As I have recently become a father again at the age of 49 - my son Nikita is now four months old - my choice of where to holiday this summer was somewhat limited, as I often like to travel way off the beaten track. As a child I wanted to go and live with tribes in Borneo or Papua New Guinea whose way of living has been uninterrupted for thousands of years. We chose this year to rent a villa in Villefranche in the south of France.
The time away gave me the opportunity to do some thinking, and I tried to find the answer to the $500bn question: where did the money stolen from the Russian people in the greatest-ever era of corruption disappear to? And so, as Nikita enjoyed his first holiday, I realised that in France I could do my own investigation on this matter for Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow paper I co-own with Mikhail Gorbachev. My task was
a simple one - to work out the extent and nature of corruption today and where the stolen money has gone. I always assume that vast sums of money have been siphoned from my country and are being laundered in some "tax haven".
This got me thinking how easy it is to see why the Côte d'Azur became the place for Russian "high society" to spend their summers. It was, after all, Somerset Maugham who noted that it was full of "shady people in sunny places". In many ways I think it is also like a sort of modern-day Vanity Fair, but one consisting of oligarchs, half-oligarchs, nearly-oligarchs, state officials and their numerous servants. It's like the ski resort Courchevel at Christmas: excess spending and then more spending. Sometimes it seems that the crafty French authorities specially arranged for it all to be just so - all this extravagance and decadence on display - ready, one fine day, for them to send in their special forces by helicopter and make embarrassing arrests (as they did with spectacular effect in Courchevel).
The indigenous French are often dazed and confused by the Russian visitors, looking at them with ironic sideways glances. All this makes me think back to my dream of one day going to Papua New Guinea, where social status is also ludicrously on display. The people wear holim - pumpkin-skin sheaths covering the genitalia - and the size of each shows the social status of each male. Not so different, now I think about it, from the Russian bureaucracy on Moscow's streets with special sirens and blue lights on their BMWs, speeding at up to 140 kilometres an hour.
On the Côte d'Azur a similar visual hierarchy thrives. Local people are surprised by the Russians' garish status symbols - châteaux, yachts, Bentleys with Moscow registration plates and a slew of very single girls. Partying goes on from morning till night, but there is a feeling that this whole dolce vita is a sham - a futile, empty show in which the actors themselves are bored. We see cynicism and jealousy, hatred and servility and eternal human fear.
Fear because at the back of the mind of some of those partying in St Tropez is the knowledge that what they have does not legitimately belong to them: it has been purchased with money stolen either from the treasury, or from the owners. Or they have taken out a dodgy loan. And there is the thought that at any time, both in Russia and France, the police may come knocking at their door.
Some Russians can already only view their palaces on Cap Ferrat from London as a search warrant is out for them. The "new Russian" architecture of the Côte d'Azur shows a lack of taste. Everything that was built by the Americans, British and French in the past 60 years has been wrecked by new buildings. The marinas are filled with floating gin palaces, so there is now no room to swim. All this is done in the name of vanity and social status. A lot of people who usually stay in the shadows suddenly come into focus in exotic places, where they think no
one will recognise them. But the truth is, there is no place to hide. Incidentally, talking of the worst architecture, I am still glad the 1.2 kilometre-high skyscraper in Moscow by Norman Foster has not yet stained the skyline.
Among Russians on the Côte d'Azur there is a small number of those who have earned something legitimately and created added value for their country (mostly bankers). But on the whole it is those "businessmen" who come to spend money taken from their state's coffers. This is criminal.
I think all this cannot go on. The world has changed. If you look at people who steal money, you can trace where their money is. President Obama's administration has got information on the secret accounts of Americans at UBS in Switzerland. The British government is battling to close the loophole of "tax havens". Who knows, we may soon see the G20 set up a special organisation to fight corruption. Is corruption less harmful to society than apartheid? No. But the system of apartheid was destroyed only when international pressure squeezed it into extinction.
Alexander Lebedev is co-owner of Novaya Gazeta and the London Evening Standard