Alisher Usmanov is an Uzbek-born Russian businessman. He owns, or has a majority stake in, ventures ranging from a huge steel conglomerate in Russia, to rapidly expanding internet companies in Silicon Valley, an English football club, newspapers and televisions in Russia, and goodness knows what else. He’s received awards from the Russian government for his services to his adopted country. His philanthropy is beyond comprehension, including buying and then returning Dr. Watson’s Nobel prize given for discovering DNA, funding over $4 million of scientific research in the process. Arsenal fans call him ‘Jabba the Hut’, after the corpulent alien in the Star Wars franchise. And he has a murky past, involving an overturned prison sentence for corruption and embezzlement in the Uzbek soviet socialistic republic. And Usmanov isn’t unique. I mention him only to give a human face to the nebulous group of people that we’re vaguely aware live in London.
So far, so strangely obvious – an oligarch is expected to have his bejeweled fingers in these types of pies, and would lose that streak of glamour that comes with hinted at danger in the past. But the figure of the Russian oligarch has become a tired, grey staple of the European consciousness, rather than the exciting, scary and challenging figures that they were when first spotted on Bond Street. It’s time to remind ourselves what they stand for, and why their continued existence is remarkably part of the glue holding European countries together. And in his rather large way, Usmanov is a microcosm of Russia’s waltz with the West.
As Peter Pomerantsev put it in his recent book, in Moscow in the early 90’s “Never had so much money flowed into so small a place in so short a time”. When a few lucky individuals become fabulously rich, bizarre consequences follow. He was also right on the money when he called them ‘more sophisticated and more lewd’ than anyone else. A recent rewrite, or adaptation, of Great Gatsby by Vesna Goldworthy, simply called Gorsky, puts Nick Carraway’s narration into the perfectly logical setting of ‘Made in Chelski’ Russian money. But aren’t these faux-Russian puns misleading?
The stereotypes they create are very comfortable for Londoners: ‘The Russians? Rich, yes, and slightly intimidating, but we make fun of their language, and after all they’re slightly crass and they just crave our civilized culture’. It’s less a scathing put down of a societal type than a cry for help – the real situation now is that the Brits are working for the Russians in London. We’re turning, as a country, into one great big service industry.
Another point rarely mentioned is that ‘the oligarchs’ are actually just people. We think of Russian money, Russian people, and Russian influence in London as a homogenous mass. But – and I may be strung up for optimism here – being wildly successful in Russia doesn’t necessarily mean dishonesty. Sure, there’s a reputation. And all reputations have a germ of truth in them.
But because in the first sentence we hear about the scandal, the lewd details of the ultra-rich lifestyle, or the edgy and slightly criminal pasts of these people (Usmanov included), Londoners draw their own conclusion. The ordinary woman on the street doesn’t have the time to sift through back stories, allegations, court cases and bribery to arrive at a character assessment of that individual who bought the multi-million pound house down the road. What was the infamous Berezovsky/Abramovich court case actually about? Can your average Standard (proprietor one E. Lebedev) reader remember any more?
George Osborne and William Hague can surely be under no illusions as to the predicament they face when Russia becomes geopolitically uppity. Take the Russians out of London, and the wealth and power will deflate like a pricked balloon. Skyscrapers will shrivel and the Bentleys of Mayfair and Knightsbridge will rust (it’s invariably Knightsbridge; if I hear Russian on my Piccadilly Line commute, then it gets off at Knightsbridge). London is a little like this infamous image of ‘Soviet auto production’.
The doors and lights? One is ‘foreign obsession with our sterling education system’ and the other is ‘London’s reputation as a safe place for capital’. The bumper is ‘lovely architecture in SW1 – other European cities are available’.
So when we have Russian money in our capital, our banking system, our sports, art, entertainment, and technology, how can anyone in this country get on their hind legs and pronounce Russia’s belligerent – and often nuclear – rhetoric unacceptable? Someone in history has already, infamously, tried to ‘kick in the door’ to Russia – and should we try ourselves, we might find that the ‘whole rotten structure’ that comes ‘crashing down’, is London.
Letters from Londongrad is an occasional column by Londoners discussing the Russian diaspora in the British capital.