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Post-poisoning, Russian expats feel London heat

Bling-laden Russian billionaires have captivated British tabloids for years. Now they may be catching the attention of the police as London retaliates for the poisoning of a former spy. What's it like to be a Russian in 'Moscow-on-the-Thames'?

Frank Augstein/AP
People with suitcases leave the Russian Embassy in London March 20. Britain expelled nearly two dozen Russian diplomats as part of a standoff over a nerve agent attack on British soil.

In leafy west London, Olga Ivanova is spending her lunch break in a park near the recruitment agency where she works, but her mind is elsewhere.

She says it's hard not to dwell on the spy poisoning case that has dominated the headlines in her adopted country for the past three weeks and sparked worldwide diplomatic fallout; she can’t help but wonder what it all might mean for Russians like her who live in Britain.

Blaming Russia for poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a banned nerve agent, the British government has hinted it might retaliate by targeting the assets of wealthy Russians in Britain.

Ms. Ivanova is one of an estimated 150,000 Russians resident in London, sometimes known as “Moscow-on-the-Thames,” which is now home to Europe’s largest Russian expatriate community.

The mega-rich, flashing their cash at Harrods department store or eating calf's liver in Mari Vanna, a “nostalgic themed” Russian restaurant, attract all the attention. But Ivanova is not an oligarch, nor a dissident, nor a dissident oligarch; she is one of the tens of thousands of Russians who live a much more normal life in the British capital, but who fear blowback from the Skripal affair.

She is only too aware of the rich oligarch stereotype – and of the anti-Russian hostility that has heightened in the aftermath of the poisoning of Mr. Skripal – a former Russian intelligence officer who spied for Britain – and his daughter Yulia on March 4.

And she resents that stereotype. “It’s kind of frustrating, because it’s such a minority of Russians and they are absolutely not what most Russians are like,” she complains. “I don’t have loads of money and I still have debts to pay back, so the realities for most people are very different.”

“There are people here for a lot of different reasons and from a lot of different generations,” explains Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College, London. “The population is diverse.”

Ivanova has never been to Knightsbridge – the swanky district that is the indisputable heart of “Londongrad” – and with her Australian husband she prefers to steer clear of the Russian community.

“With other Russians in London, I’m always cautious because you don’t know what their political views are,” she says. “They could be on a completely different end of the spectrum to you.”

A shifting mood?

Wealthy Russians have been flooding into London since the fall of the Soviet Union, and in the last 15 years the diaspora has snowballed as the city has become an increasingly fashionable destination, even for middle-class Russians. Their rising numbers have led to an explosion of Russian cultural events, balls, theatrical productions, restaurants, and niche shops, which all reinforce London’s appeal to expatriates.

Owning property and living in London, even part-time, lends status to the Russian elite, who under the "golden visa" scheme are granted British residency when they invest £2 million ($2.8 million) in the country. Many wealthy Russians have invested in London's booming property market as a way of protecting their assets, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the authorities in Moscow feel safe: Britain has given political asylum to every businessman Russia has tried to extradite.

But British Prime Minister Theresa May has suggested her government may become less tolerant – and start paying closer attention to the expatriates’ financial affairs, as Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has proposed as a way to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The prospect of a backlash against Russians is creating “psychological tension” for wealthy members of the Russian community, says Alexey Firsov, who runs a social affairs think tank in Moscow. “There are rumors of possible checks by British authorities as to the origin of their property. Some are transparent but others are not, so there are risks,” he points out.

“These people have nothing to do with the Skripal story, [but] they might become a kind of bargaining chip,” he adds.

If they are targeted, says Roman Borisovich, the co-founder of political advocacy group ClampK.org, which campaigns against money laundering in Britain, they will have only themselves to blame.

Most of the wealthier Russians, surrounded by their personal entourages, “don’t want to assimilate or mix with Londoners,” he says. They have also antagonized locals by buying up trophy homes and leaving them empty, worsening London’s housing crisis.

“The fact that they don’t integrate makes them vulnerable because the Brits don’t see any need for them,” Mr. Borisovich says. “They are not anybody’s friends. When there are calls for the country to get rid of rich Russians, there will be no tears shed by Londoners. It will be completely self-inflicted if there is a real anti-Russian mood growing in London.”

But would a crackdown serve the government’s purpose, to hurt President Putin? Alexey Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank in Moscow, thinks not.

On the contrary, “the Russian government will be happy if rich Russians are squeezed out of Britain,” he argues. “When (officials’) money and families are abroad, that is unpleasant” for the Kremlin. “British authorities may doubt their loyalty to Britain, but authorities in Moscow also doubt their loyalty to Russia.”

Ignore the news

In north London, another Russian expat, Tasha Nova, 31, who is from Siberia, has just got back from work. She came to London in 2009 to study Industrial Design and has built her career here since then. She says many Russian expats have a difficult relationship with their country.

“I was raised in the Soviet Union, then we had the wild '90s, and Russia only started to really form its identity in the 2000s and then I left, so I’ve never been very patriotic,” she says. "But I am disappointed with my homeland," she adds, saying she pays little attention to news from home.

That apathy about Russian domestic politics appears to be widespread. Fewer than 3,700 people cast their ballots at the Russian embassy in this month’s presidential elections – less than ten percent of the estimated number of Russian adults living in London.

“This month I have seen there is a big political turmoil, but nothing has changed in my little bubble,” because of the Skripal poisoning, Ms. Nova says. “Russia has been in so many conflicts on a global scale and there is always a big scandal in the news, but then everything carries on the same. Nothing is going to change.”

Back in west London, Ivanova says she loves her country and feels very much “like an outsider” in Britain. However, as a former activist for LGBT rights – “the worst kind of activist you can be in Russia,” she says – she wonders where her future lies.

"I don’t feel threatened over here, but I am worried about where politics in Russia is going and whether it will still be a safe place for me to return to and be open about my political views,” she says. “I wonder how far the Russian government will go. It’s frustrating, it’s depressing, and it’s a bit scary.”

Like Ms. Nova, she is trying to avoid the news. There is an old Soviet joke, roughly translated, which she says has become her watchword: “Don’t read the news before lunch, it will ruin your digestion.”

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