Russia’s billionaire expats live in luxury - and fear - in London’s most exclusive postcodes, says Julia Llewellyn Smith.
It was a balmy summer evening and at a high-powered corporate event in a London gallery off Bond St two guests – Darya and Iveta – stood out from the shabbychic British crowd. Their makeup was better applied, their clothes notably more expensive, their stilettos higher, and their hair glossier and blonder.
Both were frowning as much as their Botox allowed as they tried to understand an eminent British historian discoursing interminably about some prints on the wall of colonial India. “Yes, yes,” they said, nodding, at intervals as he spluttered canape crumbs over their shoulder pads. “Very interesting.”
Later, they were introduced briefly to another genial man. “Who is he?” they asked me when the small talk fizzled out and – to the relief of both sides - he moved on. “That was the prime minister’s husband,” I explained. Darya was aghast. “That little man? But why he smiled so much? This is not how a person of power behaves. Never I will understand this country.”
Both 40-something wives of Russian “biznizmen”, Darya and Iveta moved from Moscow to Chelsea seven years ago. They are trying to integrate into new and baffling London, a city where – along with another 150,000-odd compatriots – they are living not so much as expats as exiles, often banished from their homeland, having fallen foul of the Putin government or business enemies. They live in fortressed apartments – ludicrously rich, yet often lonely and afraid that one night their enemies will come knocking at the door.
“I want to make friends,” Darya told me sadly at the end of the evening, “but my English is not so good, so it is hard. And my husband never comes out with me. He prefers to mix only with Russians. Maybe you and I can go to [Michelin-starred London restaurant] Le Gavroche soon?”
Darya’s glamorous but often isolated world was one I became familiar with over the past year when my husband, James Watkins, was co-creating and directing McMafia, a BBC drama starring James Norton as Alex Godman, the son of a Russian mobster, born and educated in England and trying, with little success, to distance himself from his family’s dodgy millions. Initially, I wondered if this depiction of Russians abroad as at best vulgarians, at worst gangsters, wasn’t a terrible slur on these people with their heritage of Chekhov, Gogol and Tchaikovsky. Yet to my bemusement virtually every exiled Russian I met agreed in some way or other that their shady reputation was deserved.
“My husband and many of us made our money in extraordinary times,” Iveta said, shrugging.
“If we didn’t take chances someone else would have. And we enjoy this money because we grew up with almost nothing and know tomorrow it could all be taken from us again.”
“These Russians stole from their country, stripping it of its assets when communism fell, and then they flaunted their new wealth. No wonder they’re hated in their homeland and had to flee here,” said another Russian, who has lived in London for 38 years after marrying a British academic for whom she translated during the Brezhnev era.
London has plenty of Russian-speaking Lithuanian plumbers and Estonian nannies who emigrated here when their countries joined the EU. Yet the only way for the citizens of Putin’s Russian Federation to settle in the UK is via a “golden visa” scheme introduced in 1994, which granted British residency to foreigners who invested £1 million (NZ$1.89 million), in the country. In 2014 the sum was raised to £2 million.
“Obviously, only the extremely rich could afford that and very few of them have made their money by what we would consider to be innocent means,” says Misha Glenny, author of the 2008 non-fiction book McMafia, which inspired the TV drama.
The Home Office, however, seemed not to care how these visas were funded. “An officer from the Serious
“They live in fortressed apartments – ludicrously rich, yet often lonely and afraid that enemies will come knocking.”
Organised Crime Agency, as it was then called, told me pressure had been put on him not to look into Russian money. The hope was the wealth would trickle down,” Glenny says.
Once in Britain, even the most notorious criminal could feel secure. To date, every extradition request by Russia for a wanted businessman has been rejected on the grounds of political asylum. Nor did they have to worry too much about assassination attempts, a constant threat in Moscow, where feuds between the super-rich run deep (there was the odd exception, as evinced by the grisly fate of Alex Godman’s Uncle Boris).
Even so, most Russian newcomers keep contact with the outside world to a minimum. They are chauffeured everywhere in armour-plated Bentleys and live behind electric gates with basement pools, cinemas, golf-simulation rooms and climbing walls.
Initially, Russian expats are notoriously unadventurous in their choice of haunts, preferring - like the Godman family – to live as close to Harrods as possible, with other favoured areas being Belgravia, Kensington and The Bishops Avenue, the “billionaires’ row” in Highgate, north London.
“The Russian rich all know each other, even if many have fallen out,” photographer Valerie Manokhina, a former friend of Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, told Mark Hollingsworth, the author of the book Londongrad: From Russia With Cash.
“They are not especially confident in London. They don’t speak other languages and they are not familiar with Britain, its history and culture. So they stick together for security. The wives in particular like being near each other.”
Like McMafia’s patriarch Dimitri Godman, who grumpily nicknames his daughter’s black boyfriend “Michael Jackson”, they are unimpressed by London’s diversity. “There is no way they’d even dream of living somewhere that Londoners consider hip, like Hackney,” one relocation agent says. “They are from a country that is racially homogeneous and when your parents or grandparents were peasants you don’t find slumming it charming in any way.”
Similarly, they are fixated on eating only in Michelinstarred restaurants (“Sometimes as a joke I suggest we go to a new pop-up Ethiopian in somewhere like Peckham, just to see their faces,” says one art dealer with a large roster of Russian clients) and shopping at the big-name stores. “There’s a joke I love,” says Hossein Amini, McMafia’s co-creator. “Why do Russian men want to be buried in Harrods, not Moscow? Because they know at least there their wives will visit their grave once a week.”
Deprived of their aristocratic traditions since the 1917 revolution, they adore events such as Henley and Ascot. “The Russian idea of London is incredibly out of date, rooted in the mythical posh Britain of the past, and many opportunist Brits take advantage of that, reconstructing ridiculous deb dances for their daughters to attend,” says social commentator Peter York. He wrote about the Sloane Ranger tribe, but in the past two decades has seen them priced out of their Chelsea and Kensington homes by Slavs offering suitcases of cash.
Their biggest obsession, however, is education. Russians have been brought up to believe the British system is the best in the world. “Russian parents are very ambitious for their children, value education and will do anything they can, including intensive tutoring, to get their children into good schools,” says Irina Shumovitch who runs School Placement Service, which advises Russian parents on how to obtain a British education for their children.
“Parents often get in touch and ask for the ‘best school’, by which they mean Eton, because they have a hierarchical thinking which is the consequence of growing up under Soviet rule, where pluralism was an unknown value.”
Like Alex Godman, who enjoyed the dream Russian education of boarding school and Harvard, many of these second-generation Russians are embarrassed by their Soviet-bred parents. “There’s a social ease and sophistication to young Russians that completely goes against the cliches,” Amini says. “They are much more discreet about how they spend their money, tending to keep it behind closed doors.”
Shumovitch sees a vast gulf between the two generations. “This is a country where people smile at each other in the street. You never see this in Russia.
‘‘But when children grow up here they absorb this tolerance, respect for others, openness. Sometimes their parents say to me, ‘I don’t understand them any more.’’
“The Russian idea of London is incredibly out of date, rooted in the mythical posh Britain of the past.”