A friend in London provides services to the super-rich, some of them Russian. He wears lovely suits, works from a patrician address and can play up his private-school accent to impress clients. Though always law-abiding himself, he’d never be so vulgar as to ask clients if they had ever stolen, say, Russian mineral wealth. I suspect he’s now going through his client list in a panic.
Who are London’s enablers, and how do they justify themselves? In 1992, a Russian named Alex walked into a Hamptons estate agents in Kensington and bought flats in cash, for between £200,000 and £320,000 each. This was probably “the first sale of London property to private buyers from the ex-USSR in modern British history”, writes Oliver Bullough in Moneyland. Then Londongrad mushroomed.
French economist Gabriel Zucman estimated in 2014 that 52 per cent of Russian wealth was held offshore — surely the largest-ever exportation of elite money. By 2020, a British parliamentary report admitted, “Russian influence in the UK” was “the new normal”, while “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin” were “well integrated into the UK business and social scene”.
Kleptocrats appreciate Britain’s rule of law as long as it leaves them alone. The kleptocratic cycle is “steal, hide, spend”, writes Bullough, and London is good for hiding and spending. Local beneficiaries range from accountants to sex workers, bankers to dog walkers, and bodyguards to universities. British public schools have Russified, too: in 2016, before Putin had even met the new prime minister Theresa May, he received 11 boys from Eton for a friendly discussion of world affairs in Moscow.
Even royals can be reverse-colonised. In 2007, Timur Kulibayev, billionaire son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s former president, paid £15mn, or £3mn above the initial asking price in a competitive bidding process, for Prince Andrew’s long-unsold mansion Sunninghill Park. “I can’t believe all the fuss about this stupid house!” Kulibayev’s former partner Goga Ashkenazi told me later. “I introduced them, so what? I’m not a real estate agent.”
Britain’s ruling party swims in Russian money. Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband was a minister under Putin, has given the Conservatives more than £2.1mn since becoming a British citizen. In 2014, she paid £160,000 to play tennis with London’s then mayor, Boris Johnson.
London’s enablers use many self-justifications, some of them true. Everybody does it. Russian money boosts London’s economy. If it didn’t come here, it would go elsewhere. Enablers see themselves as skilled, non-ideological technicians, almost like dentists: a London lawyer friend boasted to me about the complexity of the tax shelters she designed. Because enablers compare themselves with their clients, rather than with ordinary people, they think of themselves as middle-class strivers, simply trying to keep their children at private school. They often feel genuine admiration for “successful” Russians. Enablers I’ve dealt with at Roman Abramovich’s football club Chelsea eulogise “the owner’s” modesty and intelligence, but rarely dare mention his name.
This “discretion” is a marker of enabler language, writes American anthropologist Samuel Weeks. Enablers protect their clients’ “privacy”, say “international” instead of “tax haven”, and use modern diversity language to suggest that anyone who questions Russian money is racist.
Enablers sell themselves as the gatekeepers of a timeless upper-class London. In her book Capital Without Borders, Brooke Harrington describes a firm whose wood-panelled offices near Westminster Abbey “could double as a 19th-century gentlemen’s club”. Many enablers are pillars of the London community. Geraldine Proudler, a lawyer who helped Russian billionaires file civil claims against the publisher of Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People, is a director of the Guardian Foundation, which supports media under threat, and a former trustee of English PEN, the free-speech organisation, notes a Chatham House report.
Privately, some enablers may smirk at Russian garishness, and Russians at how cheaply posh Brits sell themselves. But relationships have eased as the Putinist elite has acquired London manners. Russia’s anti-western foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has a girlfriend whose daughter lives in Kensington. Russian state TV propagandist Sergei Brilyov has a British passport and a flat in Chiswick. “Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin” have bought £1.5bn worth of British property just since 2016, reports Transparency International, while admitting that this estimate is “the tip of the iceberg” since many purchasers use shell companies.
In the first two-and-a-half years of Johnson’s premiership, the UK issued precisely zero Unexplained Wealth Orders to investigate the origins of suspicious funds. Now, hurriedly drawn-up rules will catch more of Putin’s friends. But London’s enablers needn’t panic. There are enough kleptocrats from other countries to keep them in school fees.