Putin's treatment of his critics is causing problems for Russians in the UK

by Andrew Anthony / 14 October, 2018
Vladimir Putin. Photo/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Putin critic Russians UK

Like Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Litvinenko, many opponents of Vladimir Putin have died in strange circumstances in Britain.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, London became a favoured bolthole for the emerging Russian oligarchy of state-asset strippers, criminals and assorted “businessmen”. The banking system was friendly and not too curious about the origin of the money it was safekeeping or – to put it another way – laundering. Then there was the private-school system, churning out young gentlemen and ladies fit to move in all the right circles.

It seemed like you couldn’t move for Russian billionaires. When multibillionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea football club, the love affair between London and Moscow was sealed.

South Kensington, with its huge stuccoed houses, offered just the right combination of space, discretion and convenient access to Harrods.

Lately, however, this modern romance has fallen victim to old habits.

The Russians are a people with a strong respect for tradition and, for their Government, one of the most abiding is the custom of killing critics who’ve taken refuge abroad. There have been many opponents of President Vladimir Putin who have died in England in strange or unexplained circumstances – for example, Boris Berezovsky, the anti-Putin oligarch who was found hanged in his ex-wife’s mansion in Berkshire.

And then there have been those who have died in strange but fully explained circumstances. These include Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian secret agent, who perished in 2006 after drinking tea in a Mayfair hotel with two Russian agents. The tea was laced with polonium-210, a lethally radioactive substance.

Despite some British Government huffing and puffing, Anglo-Russian relations didn’t suffer too badly. The billionaires kept coming, Harrods remained busy, and the polonium-210 episode was treated like a storm in a teacup.

Then came McMafia, a BBC drama that examined the misdeeds of wealthy Russians living in London. In March this year, a few weeks after McMafia finished, came the “Skripal affair”, which was much more dramatic than the plodding TV show and so brazen not even the British authorities could ignore it. As you may recall, Sergei Skripal, another former Russian spy who worked for the British, and his daughter were taken ill after being poisoned with nerve agent novichok, a prohibited chemical weapon.

They both survived, but the collateral victims were a local couple who, three months later, accidentally picked up the perfume bottle the novichok had been carried in. One of them, Dawn Sturgess, died.

It turned out, to no one’s surprise, that the killers were almost certainly a pair of cloddish Russian agents who claimed to have come to England to visit Salisbury (where Skripal lived) solely to see the cathedral. It’s not a difficult building to find and it’s 10 minutes’ walk from the train station.

But somehow they contrived to walk all over Salisbury, including along the street where Skripal lives, in search of this elusive cathedral. It would be comic if it wasn’t so grimly tragic.

One effect of all this negative attention on Russians in England is that Abramovich was turned down for a visa renewal earlier this year, and banks are finally being encouraged to take a more inquisitive approach to some of Putin’s wealthiest friends.

But pity the poor Russians living in England. Most are not members of the super-rich, and the only money laundering they’ve ever done is to forget to remove a banknote from their jeans before putting them in the wash. They’ve had to contend with stereotypes of corrupt billionaires, trafficked prostitutes and, now, bizarrely incompetent spies.

As one Russian journalist, who’s lived for three decades in London, said: “Russian émigrés are the victims, not the perpetrators, of these attacks.”

But after the embarrassment of international exposure and mockery, perhaps the message will get back to the Kremlin: Putin really isn’t helping his countrymen’s image.

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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