Voices of Russians in 'Londongrad' speak of fear and propaganda

  1. 'Too quick' to accuse Moscow, say Russian expats
  2. 'Russia's lost the moral high ground to the West'
  3. 'No evidence' to trace nerve agent back to Moscow

Russians interviewed on the streets of London – a city that’s become Moscow-away–from–the–Moskva since the fall of the Soviet Union – say they are angry, even afraid, over the geopolitical storm sparked by the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent and his daughter with a nerve agent.

“It’s sheer madness,” Lisa – not her real name – told WikiTribune outside the Russian delicatessen Kalinka. She and others we spoke to said Britain had over-reacted to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury on March 4 and had been too quick to point the finger at Moscow and President Vladimir Putin.

“Who would want to hang a dead spy on themselves just before the elections,” she said, referring to the presidential elections on Sunday, widely seen as an effective coronation (ABC) of Putin, himself a former agent in the Soviet-era KGB. [Some western analysts, have countered that having a “traitor” eliminated (video on The Independent) just before the election is exactly the sort of thing Putin or his cadre might do.] Even on Friday the climate worsened when police said they were treating an unexplained death of another Russian emigre as murder.

Lisa, who preferred not to use her real name – even her first name – and said she had worked as a journalist, is one of around 150,000 Russians (The Guardian) who have moved to, or have homes in London, and generally the wealthy south-east of England.

Kalinka, a Russian and Eastern European food shop in west London. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune
Kalinka, a Russian and Eastern European food shop in west London. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune

London, sometimes known as “Londongrad” (NYT) for the number of Russians – from ordinary people to oligarchs – who have invested in luxury homes in Mayfair, St Johns Wood, Chelsea and other wealthy suburbs, has been something of a haven for Russians since the chaos of the Yeltsin era after the fall of the Soviet Union when fortunes were made and lost, scores were settled, and escape routes were handy.

The British capital has had a no-questions-asked attitude to real estate investment, a stable legal system, skilled and discreet bankers only a four-hours flight away from Moscow.

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No safe exile

The attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a chemical weapon in the quiet town of Salisbury – a crime reminiscent of the 2006 murder of former KGB-spy-turned-Putin-critic Alexander Litvinenko – has shaken the Russian expatriate community, which is now at the center of an escalating tit-for-tat diplomatic crisis after Prime Minister Theresa May firmly blamed Moscow and said the UK will expel 23 Russian diplomats, among other measures.

“It’s a terrible thing but it must be cleared up first and proved that it was done by Moscow,” said Alexei, 50, a native of St Petersburg who works in financial consulting and has been living in London for the past year. He also declined to give his full name. London, he said, had been “too quick” to blame Russia. He too was outside Kalinka shopping for groceries with his wife.

“It’s sad because I expect the UK to be a place of clever people with more exact reactions, reactions which are thought-through,” he said.

The Russian embassy complex in central London. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune
The Russian embassy complex in central London. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune

A common thread among those we spoke to, even those most sympathetic to the British position, was that May, her government, and the British news media had been too quick to blame the Kremlin for the attempted murder without providing concrete evidence.

“From my point of view, it’s too quick,” said Vladimir, a middle-aged businessman who said he divides his time between Moscow and London. “You have to investigate it carefully first and then they must have the arguments and they must, you know, be sure that their position is correct. Otherwise they’re losing the position in this argument, if you know what I mean.”

But Vladimir said that Moscow under Putin had long ago lost the moral high ground to the West because of the kind of administration it had become since the fall of the Soviet Union: “The worst thing is, is that unfortunately, looking at what [the] Russian government is doing, we don’t have the moral alternative to the West. That’s the most difficult and valuable disappointment we’ve got during [the] last 20 years.”

Who to believe?

Nadia, 19, who was born in London to parents from the former Soviet Union and who has effectively not known a time when Putin was not president, said she wasn’t a supporter of the Russian government but she thought there wasn’t enough evidence to support the UK government’s claim that the Russian state was behind the assassination attempt on Skripal and his daughter Yulia, 33.

“I think it’s hard to tell. Knowing Russians’ mentality, everything is very biased and maybe nobody talks about it but there is a lot of shady stuff going on behind the scenes that nobody knows about,” Nadia said.

‘I have the portrait of Churchill in my office in Moscow, believe it or not’ – Vladimir

Another common theme among several of the people we talked to was that they hoped the expanding diplomatic crisis wouldn’t come between them and their British neighbors.

“I hope that… normal people who are doing reasonable things will put the things in order and the politicians sooner or later will be forgotten somewhere like Mr [Leonid] Brezhnev,” said Vladimir, the Muscovite businessman, referring to the former leader of the Soviet Union.

Alexei, the financial consultant, thought the standoff between the UK and Russia was “all about politics and big business” and said: “I hope the British are clever enough to get British propaganda in right way.”

Although he doesn’t live in London, Vladimir told WikiTribune he visits often and emphasized the history Britain shares with Russia, including fighting together in WWII against Nazi Germany. “Britain was always very important for Russia, for Russian hearts. I have the portrait of Mr [Winston] Churchill in my office in Moscow, believe it or not.”

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