LONDON — There are so many Russians here, and so many rich, showy, notorious Russians, that it has become a cliche. Moscow-on-the-Thames? Londongrad? Take your pick.
There’s a Channel 4 documentary about sketchy Russians who pay cash for mansions in posh Belgravia, and there’s a hit BBC soap opera airing now called “McMafia,” about the Russian mob in London — think “The Sopranos” slurping borscht.
There are Russians who shop for bespoke suits on Savile Row and others who hoover up the Siberian caviar in Bob Bob Ricard, the restaurant with the little button on the table you press to get more champagne.
But there are far more ordinary, lumpen Russians working as Uber drivers or nannies — or going to universities or writing software — than there are billionaire oligarchs who own English soccer teams.
Right now, though, in the eyes of the British, the distinctions don’t seem to matter. In Parliament and the British press, Russia is roundly denounced as a source of interfering trolls, money launderers and assassins.
And the lives of Russian economics majors, sous chefs and kleptocrats in Britain are suddenly fraught with new anxieties. Critics in London of Russian President Vladimir Putin are reevaluating their need for personal protection. Russians with money worry they will be ensnared by new laws going after “unexplained wealth.” Russians without money say they are being maligned with stereotypes. Suddenly, exile is not as comfortable, their adopted home not so welcoming.
It all changed with the poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were attacked seven weeks ago in the placid English town of Salisbury by a military-grade nerve agent of the Novichok class, a type designed and manufactured by the former Soviet Union and Russia.
Britain has poked its finger directly at the Kremlin for attempted murder. Prime Minister Theresa May called the hit “utterly barbaric.”
Russia denies any wrongdoing. Instead, its embassy in Kensington tweets sarcasm about British bungling and how Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot should be called in.
This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC that relations with the West are worse than during the Cold War. British officials agree.
Feeling the chill are the tens, or more likely hundreds, of thousands of Russian-speakers who live in London and Britain.
Yevgeny Chichvarkin knows well the stereotype of Russians in London. “They think we are all oligarchs,” he said. Corrupt, suspicious.
“But there’s 20 or 30 individuals here who are involved in scandals,” he said, “There’s another 400,000 Russians in the country that nobody has ever heard of.”
Chichvarkin has been in London almost 10 years. He’s rich, creative, outspoken, wears an earring and red shoes. He lives in Chelsea, with his wife and children. He is the founder of a wine emporium in Mayfair called Hedonism, which offers some of the rarest, most expensive vintages in the city — bottles worth tens of thousands of dollars.
He insists, “I am not the cliche Russian.”
Chichvarkin fled Moscow in December 2008 with a target on his back, he said. In Russia, he co-founded and ran Yevroset, a countrywide discount chain of 5,000 mobile-phone stores, until he was forced into exile, accused by Putin’s officials of kidnapping, a charge he has called ridiculous.
He’s never gone home, not once, not for his mother’s funeral.
We met for breakfast at Chichvarkin’s latest venture, a newly opened upscale restaurant and destination bar, with an extensive wine cellar, facing Green Park in London.
It’s called “Hide.”
He was a little hung over, he apologized. The day before was the Russian Orthodox Church’s Easter Sunday. He showed mobile-phone photos of his rabbit meatballs and a row of empty wine and champagne bottles. He’d had dear friends over. He’s an atheist. Still, they went a little nuts.
Chichvarkin said there are three types of Russians in London: those who are allied with Putin; those, like himself, who are opposed; and a lot of people who don’t say anything.
“We are well-educated, wealthy, cultured people — anti-Putin, anti-totalitarian,” he said. This is his circle. They go to poetry readings and concertos, not performances by headbanger Russian DJs.
“And there are Russians here for 29 years and they’re pro-Putin,” Chichvarkin said. “People who are brainwashed.” Chichvarkin sipped on his second glass of tomato juice with salt.
He said Britons who hear his accent or know who he is have told him, uninvited, “Your government is a bunch of bloody bastards.”
He said he doesn’t take it personally.
Does he think the Russian state poisoned the Skripals?
“Sure, they did it,” he said.
They killed the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko with a dose of radioactive polonium-210 in 2006, Chichvarkin said, repeating the conclusion of the British government, and suffered no sustained consequences.
“He’s a traitor,” he said, of the double agent Skripal. “It’s the worst thing in their minds.”
What will happen now?
“Nothing,” he said. “Just blah, blah, blah.”
Chichvarkin said he lives without bodyguards.
He is revisiting this topic.
Tonia Samsonova, a correspondent based in London for the independent Echo of Moscow radio station, told The Washington Post: “The whole atmosphere surrounding the Skripal situation has made it pretty scary to be a Russian in London.”
“You are living here and see London is now against Russia, and you feel a little bit like a traitor,” she said. “You can’t explain to yourself who you are now, and it is frustrating. One way to exorcise this frustration is going out and voting for Putin.”
Sergey Buravlev, editor of the Profile Russia news website, said that since the Skripal attack, Brits have approached him asking: “Why are you Russians killing Russians?”
He said that there is a “small percentage of Britons” who are questioning Russian culpability for the Skripal poisoning, but that the “overwhelming majority of the population believes what they show on TV and write in newspapers.”
And in Britain, he said, “if the media say that the Russians are evil, then they will believe it.”
Arthur Doohan, co-founder of ClampK, an anti-corruption initiative, welcomes the scrutiny.
Doohan runs “kleptocracy tours” of London, pointing out opulent homes purchased with suspect funds. Standing in Belgrave Square — dubbed “billionaire row” in the tabloids — he noted that the homes owned by Russian oligarchs are almost always empty, save for visits by the cleaning staff.
“Oh, the maid is in,” he said, as the curtains twitched in a white stucco building that British newspapers say is owned by the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, the oil tycoon and metals billionaire who now finds himself on a U.S. sanctions list for his ties to Putin.
While London is awash with cash from rich foreigners — not just Russians — Doohan said it’s often easier to spot Russian money.
“The Russians just flaunt their wealth. They are completely indiscreet about it. We know there are Chinese people here: They are unbelievably discreet and don’t flaunt it. The Russians flaunt everything. Their visibility makes it very easy to track them.”
Real estate brokers and property sellers in Britain, and London in particular, have gorged themselves on Russian and overseas investments, based on lax laws and easy access to friendly offshore holding companies.
Katya Zenkovich, who helps Russian clients acquire properties in London, says the vast majority of Russians aren’t millionaires seeking to shelter money, but professionals drawn by Britain’s private education system.
“I have clients who are like myself, are salaried people, who need a mortgage to get onto the property ladder,” Zenkovich said. “They could be professionals in any kind of capacity: IT specialists, working in banks.”
She continued: “I think what Russians are slightly upset about is that they are brushed with the same brush — if it’s Russians, then it’s rich and super-rich and political kleptocrats, you name it. The stereotypes are very strong. But, actually, the Russian contingent is very, very varied.”
The British government has said that frosty relations should not impact ordinary Russians living in Britain. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned people not to engage in “Russophobia.”
But it’s everywhere, said Katia Nikitina, the editor of ZIMA, a magazine for Russians in Britain and beyond. “It’s affected all of us, those who already moved here, those thinking about moving, because there is quite a lot of uncertainty with the situation,” she said.
As the Skripal investigation moves forward, as Sergei or Yulia Skripal remember more about the day they were poisoned and police couple those recollections with the 5,000 hours of closed-circuit surveillance video in Salisbury, the atmosphere for Russians in Britain might grow worse.
Matthew Bodner in Moscow contributed to this report.