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Depardieu Aside, the Rich Aren’t Moving to Russia

French actor Gerard Depardieu
Tomas Hudcovic | isifa | Getty Images
French actor Gerard Depardieu

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of the grand media gesture.

Whether it's amassing a crowd of supporters or flying in a glider to safely guide an endangered species of crane, Putin knows the value of a good p.r. stunt.

And so comes news that Putin has granted citizenship to Gerard Depardieu, the oversize French thespian who is fleeing France because of its high taxes. Reports say that Depardieu has applied for citizenship after Putin announced publicly last month that the French actor was welcome in Russia.

"Putin has already sent me a passport," Depardieu was quoted as telling Le Monde in December.

The p.r. game helps Russia's effort to become a more attractive destination for foreign wealth and investment. The government highlights its low, flat tax rate of 13 percent. The government says Depardieu doesn't even have to live there to become a Russian taxpayer. (Read more: Wealthy Chinese Flee, Bringing Wealthy With Them)

It's not at all clear, however, that Depardieu is bound for Russia. More broadly, the whole story obscures the darker truth in Russia: a lot of wealth is leaving the country, rather than coming in.

According to the Russian Central Bank, more than $80 billion flowed out of the country in 2011, more than twice the rate of 2010. Some say the Central Bank's numbers are artificially high. But at best, more than $36 billion left the country in 2011.

Wealthy Russians have become some of the biggest buyers of real estate in New York, Miami and London. They say privately that they are concerned about political stability in the country as well as growing corruption. While the country's official tax rate is 13 percent, many wealthy Russians say they are also solicited for much higher fees for political protection.

Edward A. Mermelstein, a real-estate lawyer in New York who specializes in wealthy Russian buyers, said that demand was "very strong" from Russians at the end of last year "and we expect that to continue this year." (Read more: Why Miami Is Becoming the Russian Riviera)

Russians who buy property and move their families to the U.S. rarely change their tax status. But they are rapidly moving money overseas that would otherwise be invested in Russia.

Putin, in other words, may be hoping to attract stumping for more incoming wealth. But his main challenge is keeping it.

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.