Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Newsweek International
February 3, 2003
London Calling
Russians have always had a fondness for the British capital. Now they are
coming in such large numbers, theyre creating their own virtual Moscow on
the Thames
By Preston Mendenhall and Stryker McGuire

Three centuries ago, at the age of 26, Peter the Great came to London.
The Russian tsar toured the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London.
Dressed as a sailor, he strolled incognito through the streets of
17th-century London, enthralled by the symbols of Englands maritime
mastery docked along the Thames. 

WHEN HE WENT home to build St. Petersburg, Peter summoned Englands
finest shipbuilders to build a first-class fleet to go with Russias
splendid new capital. The English island is the best and most beautiful in
the world, Peter said at the time.

The Russians are backso much so that theyve created their own
virtual Moscow on the Thames. If Peter was drawn by the citys naval
greatness, modern-day Russians prize the city as the Wall Street of
European English-speaking citadel of wealth and opportunity less than four
hours by air from Moscow or St. Petersburg. The Russian Embassy in London
estimates that there are 100,000 or more Russian nationals living in and
around the British capital. And in 2002 another 100,000 applied for visasa
13 percent increase from the previous yeartaking advantage of the British
Embassys new streamlined procedures for Russian visitors. So many Russians
have bought .1 million-and-up properties that they are known in real-estate
circles as the new Arabs. Russias upper crust now sends its children to
posh English boarding schools. The extraordinary number of frequent-flyer
biznesmyeni landing at Heathrow persuaded British Airways to provide a VIP
Russian visitors service to keep them happy.

The history of the links between these two countries on the far
reaches of Europe is long and storied. Trade relations go back at least as
far as the days of Queen Elizabeth and Ivan the Terrible, when the English
Muscovy Company exported cloth to the Russians in exchange for furs, wax
and rope. Russians have always envied the English for their liberal
political culture. In the 19th century, expat dissident Alexander Herzen
chose London as the home of his influential emigre journal. A generation of
revolutionaries settled in London, and the Reading Room of the British
Museum counted Lenin and Trotsky among its illustrious visitors. Later came
White Russians who fled their country after the Revolution, and, later
still, Soviet refuseniks in the 1970s.

If the Russian diaspora of old was disaffected, todays community is
more broadly representative of the motherland. It comprises students and
shopkeepers, businesspeople and artists, people who have not turned their
back on post-Soviet Russia, but rather brought a chunk of it with them.
Theyre here to make money, get an education or just get away for a while.
The Russian Orthodox Church in London has been transformed by the new
emigres. The newer immigrants are teaching the older ones, many of whom are
now British citizens, how to kiss the icons, says the Rev. Michael
Fortounatto. Its a bewildering experience because of the numbers. [The
newer arrivals] are noisier, more demonstrative. They are also more
flamboyantmore Russian, in a word, than British. A sign in the churchs
newly built social hall, which was funded by recent immigrants, hints at

Nostalgia is a binding force in Moscow on the Thames. The Russian
community doesnt dominate any one part of town. It is held together by a
yearning for all things Russian. At the Spirit of Russia Charity Ball a few
weeks ago, dozens of Russian entertainers performed for the 100-a-seat
extravaganza. One of them was 10-year-old singer and composer, Alex Prior,
whose mother is Russian. He got a big burst of applause from his formally
attired audience when he announced between numbers, I was born in
Londonbut I consider myself to be from the best country in the world:

Hes not alone. In the Fulham area of London, Zina Kirks
delicatessen imports Russian specialties, from sweet Georgian wine to its
most coveted product, pickled herring. The first of more than 20 such
stores in London, Kirks deli doubles as an information kiosk for new
arrivals looking for a doctor or advice on how to fill out Home Office
forms. The Old Street dance club Aquarium hosts a Russian night that
draws 200 to 300 people every week, according to DJ A-Lex, himself part of
the latest Russian wave. The Thursday-night scene, he says, is for the
Russian crowd, for those who feel kind of homesick. The playlist is almost
exclusively Russian, especially the cheesy Russian pop that the girls
like. He says that those who come are mostly Russian students and those
whove come to London to earn a bit of money. 

Money is a big mover in this new diaspora. Pyotr Aven, president of
Russias Alpha Bank, is a regular in Aeroflots first-class cabin to
London. He stays in the citys most expensive hotels, places like
Claridges and the Lanesborough, and dines at Nobu, the celebrity-packed
Japanese-Peruvian restaurant on Hyde Park. Or take Andrei Chervichenko, the
art-obsessed president of Moscows Spartak soccer team. Checkbook-armed
Russians like Chervichenko flock to Sothebys auctions, hoping to
repatriate paintings by the likes of Serebriakova and Makovsky. At one
recent auction of Russian art, Russians snapped up nine of the 10 most
expensive paintings. Chervichenko consoled himself after Spartaks 5-0 loss
to Liverpool by dropping a cool 300,000 on three paintings: two Aivazovsky
seascapesand I cant remember what the third was.

If you can be blase about 300,000, then you probably dont flinch at
fees of up to 20,000 at boarding schools like Millfield and Winchester. In
some cases, wealthy parents back in Russia are looking for more than just a
good education for their children; they also want security from the
rough-and-tumble world they inhabit back home. Its not that unusual for
Russian pupils to show up with bodyguards as well as chauffeurs, says
Richard Harmon, headmaster at Aldenham, a boarding school founded in 1596,
a hundred years before Peter the Great first set foot in England. Aldenham
advertises in Russian magazines to tap the growing market.

Natasha Chouvaeva, publisher of the Russian language fortnightly The
London Courier, has witnessed the transformation of the Russian community
since she arrived in 1991. Then there were the rich and the asylum
seekersthe two extremes, she says. Now [the recent immigrants] are
middle-class Russians who just want to try their luck in the West. We used
to be an expat newspaper. Wed tell [readers] how to find a solicitor or
how to find a good school for their children. But now people dont need
that. They just want to keep the cultural side up and pass the language on
to their kids.

Russian culture is not in short supply. The cultural invasion of
London is the new Russian imperialism, jokes Mikhail Piotrovsky, director
of St. Petersburgs Hermitage Museum. Not long ago Piotrovsky struck a deal
with Londons Somerset House to bring regular exhibits of the Hermitages
collection of more than 3 million works of art to the British museums
Thames-side location. Russian music and dance performances are commonly
featured in London playbills. Valery Gergiev, the brooding music director
of St. Petersburgs acclaimed Mariinsky Opera, brings his impassioned
conducting to the Royal Opera House, the Barbican and Queen Elizabeth Hall
for sold-out performances at least a dozen times a year. We really love
London, says the maestro. Its a powerful cultural center. The Moiseyev
Dance Company was founded in Moscow during the harshest years of Stalin.
The troupes high-leaping folk dancers recently packed in London crowds for
a weeklong jubilee.

The transformation underway in London extends well beyond the Russian
community. Veteran Muscovites on the Thames say long-held stereotypes of
Russiareinforced by Western ignoranceare finally breaking down more than
a decade after the end of the cold war. As Russians broaden their horizons,
it seems, Britons are doing the same. Aliona Muchinskaya, director of the
Red Square PR agency in London, recalls her first visit to the British
capital 11 years ago. People asked me whether we had refrigerators in
Russia. I said, No. We use the snow. And they thought I was serious! Now
people are much more aware of what is going on in Russia. They ask about
[President Vladimir] Putin. It fills me with pride. 

The shift may be rubbing off on politicians, too. British Prime
Minister Tony Blair has met Putin in more one-on-one summits than any other
European leader. Blair helped to break the mold of British opinion when he
became the first Western leader to visit Putin, then acting president,
after Boris Yeltsins surprise resignation on Dec. 31, 1999. Later, while
the rest of the world worried about Putins Soviet-era credentials, Blair
quietly gave U.S. President George W. Bush the thumbs-up on the former KGB
colonel. And since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Russia and the West
generally have been drawn closer. People look at Russia in a different
light, says Tania Illingworth, a descendant of Russian author Leo Tolstoy,
whose family fled to London during the Bolshevik revolution. People just
arent quite so frightened.

Against this backdrop, and against the backdrop of centuries of
history, the changing face of Londons Russian community seems less an
astonishmentand more like another chapter in a very long story. Were
part of a living tradition, says maestro Gergiev. The bridge between
Britain and Russia has always existed. Were just walking freely over it

With Liat Radcliffe in London and Christian Caryl in Moscow
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