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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Russians Have Arrived

The Russian community in London has reached a critical mass. No one knows quite how many there are these days -- I've heard figures from 15,000 to 100,000. But there are certainly enough for Nautilus Pompilius to pack a small theater in the west of London the other day; and enough to fly comedians over from Moscow for a hotel dinner-show at $150 a pop.

There's a Russian newspaper; there are four or five Russian restaurants; and there are endless projects for yet more newspapers, restaurants and clubs -- even for a complex of stores and cafes in the business district to the called (what else?) Back in the U.S.S.R.

There have been Russian residents before in London, of course -- the odd emigr? aristocrat and people displaced by World War II -- as well as enough stay-aways, dissidents and new arrivals to staff the Russian section of the BBC World Service (said by some to be the most Soviet organization to remain in the Western world).

But this large presence of Russians in London is something entirely new: first- and second-generation emigr?s from Israel and the United States; old bank and trade officials who are now in private business; and any number of (mostly young) people who applied for asylum as soon as the West became available. And this is not even to count the Russian children who come to Britain to study -- there are said to be 2,000 agencies in Moscow in the business of placing them in private British schools -- nor the tourists, the pass-throughs and the businessmen who come to deal and visit their money. I've heard it said that the visa section of the British Embassy in Moscow is now the busiest in the world. In one month last year -- and the figure has since risen -- it received more applications for visits to Britain than it had in any previous six.

The hills, then -- or rather Selfridge's, Harrod's and the rest -- are alive today with the sound of Russian. And this makes for a major problem both for the visa section and for Britain's domestic National Criminal Intelligence Service. Take the 2,000 agencies, for example, which are said to be in the business of putting little Ivanchik and Katinka into British schools. How many of them are really in that business, and how many of them are merely fronts, used as excuses to get their officers in and out of Britain as quietly and quickly as possible?

And what about all the other businesses -- import-export, for example -- which have sprung up in the turbulent wake of so-called privatization? Is this one really a businessman? Is that one really going to study British financial institutions and markets? The answer is, in Russia, you can never really tell.

The problem is compounded by the still-gathering presence of Russians in London. For they now constitute a sea in which any Russian visitor can swim -- be he minnow or shark. And the National Criminal Intelligence Service has virtually no way of telling which one is which. In any case, who can be, in the Western sense, a legitimate businessman when the mafia are in both government and business, and the country they come from has no laws?

The problem the National Criminal Intelligence Service is having to face, then, is that the more Russians there are in London and the more business they (and the British) do with visiting Russians, the more likely it is to have to cope with infiltration by organized crime. In fact, it is already having to. It claims to have uncovered Russian-controlled prostitution rings in London and Northampton; gun-running and drug-smuggling operations and massive schemes to launder money. One British company is said to have recently put $3 million of Russian crime profits through its books in just one year. And another, an Austrian-based company controlled by Russians -- and alleged to be deep in smuggling and currency fraud -- is said currently to be looking for a London headquarters.

Pity the poor National Criminal Intelligence Service, then. And pity the poor Russians, both residents and visitors. For it's going to get worse. There will come a time soon when simply being Russian will be enough to be tarred by a mafia brush. The businessman who buys a house in London to protect his family from extortion will be suspected of being in the extortion racket himself. The visitor will be regarded as a potential money runner or a drugs-mule; the resident as a potential launderer. Russians will go in one swoop from (politically) red to (criminally) black: marked out for special police surveillance. And there doesn't seem to be anything today that can be done about it.