Russian billionaires, and mere megamillionaires, are dropping tens of millions of dollars for the most opulent houses in town. Jewelry stores and outrageously expensive boutiques are hiring Russian-speaking staff. And purveyors of everything from Bentleys to Beluga caviar are happily riding this wave of Russian affluence in a city some are starting to call "Moscow on the Thames."
Many trace the phenomenon to the day in 2003 when Roman Abramovich, a Russian oil tycoon in his mid-thirties, bought the Chelsea soccer club for $225 million, then paid out hundreds of millions more to assemble a star-studded juggernaut that won the English championship for the first time in 50 years. The British were agog at the cascade of Russian cash that turned humble Chelsea into mighty Chelski.
This is a city accustomed to wealth, even extraordinary wealth, much of it traditionally acquired through the sad but reliable deaths of ancestors. But London is also a magnet for those with new money: Norwegians with their shipping lines, Japanese with their gadgets and Saudis with their oil. They have all come and been tolerated, perhaps even envied, but the British capital has never seen anything quite like the Russians whose lavish wealth arrived after the Soviet Union departed.
No one, for example, had ever staged a political protest in London by sending a hundred silver limousines to the Russian Embassy. Then along came Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire who was granted political asylum by Britain after criminal fraud charges were filed against him back home. Angry at what he has called the politically motivated persecution of business leaders by the Russian government, Berezovsky organized last year's limousine protest, a street demonstration where the appropriate cocktail was martini, not molotov.
"Anyone who is anyone in Moscow is here," said Marina Starkova, director of Red Square, a London-based public relations and event-planning company catering to wealthy Russians.
Her clients enjoy London's safety, the favorable tax laws for off-shore investments and relative proximity to Moscow, just three hours and 20 minutes away by plane -- even less if you tell your Learjet pilot to step on it. But what really sets them apart from others with bulging portfolios, Starkova said, is that "Russians live like there is no tomorrow, so they spend, spend and spend."
Starkova said she was organizing a party for her Russian clientele "at one of the royal palaces," but she was not at liberty to say which one. Earlier this year she helped organize an intimate party for 70 Russians, with Liza Minnelli flown in to provide the entertainment.
Alice Playle, a spokeswoman for Asprey, a luxury goods store in central London, said Russians were her best customers, buying items such as $10,000 alligator bags and $180,000 diamond rings.
No one knows exactly how many Russians live in London. The embassy and city officials estimate there are about 200,000, but others say the number could be much higher. What is known is that the numbers have skyrocketed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Government figures show that only one Russian received British citizenship that year, but now more than 1,000 Russians annually get that prize.
Boris Zimin, a businessman known for his charity work in Russia, said he moved to London a year ago mainly for his children's education. He said he liked the fact that his new home was a "big city, full of culture," adding with a laugh that, yes, he had indeed noticed there were a "lot of Russians in London."
Alexei Smertin, a star midfielder for the British soccer club Charlton and also captain of the Russian national soccer team this year, said it was hard when he first moved here three years ago. But now, he said, he feels at home and runs into so many Russians that even when he goes out to restaurants he winds up speaking Russian.
Russian civic associations, newspapers and magazines, art exhibits and stores are increasingly common. Last January, more than 50,000 people turned out for the first Russian Winter Festival in Trafalgar Square. Backed by Russian corporations such as Gazprom, Lukoil and Aeroflot, organizers brought over song and dance troupes -- even the Red Army Choir.
Whatever Britain's tweedy aristocracy might think of the conspicuous Russian wealth, London loves it.
John Ross, the city's director of economic and business policy, happily describes how London started feeling the Russian effect on its economy in 1998 and points out that Russians are now making a "very significant impact on the upper-end real estate and retail market."
Ross said that the newcomers included a growing number of middle-class professionals. London hosts the Russian Economic Forum, the largest gathering of Russian business leaders outside the country, and last year 2,000 people attended -- up from 150 when the event started eight years ago.
But it's the high-enders who are causing the biggest commotion -- most visibly Abramovich, who, with his glamorous wife, spends a lot of time in the stands at Chelsea games and on the pages of Britain's celebrity magazines. An orphan who grew up poor, Abramovich now owns a $50 million home in central London's posh Belgravia neighborhood, perhaps the epicenter of the city's Russian wealth, as well as a 440-acre country estate with fields for playing polo in Sussex, south of the capital.
Such is the rich Russian presence that many real estate agents assume that the 25-bedroom Witanhurst, the second-largest home in London after Buckingham Palace and currently for sale, will probably go to a Russian. It's being offered at $60 million.
James Simpson, a partner at the London real estate firm Knight Frank, noted that a 10-bedroom home, next to Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived, went on the market for just over $60 million last year, but after several Russians got into a bidding war it sold for more than $70 million.
Knight Frank has recently opened offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg to be closer to clients like that. Other London real estate companies have followed suit. So strong is the Russian impact here, Simpson said, that some homeowners are renovating properties specifically to lure Russians. A massive home on a hill in Hampstead, with a lovely view of the city below, is being renovated to include baths, saunas and other features like those in the Swiss spas favored by jet-setting Russians, he said.
Some Londoners who had no intention of leaving their mansions are finding themselves taking cash offers too big to refuse. Simpson said he had seen cases where homeowners simply packed their suitcases, gathered up the family photos and moved to a hotel when a Russian bought their house -- and everything in it.
"They could be in Paris, Monaco, anywhere, but they have chosen London, and it's good news for us," Simpson said.
Not everyone in Russia is so keen on the flight of billions of dollars to London. Much of the new wealth was accumulated at the expense of the state, when oil, gas and other natural resource industries were sold to private investors in often politically motivated deals. Some Russians have wryly noted that Karl Marx, who is buried in London, must not be resting peacefully.
"People in Russia would probably like to see this money invested in the Russian economy," said Andre Rakhmanov, a spokesman at the embassy here.
Natasha Chouvaeva, editor of the Russian London Courier newspaper, said the "madness for luxury" among Russians here had prompted her company to start RussianUK, a glossy magazine geared toward the wealthy.
"When I came in 1991, those who were coming were fleeing hardship," she said. "The situation has changed.
"Now there is money. And they are catching up with what was missing."