter the Great visited in the early 18th century, the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary is studded with grandiose hotels and luxury boutiques with Russian-speaking staff, along with plaques honoring famous Russian visitors like the 19th-century novelist Ivan Turgenev. It has a Russian Orthodox cathedral, whose priests report to Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, and a bust of the famous czar atop a hill called Peter’s Height.
The only thing missing these days is Russians.
Outraged by the war in Ukraine, the Czech government has barred them from visiting the country as tourists, though a few are still admitted for humanitarian reasons. Russian diplomats who staffed a now-shuttered consulate next to the cathedral have also gone, banished as part of the Czech Republic’s drive to curb Russian influence.
Fabled for its healing waters and otherworldly calm, Karlovy Vary — also known as Carlsbad — has become an unlikely microcosm of the turbulent forces tugging at Europe as anger over Russia’s assault on Ukraine struggles with economic self-interest and lingering pockets of pro-Russian sentiment.
“Karlovy Vary was a mecca for Russians,” said the Rev. Andrij Penjuk, a priest and longtime resident from Ukraine. “Nobody here shouted, ‘Russians go home,’ but I don’t miss them.”
Many, however, do miss them, particularly hotel and spa owners who used to make much of their money pampering Russians.
“Maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t want to suffer for Ukraine,” said Ali Mirzayev, a Russian-speaking hotelier and tour operator from Azerbaijan. Russians, he said, used to make up the bulk of his customers.
The State of the War
- A New Assault: Ukrainian officials have been bracing for weeks for a new Russian offensive. Now, they are warning that the campaign is underway, with the Kremlin seeking to reshape the battlefield and seize the momentum.
- Russia’s Soaring Death Toll: The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000. American and other Western officials say that the figure is a stark symbol of just how badly invasion has gone for the Kremlin.
- In the East: Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters to break Ukraine’s resistance in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.
- Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks alone won’t help turn the tide, and Kyiv has started to press Western officials on advanced weapons like long-range missiles and fighter jets.
Still around, but hidden behind the high walls and fences of their villas in the forest, are a few of the Russian plutocrats who inspired John le Carré in “Agent Running in the Field,” his final novel before his death in 2020, to make Karlovy Vary the setting for a dramatic encounter between a British spy and Arkady, a jaded Russian oligarch who used to work for British intelligence.
“I love best my Karlovy Vary,” Arkady tells his former handler. “We have an Orthodox cathedral. Pious Russian crooks worship in it once a week. When I am dead, I shall join them.”
Josef Dlohos, the director of the municipal government’s tourism promotion agency, insisted that Karlovy Vary had been unfairly tarred as a haven for Russian kleptocrats and mobsters when most of its visitors were ordinary Russians without wealth or weapons. But he conceded that the town’s role as a “neutral zone of peace,” with an understanding that scores are not to be settled violently here, had its attractions for Russians anxious about their security. “They are not allowed to do shootings here,” he said.
This reputation for nonviolence was good news for a growing Ukrainian community made up mainly of female war refugees. Scores of them paraded through the town last month singing folk songs and shouting, “Glory to Ukraine.” Onlookers clapped, but one middle-aged woman responded by shouting, “Glory to Russia” in Russian, and then quickly scurried away.
The brief hostile encounter, said Father Andrij, who helped organize the march, was unusual. “Some Russians are still here, but they usually stay quiet,” added the priest, who preaches at the local Greek Catholic Church. “They used to be very noisy but are now afraid. They know that openly supporting Russian crimes in Ukraine is a criminal offense.”
Local Ukrainians, many of them Orthodox Christians, used to pray at the Russian cathedral, but after Russia invaded their country and the Moscow patriarch started cheering on Russian troops, they nearly all stopped going there. In some cases, they switched to Father Penjuk’s rival denomination.
At an evening service at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral on Jan. 6, the Orthodox Christmas Eve, the candlelit nave, thick with the scent of incense, was still packed with Russian-speaking believers. But none wanted to identify themselves as being Russian. When asked, they said they were from Kazakhstan or Germany.
Vadim Kuljas, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian who runs a real estate business on Karlovy Vary’s main street, said he was sorry to lose Russian customers, but he understood why Russia’s brand had become so toxic, even among some Russians. “How can anyone support this evil war?”
All the same, Mr. Kuljas said he opposed moves by some countries in Europe, particularly the Baltic States, to bar entry to all Russians, irrespective of their views on the war. “Why are they guilty — just because they were born in Russia?” he asked.
Eager to lure back clients who have stayed away because of the war, the municipal authorities recently came up with an advertising campaign that they said would target Russian speakers who live in Germany.
But the slogan, “Karlovy Vary understands you,” caused dismay. Opposition members of the City Council wrote a letter of protest to the mayor, saying, “We firmly believe that Karlovy Vary does not want to build its future on such guests.”
Adam Klsak, the councilman who initiated the protest, said he was appalled that Karlovy Vary might give the impression of siding with Russia.
“Russia is at war with the values of the whole Western world, and to say we ‘understand’ them is obviously very dangerous,” Mr. Klsak said. “This was a gift to Russian propaganda, which always says that sanctions are hurting us more than them.”
While acknowledging the slogan “was a big mistake,” Mr. Dlohos, the tourism agency chief, insisted the target audience had never been Russians living in Russia. The slogan, quickly dropped, had meant to convey, he said, that Karlovy Vary understands not Russia’s war, but its language and spa-going habits.
Many Russians do not go to a spa for a quick sauna, but spend weeks undergoing elaborate health treatments involving doctors. While German guests stay 3.4 nights on average and Americans 2.5 nights in Karlovy Vary’s hotels, Russians stay for around 11 nights, according to official data.
“Westerners like so-called wellness for a few hours, but Russians go for real treatment that lasts many days,” said Mr. Mirzayev, the hotelier. “We would love to have English guests, but they just go to Prague to drink beer.”
Mr. Krausz, of the Grandhotel Pupp, whose Old World grandeur inspired Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” said the town needed to move on from Soviet-era spa traditions. He closed down his hotel’s medical treatment area, fired the doctors and focused on upgrading the hotel’s service and décor to meet top Western standards.
Responding to complaints about the marketing campaign, Karlovy Vary’s mayor, Andrea Pfeffer Ferklová, told the council that reaching out to German Russians offered an honorable solution to the economic problems caused by the absence of Russian Russians.
That argument cut little ice with Mr. Klsak, the opposition council member, who said Russians living in Germany were often pro-war and some “do not share European values.”
That view squared with the experience of Halyna Vaskovska, a refugee from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, who said she had often visited Karlovy Vary before the war for medical spa treatments for diabetes and other ailments, and had never had problems getting along with fellow Russian-speaking guests from Russia, Germany and elsewhere.
But that changed, she said, when, at the start of the war, she found herself sitting in a spa dining room with a group of German Russians who, in loud voices, started mocking President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. She stormed over to their table and shouted, “You know nothing about Ukraine and know nothing about what Russia is doing there!”