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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow On The Thames

LONDON -- Lena Gusinskaya asked me to meet her at Sandrini, a breezy Italian restaurant in the posh shopping and residential district of Knightsbridge. At a corner table by a floor-to-ceiling window, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch of lobster salad and squid-ink dyed pasta. It is unlikely that anyone in the restaurant other than myself knew that Gusinskaya is the wife of one of Russia's most powerful business tycoons, head of the Media-Most conglomerate Vladimir Gusinsky.

Such anonymity is one reason Gusinskaya and a growing number of Russia's elite are making London their second home. Alexander Smolensky, owner of the SBS-Agro bank, recently bought a house in London in the name of his mother-in-law. Oil, auto and banking magnate Boris Berezovsky maintains a residence in the city. In Russia, the Gusinskys live in a dacha more than an hour's drive from Moscow, and every time Gusinskaya goes downtown, it's a production. Three bodyguards accompany her in an armored car. "Many of my old Russian friends come here, and we get together in London more often than we do in Russia. They have similar lifestyles and live out of Moscow in their dachas," Gusinskaya says. "I do not go out anywhere as much as I do in London. Theaters and concert halls, art galleries and museums. I know them better in London than anywhere else." In London, no one bothers Gusinskaya about her status, and she clearly relishes that freedom.

Gusinskaya also likes what money can buy here. "Our first London flat used to be just round the corner," Gusinskaya says, pointing across the street lined with brand name shops. The Gusinskys recently bought a house in the quiet but central, upscale neighborhood of Holland Park. Her doctors are on Harley Street, the address of the city's most exclusive physicians. When I mention their high fees, Gusinskaya flashes a charming smile and says, "Let's not talk about material things." Gusinskaya has been coming to London since the early '90s, often accompanying her husband on business trips. "Most of all, I like to come to London to do my Christmas shopping. Harrods is my favorite shop, not because it is expensive, but because it is so general with a wide choice," she says. "By the way, my second favorite is Marks and Spencer."

If the oligarchs are at the top end of the new Russian society of London, the more typical bulk of their compatriots in Britain aren't too far below them on the economic scale. "People with means prefer it," says BBC music show host Seva Novgorodtsev. "Russians, especially the rich ones, like exclusive lands. ... Due to its restrictions on emigration ... a certain exclusivity was created on British soil." The Russians in London today include owners of businesses, employees of British, Russian and multinational firms, academics and Russians married to British citizens. The influx surged in the mid-'90s. Visa applications of all types increased by 30,000 between 1993 and 1994. They jumped eightfold in the decade from 1987 to 1997, from 11,500 to 92,417.

The transplanted community has its own newspapers, clubs and favorite shops. Directors Pyotr Todorovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky show their latest works in the artsy film houses in the theater district. And hundreds of Russians gather at the Ennismore Garden Orthodox Church in Kensington for Orthodox Easter's midnight service. "Every time a Russian comes, he brings something to the city, adding up to an atmosphere here," says Peter Batkin, an expert in Russian art and a senior director at the auction house Sotheby's. "I don't mean material things. It is culture - numerous Russian events, Russian ballet and various musical concerts."

The Russians have also transported to Britain their unfortunate image of having criminal ties. A January article in the popular British tabloid The Evening Standard quoted anonymous sources as saying the top officials of Russia's embassy in London were "under mafia control." Russian inspectors investigating the embassy are also corrupt, the article alleged, saying "They come as if to check the accounts, but the tables are already laid and then there is a huge drinking spree." The article said, "One well-known Russian businessman based in London comes once a weekto the embassy with a briefcase containing payoff money."

The British were horrified when a bloody, murderous feud broke out in London in 1993, with the fatal shootings of two Chechens in a luxury apartment in London. One Armenian man arrested for the killings subsequently hung himself in a British prison, and the British sister-in-law of a second Armenian imprisoned for the murders was shot to death. Authorities believe the killer of the British woman had intended to murder the woman's sister, the wife of the incarcerated Armenian.

The history of Russia's ties to Britain dates back to the 17th century when Peter the Great landed in 1698. The young tsar, traveling under the name of Alexei Mikhailov, stayed in Sayes Court, a rambling mansion not far from Greenwich. To the dismay of the elegant home's owner, essayist John Evelyn, Peter and his entourage nearly destroyed the house. According to Robert Massie's biography "Peter the Great," furniture was broken, portraits appeared to have been used for target practice and a beautiful holly hedge had been flattened. Neighbors said that the Russians were fascinated by wheelbarrows and had been racing them into the hedge.

Peter worked as a shipwright at Deptford. "His visit was, in fact, a shopping expedition, on which he fell in love with the country. That was shopping for skills in the shipbuilding industry," Batkin says. Catherine the Great continued Peter's practice of importing Western products and lifestyles. In her reign she acquired the entire Old Master art collection of Horace Walpole, Britain's first prime minister. In 1773 she commissioned from Josiah Wedgwood's factory an earthenware dinner service of 1,000 items, all decorated with painted English landscapes, architecture and industry.

London later became a safe haven for Russia's revolutionaries. In the 19th century, socialist Alexander Hertzen spent 12 years in London, publishing the progressive magazine Kolokol, or Bell. In 1849 Karl Marx came with his family to London where he researched economics and social history at the reading room of the British Museum and wrote Das Kapital. Vladimir Lenin also resided in London, establishing contacts with other revolutionaries in exile. In 1903, the Second Congress of the underground Social Democratic Party, a forerunner to the Bolshevik Party, held a meeting in London.

The city also took in dissident artists. Novgorodtsev, a rock, folk and jazz connoisseur, emigrated to London in 1975 and in 1989 began hosting a pop music show for the BBC's Russian Service. He notices the difference in the types of Russians who came to London when he did, and those arriving today. "Just yesterday I've been at a farewell party of the well-known Russian dissident-poet Irina Ratushinskaya. After 12 years of living in London, she sold her house and is moving back to Moscow," he says, while these days, "the young and up-and-coming business-minded people come to London in rows."

Vladimir Nikitin, who runs a dental clinic near Harley Street, is one of the new wave. Nikitin had a successful private dentistry practice in downtown Moscow that catered to celebrities from the show business circles of his scriptwriter wife, Nadya Pokornaya. In 1989, Nikitin came to London where his field of oral surgery and implantology is more advanced. He studied at the Royal College of Surgeons and is now one of the highest paid dental surgeons in Britain.

Summer and Christmas time are the two most popular travel periods between Moscow and London. Routes also fill up just before and after the school holidays when British Airway flights between the cities can be like school buses packed with Russian children attending British schools. The majority of these children are heirs of the business and government elite. Boris Berezovsky's two daughters attended Cambridge, and President Boris Yeltsin's grandson is in his final year at the prestigious school Winchester College. "I think the Russians of the previous generation are living up to their fantasies," Novgorodtsev says. "They all read about old English universities and how prestigious it is to graduate from Oxford and Cambridge. So they want their children to have the trademark of these schools."

Boris, the son of Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, initially enrolled in 1996 at Millfield, a school with a reputation for catering to the new rich. But after Boris's family found that Millfield was using the boy's name for school publicity, Boris transferred to Winchester College. The 616-year-old school, regarded among the country's top ten, charges pounds 15,345 ($24,656) per year for tuition. "I'm not his school master, but from what I know, his reports are good," says James Sabben-Clare, Winchester's headmaster.

Boris walks freely around the peaceful streets of Winchester and recently called on my Russian girlfriend for tea. "Such a nice fellow," she says of Boris, suggesting he is living up to the school's motto "Manners Maketh Man." He is also an athlete, playing tennis on the school's team. Boris resides in a small double-berth room in one of the 11 boarding houses. Last year he shared a room with his best friend Sasha Grebnyov, a Moscow banker's son who now attends Cambridge. Earlier this month, he enjoyed a visit from his mother.

Russian residents of London like to live in the upscale North London neighborhoods of Highgate and Hampstead, where homes go from pounds 400,000 to pounds 5 million. Recently, Russians have been buying apartments as investments in the newly developed area of the Docklands. "We love the Russian customers because they tend to buy rather quickly," says Chris Underhill, owner of the real estate agency Keith Cardale Groves. While the average property deal in Britain takes three months to settle, Underhill says with Russian clients, deals can often be closed in two weeks. Last year, Underhill sold a house for more than pounds 5 million to a Russian owner of an oil and shipping business. "They lean towards modern properties, built in the last two decades," Underhill says. "They are not really interested in doing up old historical houses."

Catering to the Russian community are two Russian language newspapers, The European Herald and the London Courier. The monthly European Herald, which carries articles in both Russian and English, features many historical articles about Russia accompanied by old photographs. The fortnightly London Courier is more of a tabloid, with sensational political and crime stories and many advertisements and announcements.

London still lacks a good Russian restaurant, although the community is hopeful about Firebird, a soon-to-be-opened restaurant in Mayfair. "We Russians have a different idea of a good time than English people. We enjoy the whole fun of good food, drink, dancing and Gypsy-singing in one," says Julia Talipova, an owner of fashion boutiques originally from Tashkent. Russians can purchase traditional foods at Russkoye Zastolye, where shelves are lined with jars of sour cabbage, pickled herring, boxes of chocolates and coffee. Some customers spend several hundred pounds on pickled tomatoes alone, says manager Elena Getman.

In the evenings it isn't hard to find some sort of Russia-related entertainment, whether a movie showing or a performance by the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London. At the private club International Sportsman, musician Yuri Stepanoff and manager Anna Olev host monthly Russia evenings with live music and traditional foods, often celebrating Russian holidays.

To unwind in the countryside, Russians now have their own First Russian Hunters & Anglers Association. "Hunting is in the blood of every Russian, and this is what we Russians missed for many years," the group's pamphlet reads. This season the association offers grouse shooting and deer stalking, founder Vadim Dimitrov says.

London's Russians are big spenders. "It's not uncommon for a girl to spend pounds 1,000 to pounds 2,000 with me and probably the same in any other boutique on the street," says Talipova, who owns Anna Molinari and Cesare Paciotti on Bond Street and Sergio Rossi in Knightsbridge. "Russians love to dress, disregarding the cost. It is in our mentality to enjoy life today and not care about tomorrow."

The Russian community even has two British registered charities, Russian Arts Help and International Russian House, both of which assist and promote Russian artists and musicians by organizing exhibits and concerts.

The biggest event of the year that brings together the old and new Russian emigr?s is the annual War and Peace Costume Ball. Founded 11 years ago by the aristocratic Tolstoy family, the ball is held annually at The Dorchester hotel under the patronage of the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, a great great granddaughter of Alexander II. Last month 250 guests, including the Russian ambassador to Britain Yury Fokin and Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia, spent an evening dining on bliny with caviar and beef Stroganoff, toasting with vodka and listening to romantic songs performed by Sergei Zakharov, a pop singer from the '80s. Advance rehearsals helped the guests, many of whom came in turn of the century dress, dance the polka, polonaise and mazurka to the performance of the Orchestra of the Life Guards.

Proceeds from the pounds 175 ticket fee go to the building trust of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Dormition in Chiswick and to Russian Arts Help. Last year's ball collected pounds 20,000. "However important is the financial help, the most significant is keeping the traditions alive," says Vadim Zakrevsky, an Orthodox priest of the Dormition Church. "This is an evident reminder of who we are and where we come from."

Remembering one's roots is becoming easier these days in London with the growing number of Russian shops, restaurants and gatherings for compatriots. While members of the new Russian society in London come here for anonymity and material comfort they cannot find in their home country, few want to cut ties with Russia. It is with a sense of affection that I turn my head to the sound of Russian being spoken on the streets here. Only 10 years ago I could swear in Russian freely, but today there is too great a risk that someone will understand me.