In Londongrad

Peter Pomerantsev

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 a certain kind of Russian 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.


  • 10 December 2011 at 9:32am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    How can they afford it, those middle-class middle of the road Russians? "Britain has become an object of political derision and paranoia." Not only in Russia.

  • 10 December 2011 at 9:38am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Here's a good take on why many Russians flee to London.

  • 10 December 2011 at 9:56am
    simonpawley says:
    In his own account of what happened, Luke Harding clarifies the context in which he was denied access to Russia. First, he admits that he broke permit laws when visiting the Arctic and Ingushetia. He claims that he was unfairly targeted because 'other journalists from Reuters and AFP didn't have the right paperwork on both trips'. The implication is that he was unfairly targeted -- but the fact that others are guilty of the same infractions is a pretty flimsy defence.
    All the same (still according to his own account), a week after his 'expulsion', Harding was again offered a visa. But by this time he was so freaked out by what are frankly fairly normal occurrences (he describes coming home to find that he, or someone else, had left a window open, and being scowled at by a middle-aged woman), that he voluntarily decided to return to the UK. All of the relevant passages appeared in excerpts from his book published in The Observer:
    Don't get me wrong, terrible things happen in Russia, and some journalists have been killed for what they have uncovered (although the idea that killings have been ordered by the Kremlin is fanciful -- the issue is that the warlords and business interests upset by these reports are beyond the reach of the corrupt and ineffective police and judiciary). But Luke Harding is a victim above all of his own imagination.

    As to the broader point, Britain is regarded with some suspicion for a number of reasons, some of which have a reasonable foundation (you don't mention the widespread perception that Berezovsky is a criminal being harboured by the UK and hence protected from prosecution).
    But the USA will always be the foreign enemy that really touches a nerve. That is why this week, Putin has been highlighting US funding of many Russian pro-democracy groups (the fact that there is widespread US funding is not disputed -- the only question is whether you see that as perfectly legitimate support for NGOs, or as an illegitimate form of foreign interference in domestic politics). It is no great surprise that at a time of crisis, Hilary Clinton is a scapegoat with a bit more popular resonance than William Hague. Hague's lightweight status is an apt reminder that post-imperial Britain is a much less important player than some like to think.

    • 11 December 2011 at 7:00pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ simonpawley
      There's no doubt that Harding is a bit of a self-publicist, but you are seriously misrepresenting what he actually describes in his book (I haven't read it, but like you have read his articles). The point about the window being open is that it was a (deliberate) sign that someone had broken into his flat. The same goes for the alarm clock that went off a few hours later at 4 in the morning, which he didn't set. Obviously that didn't cause him any physical harm but it's meant as a threat - we can break into your home any time we want. He also describes having his phone tapped and his email hacked. Unless you think he's making it all up, then he's a lot more than a 'victim of his own imagination.'
      Also I'm not convinced by your take on the visa infractions. It's probably actually advantageous for the Russian government to issue visas with conditions which journalists will routinely break, because then they have an easy excuse to target those of them that they don't like. If, as Harding claims, other journalists on the same trip did the same as him, then I can't how he could be seen as anything other than 'unfairly targeted.'

    • 12 December 2011 at 12:22pm
      simonpawley says: @ Harry Stopes
      You are assuming that Harding's interpretation of everything that happened is reasonable -- that really is where we differ. Harding asserts that an open window is a deliberate sign that someone broke in to his flat. Perhaps that is what he believes. I would say that less sinister explanations are in fact more plausible (e.g., he forgot to close it). Some of what he says is probably true. It wouldn't surprise me if his phone was tapped. I feel reasonably sure that Russian journalists working in London are regularly phone-tapped as well. There might also have been some mild attempts at intimidation. The point I was making is that Harding elides some mildly sinister incidents with occurrences that are much more common (a middle-aged woman appears at his front door, huffs at him and walks off). It's clear too when he described being handed a sealed bottle of water at his FSB interview, but refuses to drink it because he thinks it might have been tampered with, a fear on reflection he describes as unwarranted. In short, if he is being completely honest, then it looks like paranoia got the better of him. That isn't hugely surprising; for an outsider, there are things about Russia that seem alien, and can make living there very stressful. Enough time confronting bureaucratic obstructionism, and you can quite easily start to get the feeling that someone's out to get you. That goes for the frankly arcane system of visa registration, too. It seems clear enough to me that Harding got to a point where he was really reading too much in to certain things. But it comes down to interpretation, so I won't reply at any greater length. Anyone else who is interested ought to click the link above and judge for themselves.