Russians love living in London: Berezovsky and Abramovich fight it out in a London court room, the Lebedevs buy the Standard and the Independent, minted Sashas and Pashas fill up the public schools, Russian hipsters spliff on London Fields, Russian shoppers throng Selfridges, Russian middle-class professionals walk their tots in Primrose Hill. London is known as ‘Londongrad’ or ‘Moscow on the Thames’; Russian media call it ‘Russia’s premier city abroad’ and even talk about ‘misty Albion’. Skinny bohemians and fat bureaucrats sip overpriced bitter at ‘Olde Englande’ theme pubs in Perm and Ekaterinburg; there’s a boy band called ‘Chelsea’ and Russia’s best alternative rocker has a song called ‘I dreamt of the sky above London’. Tell most Russians you’re from the US or Germany and they’ll shrug; say you’re from London and they’ll sigh wistfully the way some Americans once did about Paris.
But there’s a flip side. During the Putin era, Britain has become an object of political derision and paranoia. Pro-government media rant about the nefarious Englishmen who ‘have always looked to destabilise Russia’; Putin invokes Kipling and castigates the ‘men with cork helmets’; Luke Harding, a British journalist, was denied access to Russia; when the KGB wants to pick a fight with ‘foreign spies’, British diplomats are accused and expelled.
Politically, Britain has a reputation as the home of liberty, the antithesis of Russia’s authoritarian tradition. In tsarist times Russian liberals based themselves in London; in Soviet times Russians who wanted uncensored news secretly tuned in to the World Service; today those who fall out with Putin, such as Berezovsky, instinctively flee to London. The place is fetishised by liberal Russians and loathed by advocates of the authoritarian tradition. But dissidents make up only a tiny percentage of anglophiles. Many of the Russians in London make their money in Russia and work hand in glove with the Putinoids. But they want their children to go to British schools, and keep their money in British banks and property. There’s a sense that Britain, unlike Russia, is inherently stable and reliable. The Russian idiom ‘as safe as an English bank’ isn’t ironic.
One reason for the widespread anglophilia is that many of the most popular TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s were beautifully produced adaptations of 19th and early 20th-century British writers: Brandon Thomas, Stevenson, Charles Snow, Priestley, Chesterton, and a terrific version of Sherlock Holmes. This is the TV that Russians who still remember the USSR grew up on, and their ‘light’ reading was full of Walter Scott, Dickens, Galsworthy, Jerome, Kipling. The historian Kirill Kobrin has called the phenomenon ‘late Soviet Victorianism’. One reason for it is that during the Brezhnev ‘stagnation’, most Russians privately stopped believing in Soviet myths and identities. Anglophilia offered a covert way of reconnecting to pre-revolutionary social forms officially censured by the ruling ideology.
Under Putin, the nostalgia has come out of the closet: members of the new Russian elite obsessively try to trace their family trees to pre-revolutionary aristocrats, and ape their manners; in international relations, Russia now thinks of the world in terms of 19th-century spheres of influence and great power politics. In this hyper-real recreation of the 19th-century worldview, Britain resumes its role as the ultimate imperial rival. So England is adored for allowing Russia to reconnect to its 19th-century identity, but then hated when a version of that identity is performed in the political sphere.