The publicity over the attempted killing by means of ‘a military-grade nerve agent’ of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the cathedral town of Salisbury recalls the prominence given to an earlier assassination of a Russian ‘exile’, that of Alexander Litvinenko, former officer of the FSB secret service in 2006. His image, pallid and wasting in a hospital bed in London, was widely, hauntingly displayed. He died of polonium-210 poison, administered by two agents of the Russian Intelligence Services. Sergei Skripal was a former spy, jailed in Russia in 2006, but exchanged four years later in a ‘spy-swap’ with Britain, where he has lived – in uncharacteristically modest circumstances - ever since.
The deaths of a number of high-profile Russian exiles in London – including that of Boris Berezovsky and a number of close associates – did not receive the same attention, since they were ascribed, either to ‘natural causes’ or to suicide, a series of coincidences that has led many people to ask whether the British authorities had not deliberately underplayed the possible role of the Russian state in eliminating its enemies, either by government, the mafia or sub-contracts to hit-men. Litvinenko had also been an ally of Berezovsky, who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2003. Berezovsky was member of the inner circle of Boris Yeltsin, and made a fortune in media, commodities, aeroplanes and cars. He was instrumental in bringing Putin to power, but soon quarrelled with him and fled to London, where he was granted political asylum in 2003. In 2012 he unsuccessfully sued Roman Abramovich – owner of Chelsea Football Club – for £5 billion, alleging that he had been forced to sell his interests in the Oil Company Sibneft well below their value.
Badri Patarkatsishvili, close friend of Berezovsky and Georgian billionaire had interests in Lada cars, Kommersant newspaper and Sibneft oil company. He died ‘of natural causes’ in 2008. Yuri Golubkev, who, together with Mikhail Khordokovsky (imprisoned in Russia), founded the Yukos Oil Company, was discovered dead in an armchair in 2007 shortly after returning from Moscow.
Some of the British colleagues of these billionaires also met violent deaths. Scot Young, whose grandiose development Project Moscow collapsed losing hundreds of millions of dollars, fell to his death from his fourth-floor flat and was impaled on the railings. Paul Castle and Robbie Curtis, Young’s associates, both jumped – separately – in front of a train; while Johnny Elichaoff fell from the roof of Whiteley’s store in Bayswater.
What is clear is that the high-end of London’s property market has been profoundly influenced by Russian money. Indeed, one of the major economic activities in Britain since the millennium has been to take in washing, as though we were an indigent widow living in Victorian London; the laundered cash is neatly laid out, pressed and folded in soaring glass and stone skyscrapers which now mark the London skyline with their graveyard symmetry
Over a period of about 15 years, some 14 mysterious deaths have occurred in Britain, mostly in the area around London, where oligarchs, former spies and their British colleagues or advisers have lived. Among these was Alexander Perepslichnyy, who died in Surrey in 2012. He had been helping Swiss prosecutors investigating a money-laundering system used by highly placed Russian officials. His death was also officially assigned to‘ natural’ causes. This, together with the suicide verdict of Boris Berezovsky himself a year later, has been called into question: the sophistication of the Russians in administering substances that produce heart attacks, and strangling victims who are then made to appear as if they hanged themselves, suggests a more sinister possibility. London, it seems, has been transformed from a safe haven into a site of danger for the enemies of the Russian state. In 2003, Russia permitted the extra-territorial execution of traitors and terrorists.
The relative equanimity with which British authorities accepted the deaths of super-rich Russians after the assassination of Litvinenko is curious. Was this because of a desire not to antagonise Putin? Was a wish not to disturb the ‘contribution’ of these benefactors to the British economy with their extravagant lifestyle, the spreading investment in property? Was it fear of Russia’s capacity for cyber-warfare or even of the power of some of the approximately three quarters of a million Russians currently living in Britain to cause economic disruption?
What is clear is that the high-end of London’s property market has been profoundly influenced by Russian money. Indeed, one of the major economic activities in Britain since the millennium has been to take in washing, as though we were an indigent widow living in Victorian London; the laundered cash is neatly laid out, pressed and folded in soaring glass and stone skyscrapers which now mark the London skyline with their graveyard symmetry. Expatriate Russians have a predilection for Belgravia, especially Eaton Square, Hampstead and Regents Park, where properties are valued in the tens of millions.
After a decade, if not of complicity, at least of turning a blind eye to the long and violent reach of Russia and its capacity to terrorise people ‘on British soil’, we may wonder why the poisoning of the Skripals should once more have propelled the issue of extra-judicial killings by the Russian state or its proxies or rogue sympathisers, to the global headlines
The story goes back to the end of Communism, and the acquisition by some two dozen ‘oligarchs’ (oligarchy means the rule of the few) of 40 % of the Russian economy under Boris Yeltsin. It was a time of hyperinflation, indiscriminate contract killings, organised crime and corruption. Many of these fled Russia after 2000 under Putin’s regime, fearing expropriation or simply seeking refuge for their money and their families in civilised, law-abiding Britain.
In his book, The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia, Mark Galeotti suggests that the old smash-and-grab theft of state assets and the criminal gangs which accompanied it, have been ‘domesticated’ since the 1990s, and have merged with the state, so that crime, far from marking people off as separate from society, is now ‘just another route to power and prosperity within that society.’ It seems that in post-Soviet Russia, as after all other historic violent and piratical seizures of wealth and power, elites eventually crave respectability; and it has been to this mixture of wealth, crime and politics that London has served as hospitable refuge; at the same time as has turned its back on those it stigmatises as ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers because they are poor.
After a decade, if not of complicity, at least of turning a blind eye to the long and violent reach of Russia and its capacity to terrorise people ‘on British soil’, we may wonder why the poisoning of the Skripals should once more have propelled the issue of extra-judicial killings by the Russian state or its proxies or rogue sympathisers, to the global headlines. There is something pathetic in Theresa May’s rush to Brussels to urge our (soon-to-be dissolved) European partners to support British condemnation of Moscow. Nothing is calculated to show more clearly Britain as a small island busy forfeiting both friends and influence in the world than its powerlessness to act alone against Russia. The threats to send no member of the royal family and no government representative to the World Cup in Russia in July are scarcely going to shake the foundations of the Russian state. The expulsion of diplomats alleged to be spies will do little to diminish the number of Russian agents who have no diplomatic accreditation.
The eagerness with which the West assisted the demolition of the Soviet Union and the seizure of its wealth by a few ruthless individuals, in what was then called ‘shock-therapy’, exhibited a vindictive satisfaction at the fate of Russia’s people. That these are happy to re-elect an authoritarian ‘strong man’ who promises to make Russia great again, clearly shows that Western collusion with the re-distribution of Russia’s wealth to the undeserving rich continues to have consequences disagreeable for those who saw in the lawless appropriation of public assets nothing more than liberation from the yoke of socialism.
The proverb, ‘sow the wind and reap the whirlwind’, is from the Bible, Book of Hosea. It suggests the baleful consequences of dishonest actions.
(Jeremy Seabrook is an author and columnist who lives in London. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)