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French villagers mobilise to save their castle from Ukrainian owner who 'pretends to be dead'

This photograph taken in La Rochepot, Burgundy, eastern France, on October 8, 2021, shows the Chateau de La Rochepot, a 12th-century feudal castle.
This photograph taken in La Rochepot, Burgundy, eastern France, on October 8, 2021, shows the Chateau de La Rochepot, a 12th-century feudal castle.   -   Copyright  JEFF PACHOUD / AFP
By Jez Fielder  with AFP

Burgundy, the French region famed for its top-end wines, is not short of a Chateau. And some of them are rumoured to have ghosts. But one castle in particular has become embroiled in a very peculiar scenario where the owner seems to be both living and dead at the same time.

Château de la Rochepot, in Burgundy, France, sits a stone's throw away from the hallowed Chardonnay vines of Puligny-Montrachet. The neo-Gothic 12th-century fortress still perches majestically on a rocky outcrop, but the whole place is now under judicial liquidation.

The major tourist attraction and the soul of the village, the castle has been closed for three years and its furniture is now going up for auction to pay off the debts of its wealthy Ukrainian owner.

A visitor looks at the furniture of the Chateau de La Rochepot, a 12th-century feudal castle, in La Rochepot, Burgundy, eastern France, on October 8, 2021.JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

Now in prison awaiting trial in a fraud case involving more than €12 million, prosecutors have accused him of pretending to be dead to escape justice.

The mystery owner of Château de la Rochepot

The castle is managed by a Ukrainian resident in Lithuania and a Moldovan who acts for a company in Luxembourg.

In the village, a Ukrainian sometimes appears who speaks of "his" castle but prefers to be called "Monsieur" rather than giving his name.

In December 2017, the local daily newspaper Le Bien Public revealed that the artisans contracted for the "magnificent project" had never been paid.

Alerted, Europol then discovers that this "Monsieur" is a "high-flying fugitive" who passed himself off as dead in 2014 to "escape justice" in his country. The deceased (now strongly resuscitated), Dmitri Malinovsky, defrauded "more than 12 million euros", according to the Kiev prosecutor's office.

On October 5, 2018, police arrested him in "his" castle. Since then, he has been in prison in Nancy, where we will know "in the coming months" if a trial takes place, probably "in the first half of 2022," Vincent Legaut, vice-prosecutor in Nancy, told AFP. The Ukrainian does not wish to comment, according to his lawyer, Benoît Diry.

Heartbreak for the locals

It all seemed to be looking up for the villagers in 2015 when the castle finally attracted a buyer after having been on sale for three years. Its owner, the heiress of ex-president Sadi Carnot, had set as a condition for the sale the "total respect" of the place. But the auction shows how the promise was broken, despite the new owners agreeing to the condition.

For the 300 or so inhabitants of La Rochepot, however, this is heartbreaking, and they have mobilised in order to try to save what historical pieces they can from being sold off.

"We are asking for a pure and simple postponement of the sale as it is taking place at the moment. If the liquidator hears our protest and agrees to sell only the recent pieces, it will be very good for us," said Romuald Pouleau, a former caretaker at the castle.

"We want the castle's furniture, the historical furniture, to remain in the chateau."

A local resident stands next to a banner reading 'let's protect our heritage' near the Chateau de La Rochepot, a 12th-century feudal castle in eastern France on October 8.JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

The villagers say the affair is about more than just the chateau, and stress it is crucial for tourism in the area and many livelihoods depend on its continued existence.

"The village loses 30,000 visitors a year, so it has a big economic impact on the bed and breakfasts, on the winegrowers, on the farmers," said Véronique Richer, the mayor of the village, alarmed at the repercussions for the local economy. "It has an impact not only on the village but also on the whole territory."