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US, Russia spy swap: Why London is a hotbed of spies

The US-Russia spy swap today in Vienna was aimed at bringing a quick close to spy tales that have transfixed the media. But London – a magnet for Russians – is likely to remain a hotbed of spies.

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“The history of relations between Britain and the USSR were full of intelligence problems and spats,” says Alex Pravda, at the Chatham House think tank. “Recently though ... Britain has become seen in Moscow as a center for potential Russian opposition, and the presence of Berezovsky and Zakayev in London are seen as evidence that Britain is willing to give them safe haven.”

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Aside from dissidents, the Russian community is present at almost every level of London society. Tens of thousands of Russians have made Britain their home since the first waves of bankers, students, refugees, and others began arriving in the early 1990s. In some years, the British authorities issued more than 100,000 visas.

The sound of Russian is commonplace on the upmarket shopping thoroughfare of King’s Road in Chelsea. At least four Russian-language newspapers have sprouted, along with grocery stores with Russian foods, Russian-language schools, and Russian legal firms.

Olga Yartseva, a student at University College London who moved here at age 11 when her father came here to work, tells of a trend: wealthy Moscow parents sending their children here for school. The children then return to Russia to work in the family business.

Admitting to a happy ambivalence about her own identity – “I spend half of my life in Moscow and the other half in London” – she admires how Russian oligarchs have connected with their adopted homeland. “What I like ... is the way that they contribute to British society, through charity but also by investing. They don’t isolate themselves. They integrate.”

The best-known oligarch is Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, a self-made billionaire listed by Forbes as the 50th richest man in the world. He is joined by Oleg Deripaska, a banking and aluminum tycoon (the world’s 57th richest man), and Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB spy in London in the 1980s. He owns London’s Evening Standard newspaper and The Independent.

Economic interests growing

In some ways, a two-way flow of money between Britain and Russia is shifting relations to a post-Soviet level based more on economic interests. British firms accounted for $20.5 billion of the $265.8 billion Russia has attracted from abroad since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

But among those released by Russia in return for the 10 agents arrested in the United States was Igor Sutyagin, a scientist convicted six years ago of passing atomic secrets to US intelligence. After being flown to London, via Vienna, he is expected to start a new life in Britain.

With yet another Kremlin enemy living in London, Russia’s secret oversight is unlikely to fade anytime soon.