Rus­sia’s bil­lion­aire ex­pats live in lux­ury - and fear - in Lon­don’s most ex­clu­sive post­codes, says Ju­lia Llewellyn Smith.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.”

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