Fighting Putin — in London
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Russian activists are finding ways to push back against the Russian government, even as they are shut down at home.
By Amie Ferris-Rotman
If you were a Russian dissident, chances are you wouldn’t want to hang out in Moscow. Look to London, however, which is fast becoming the new stomping ground for outspoken Russian activists. Their loudest cry: convincing the U.K., EU and the United States to crack down on pro-Putin Russian billionaires who’ve sought refuge in the city.
In Russia, the dissident movement peaked during the 2011-12 winter protests – in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. But what followed was a calamitous clampdown on freedoms not seen since the Soviet era: Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who ran for Moscow mayor, is under house arrest; independent media outlets are being intimidated and shuttered; a homophobic law was passed; and, of course, Russia is embroiled with Ukraine. On the streets of Moscow, few dare to talk openly about Russia’s annexation in March of Crimea — or say anything that questions their government.
It is your responsibility to make the lives of oligarchs and their children here miserable.
— Evgenia Chirikova, activist
Yet in London they can say whatever they want, especially about the billionaires or oligarchs with ties to Putin who left Russia and are living large in their new city, in pricey homes and with children enrolled in private schools. Speaking in the British parliament last month, environmental activist Evgenia Chirikova squarely blamed the British government for abetting Putin by granting his oligarch friends a safe haven. “It is your responsibility to make the lives of oligarchs and their children here miserable,” she said, pounding her fist on the table. Chirikova was instrumental in the anti-government protests, when tens of thousands took to the streets of Russia demanding an end to Putin’s hard-line rule. “I really believe you have the power to do something.”
Over the last decade, as London became a magnet for Russians, a wave of cash has flooded in. An early arrival, billionaire Roman Abramovich, kicked things off rather lavishly by buying the Chelsea Football Club in 2003 for roughly $230 million. Oligarchs, who made colossal fortunes carving up Russia’s resources in the 1990s through rigged privatizations, have taken their wealth from Moscow to Mayfair to enjoy lives as the super-rich in the newly dubbed “Londongrad.” Last year, half of London homes with a minimum $1.5 million price tag were sold to foreign buyers, according to Barton Wyatt Estate Agents. One in 10 went to a Russian. Though a number of oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle — including his judo partner Arkady Rotenberg — were recently placed on U.S. and EU sanctions lists, many others, such as former Aeroflot director and previous Putin appointee Vladimir Chernukhin, are free to do as they please.
Of course, it’s not just Putin’s supporters and the megarich. Akhmed Zakayev, the foremost Chechen rebel leader, lives in London, as did the late billionaire Boris Berezovsky, after falling out of favor with the Kremlin. In 2006, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium. From his London deathbed, he accused Putin of ordering his murder, a charge the Kremlin denies.
Activists say the current chaos from a collapsing economy signals an end to Putin’s reign.
Punk rock protest group Pussy Riot has now joined the fray. The band first gained worldwide notoriety in 2012 when it performed “Virgin Mary, Banish Putin” in a Russian Orthodox Church. The Moscow-based group has been rallying for free speech in London, launching an Amnesty International campaign and throwing its support behind WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “If I had no hope, I would have already left Russia,” band member Masha Alyokhina told OZY. Her long ginger curls now dyed blond, crimson and fuchsia, she looked remarkably fresh despite nearly two years spent in a Siberian prison. Joining the chorus of those calling for tighter sanctions against officials close to Putin, she said, “The British government can do something.”
When President Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 2000, he pledged to restore Russia’s self-respect after a chaotic decade, even bridling some oligarchs who many ordinary Russians condemned as thieves extraordinaire. Today in London, activists say the current chaos from a collapsing economy signals an end to Putin’s reign, regardless of how the West responds to their pleas to punish the oligarchs. “I give him two more years, maximum,” Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister from 2000-2004 and a fierce Putin critic, told OZY.
With the climate growing cooler by the day between the West and Russia, will the wealthy Russians in the City of London soon see their assets frozen? No one can say for sure, but what is sure is that winter is coming.