Berezovsky in a Putin mask leaving his trial in London. Photo by Reuters
Dasha is a 19-year-old Economics student and the only child of a media tycoon from Moscow. With a Hermès Birkin collection that would make Paris Hilton piss in her panties, Dasha loves to blow her family’s cash. But she’s not a fool about it: Dasha owns shares in her father’s company and gets involved as much as possible in learning his business.
For her 18th birthday present, her dad gave her two million pounds to buy a two-bedroom apartment somewhere in Knightsbridge or along the Chelsea riverbank in West London—two districts which have been invaded and occupied by nouveaux-riches Slavs ever since the mid-90s. When her real estate agent told her that two-bedroom flats don’t sell for as high as two million pounds, Dasha was a bit disappointed, so she had to opt for a four-bedroom house instead.
This is the kind of thing that’s making the local Brits resentful. “It’s only because your countrymen are willing to vastly overpay for property that the prices are so high. They keep up demand pressure in the best parts of London, pushing the aborigines out into cheaper areas. Not that it pisses me off,” says David, a Chelsea estate agent. “But some people aren’t happy about it.”
Why are so many rich Russians making London their choice? For one thing, they’re safer there. England has proved that it can be bought for a price, and the proof is evident in the fact that every single request by Russia to extradite some wanted businessmen has been turned down on political asylum grounds. Exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was named “The Godfather of Russia” by Forbes’s Paul Klebnikov, is the most famous example of this. Berezovsky sued Forbes in London and won; a few years later, Klebnikov was mysteriously killed. (Afterward, Berezovsky changed his name to Platon Elenin—as in Plato—to distance himself from the incident.)
Russians aren’t just snapping up all the good property. They’re also using their money to become elite European aristocrats. The new Russian elite send their children to high-profile schools like Eton and Millfield or “the spoilt brat central” MPW—a place where getting educated is a quaint afterthought. Later, they’re likely to move on to some selectively lax but overpriced “European business school.” Many rich Russian daughters prefer less intellectually challenging professions—like interior decorating, which raises their trophy-wife status and helps them figure out how to spend their future husband’s money well.
Like their parents, these young wealthy Russians are compulsive conspicuous consumers, and probably the only reason why London’s Versace and Cavalli boutiques are still turning profits.
Of course, not every Russian here takes 100-pound tea breaks in Cipriani. A huge number of them come to Britain for the same reason most poor immigrants come—to try and make a living by working in a poultry factory or a message parlor. But they exist in a universe apart from the New Russian crowd.
There are around 200,000 Russians and their kind living in London today. But unlike Chinese or Pakistanis they don’t stick together, don’t form Moscowtowns, and don’t run around burning flags trying to protect each other’s rights. Generally they don’t really care. It’s that intense apathy that’s hard for people to grasp about Russians, because it’s mixed with so much profligacy and activity.
“I’ve never met any normal Russians,” says Harry, a fellow fashion journalist student where I study. “The ones I know are mostly kind of trashy and ostentatious. They’re really in-your-face rich, but rich trashy people party hard, which is good.”