It was the British version of a Hollywood celebrity homes tour.
A group of Russian activists, commentators, and dissidents rented a luxury bus in London on Thursday to hold the inaugural "kleptocracy tour" — a drive around some of the properties owned by Russian, Ukrainian, and Kazakh businessmen and oligarchs with what organizers claimed are questionable sources of income.
VICE News was invited on the excursion a month in advance, but the set-off point remained a secret until the day before — it was eventually revealed as Victoria Embankment, opposite the Ministry of Defense. Upon boarding, passengers were given a printout of a Monopoly-style board with pictures of the properties of men including Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich, former Kazakh secret police chief Rakhat Aliyev, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, and former Russian senator Andrey Guryev, who owns the £300 million ($435 million) colossal Witanhurst House, a London property second in size only to Buckingham Palace.
Then came the tour guides. Vladimir Ashurkov, prominent ally of Russian anti-Kremlin campaigner Alexei Navalny and CEO of the Anti-Corruption Foundation was the first to speak — he examined Igor Shuvalov, the fifth top-ranking government official in Russia who, he said, has been "pulling the economic levers of Russia for the last 20 years."
Shuvalov has been a government employee for 18 years and has no other official source of income, according to Ashurkov, but his apartment in Whitehall is worth more than 80 times his annual income. His spouse is a multimillionaire who made profits by putting her money in ventures launched by Russian businessmen, who were getting contracts off the government, Ashurkov claimed.
Ashurkov — who was granted political asylum in the UK last year — finished by saying that any fight for democracy and national security should equate to fighting corruption. "To paraphrase David Cameron: London is not a place to stash your dodgy cash."
Roman Borisovich — an anti-corruption activist who worked on Channel 4's From Russia With Cash, which exposed estate agents willing to sell property to apparent money-launderers — was one of the organizers of the tour, also acting as compere. He told VICE News that he wanted to create "more awareness — to shine a light on the issues of kleptocracy." He said he wanted to "ask about the morality of the gains derived from these countries and try to ask questions about the enablers. Why are we allowing them?"
The bus made a stop at Belgrave Square, known to some as "Red Square" because of the number of prominent Russians known to populate it. The aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska reportedly paid £25 million ($36 million) for number 5 in 2003, while exiled oligarch and Putin critic Boris Berezovsky, who died in 2013, had several flats at number 26. Chelsea FC owner Abramovich and Ukrainian-born businessman Len Blavatnik, named as Britain's richest man in the last Sunday Times Rich List, have £90 million ($130 million) and £200 million ($290 million) properties nearby, said the map handout.
Another host, journalist Ben Judah who has reported from Russia, said corruption was fundamental to understanding how the 21st century works.
"Every year it is estimated that a trillion dollars illicitly leaves poorer countries for richer countries," he said.
Judah noted that while corruption is "often viewed as a very abstract thing… when money is pilfered from the budgets of poorer countries people die" — because the missing money leads to the denial of public services.
In London, "your company can then be called crookedy crook crook crook" and you can still buy a property, he said, adding that it's not just the buyers that should be punished, but the lawyers, estate agents, and all others who enable the transactions.
"Property in London has turned into one of the premier money-laundering operations in the world," he alleged.
On the tour, it was repeatedly emphasized that buyers of many of the most expensive London properties remain anonymous by using offshore shell companies to purchase them. The mansions and upmarket apartments are often left empty, merely serving a function as a "holding place" to keep finances safe.
Almost one in 10 properties in Westminster is owned by an anonymous corporation, the bus activists told passengers, compared to 7.3 percent of properties in the upmarket neighborhood of Chelsea and Kensington and 4.5 percent of those in the City of London district, where many of the top banks and law firms are based.
"The property bubble in London is making us poorer and is also beginning to snap and fray," Judah said, with young people and hardworking families being pushed out because they can't buy properties in the capital. "That money trail matters hugely to every mortgage holder or aspiring mortgage holder in this country"
Renting in London is notoriously expensive, with the average one-bedroom flat or room in a houseshare becoming more and more expensive for those who earn an average wage. One campaigner who came as a sightseer on the tour told VICE News he had been house-hunting recently, and been shown a $1,000 a month room above a fried chicken shop. It was expensive "and I'd smell of chicken all the time," he joked.
Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia Studies Centre at UK-based think tank The Henry Jackson Society, spoke about another colorful Russian character: Boris Rotenberg, a former president of the Dynamo Moscow soccer club who once trained in judo alongside Vladimir Putin. Rotenberg has been on US and EU sanctions lists since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, so he's transferred assets into his son's name, said Foxall. His son owns a £3.3 million ($4.8 million) Knightsbridge house through a company based in Cyprus.
The organizers have another tour planned for New York in April. Borisovich said they'd like to extend it to Miami, Beverly Hills, the Cote d'Azur, and "everywhere else where the issue manifests itself."
He said they tried to keep the preparation for the event "under wraps" but have only used public sources of information and said they're happy to collaborate with anti-corruption organizations worldwide.
"There needs to be legislative change to stop anonymous ownership of properties. Not to stop it going forward but to require all the corporations that own any assets — including real estate in the UK — to go through the same procedure as anybody else does. Declare the directors, the shareholders, and the beneficial owners.
One passenger on the tour was Robert Barrington, executive director of NGO Transparency International UK. He told VICE News: "The so-called investment of corrupt capital into UK property is a scandal in plain view, and the kleptocracy tour is a great way to highlight what is staring us all in the face.
"It is an insult to any notion of a society based on the rule of law, an insult to the people of London who are priced out of the property market and above all an insult to the citizens of the countries from which this wealth has been stolen."
Research published by Transparency International last year showed that more than 36,000 London properties are owned by secret offshore companies.
A UK government-led anti-corruption summit is scheduled in London for later this year.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd