John Colson: From Aspen to Russia, with love?

John Colson
Hit & Run

Well, well, it appears Aspen is among the growing number of worldwide high-end resort communities happily entertaining and enriching peripatetic Russian billionaire, among its historic roster of immensely wealthy people who come here to play and get a little richer whenever the opportunity presents itself.

At least that is the picture we’ve gotten from recent reports identifying one billionaire, Russia-born Vladislav Doronin, as the recent buyer of about an acre of ground at the base of Aspen Mountain.

The property, as highlighted in The Aspen Times news story, is the site slated principally for development of the Gorsuch Haus slopeside luxury hotel, land which was sold at a reported price of $76.25 million by its former proponents, local developers Jim DeFrancia, Jeff Gorsuch and Bryan Peterson, principals in the Norway Island LLC.

Interestingly, the three Norway Island principals pulled off this sale less than a year after they bought the land from the Aspen Skiing Co. for a price of $10 million.

The recent sale, which represents a more than seven-fold chunk of profit for these three, carries with it the approvals by city government and a scant blessing by voters, who in 2019 gave it a “go” by a reported margin of 26 votes (the vote was 1,555 to 1,529, according to reports.)

Readers will, of course, remember this as the one that squeaked by after a campaign by the proponents who leaned heavily on the proponents’ local ties and promises that voters could trust this bunch to “build a project that would serve the Aspen community and its visitors” — about as vague a promise as ever was given by a development team.

I should note that Aspen also is home (at least part-time, anyway) to another Russian oligarch named Roman Abramovich, also a reported billionaire, owner of the Chelsea football club in the United Kingdom and said to be a close confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin, as just about everybody knows, is the guy who has recently invaded the sovereign state of Ukraine, Russia’s neighbor and a former part of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ukraine has been under massive attacks involving tanks, missiles, soldiers, aircraft and ships. Many observers have questioned Putin’s mental and physical health, and it is now generally assumed he is desperate to re-establish the vast empire of the USSR as a way of salving his bruised ego (he never recovered from the dissolution of the USSR, according to many commentators), and his Ukraine move is believed to be a critical initial part of that reconstruction.

The world has watched in horror as Putin unleashed his country’s supposedly invincible military, callously killing an unknown number of civilians as well as Ukrainian military personnel and armed volunteers who have stepped up to fight for their country. Putin is being accused of war crimes and violation of international law for having targeted nuclear facilities in Ukrainian cities and regions, and generally wreaking havoc on a peaceful neighbor country for no better reason than he can and he wants to.

Oh, right, he has claimed to be “de-Nazifying” the Ukraine, which is a tactic much like the lies and logical twists of our own former president, Donald Trump, who regularly accuses his political enemies of doing things that he himself has done.

Abramovich, by the way, owns at least two homes in the Aspen area. Not sure if he’s gotten involved in the local development industry, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find his name linked to one or more projects, the way things have been going.

I have no idea whether Abramovich currently has Putin’s ear or were privy to the advance planning for the invasion, but again, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both are ultimately wise to that whole ugly mess.

At the very least, both Russian-born Aspen property owners are likely deeply embedded in the kleptocratic culture that emerged after the USSR fell apart, as numerous eager entrepreneurs moved in on a broad range of once-public enterprises, including energy production, real estate speculation and much more.

I should say that I have visited the former USSR twice, participating in International Peace Walks in 1988 and 1989, have met countless Ukrainians and Russians, and have no inherent dislike or distrust of the population at large. In fact, I once considered moving to Ukraine at the invitation of an editor in the Donetsk region, to help with the establishment of a free press there.

So I’ve got nothing against most Russians, per se.

No, the only players in this saga who I find lacking here are the greedy speculators who sold a bill of fake goods to local voters three years ago to win development approvals, and then cynically turned around sold the land to Doronin for a profit that would make most people blush.

And I felt this is a good time to take a closer look at our neighbors, new and old.

Editor’s note: In response to Mr. Colson’s opinion piece, Mr. Doronin’s spokesperson reached out Tuesday morning to The Aspen Times to threaten a lawsuit about the use of the term “oligarch” — which the Times has amended — and pointed out that Doronin has publicly denounced Putin’s invasion of Ukraine via his Twitter account.