In the early hours of March 14, a small group of men, dressed mostly in black, pried open an entrance to one of London’s grandest mansions, triggering its alarm system. The six-story residence, with a white stucco frontage, sits on a highly trafficked 19th-century development that has for decades housed various viscounts, earls, and dukes. Not far from Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster Parliament building, and an archway commemorating Britain’s victory over Napoleon, the property shares a prestigious zip code with the embassies of Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Norway. Once the home of Britain’s secretary of state for war and the colonies, 5 Belgrave Square has more recently been one of several London outposts for a rather different but no less acquisitive sort of empire — that of Russian wealth.
The intruders called themselves London Makhnovists after an early-20th-century anarchist who sought to create a stateless society in what is now Ukraine. However, the target of their protest was not a state per se, but the 2003 purchaser of the building, with its list price of $ 39 million. Oleg Deripaska, a trained physicist who founded aluminum giant Rusal, is one of a handful of extremely rich Russian businessmen to have snapped up plum properties in the British capital. And so just a few weeks after Moscow’s forces had parachuted into Kyiv and millions of Ukrainians began pouring across the borders of Eastern Europe, the anarchists decided the vast, empty Belgrave Square property would be ideally suited to house refugees. They hung banners from its façade: a sky blue one asserting “this property has been liberated,” and a red one exhorting Russian President Vladimir Putin to go fuck himself.
Their actions channeled a coalescing sense among ordinary citizens in various Western nations that the wealth of Russia’s elite businessmen — often built on the back of state-owned enterprises — should no longer be a welcome import. In the UK that view has coincided with an extraordinary shift at the heart of the establishment, in recent months concentrating the firepower of the justice system, finance ministry, and other levers of the state at several Russian individuals with alleged ties to Putin — after cosseting them for the past two decades with all the comforts, perks, and privileges the British capital and its political class has to offer. The men in question — for they have almost always been men — have wrapped their arms around soccer clubs, country estates, celebrity friendships, and society-column inches. Roman Abramovich, a one-time Deripaska business partner, bought a vast mansion just yards from Kensington Palace, around the corner from the Russian embassy, for well over $ 100 million. While still in college, documents show, the Russian foreign minister’s stepdaughter Polina Kovaleva paid $ 6 million cash for her swish London apartment in a luxury new-build; she has detailed her glamorous life of yachts, swimming pools, and sunny days in Kensington on Instagram. These real estate swoops have earned London the moniker Moscow-on-Thames, with oligarchs’ kids populating the city’s more prestigious schools and clubby society haunts. The wives, girlfriends, and mistresses shop at Harrods, frequent the Serpentine Gallery, and seek record-breaking divorce settlements in British courts. Practically overnight, their financial and physical assets, along with their social capital, have been put on ice. Some object that innocent individuals with no ties to the Kremlin, and their political donations, have been unfairly identified amid the fervor. Yet in interviews with Vanity Fair, more than a dozen activists, politicians, and former government ministers lament that it took such dire events to trigger these actions, and several questioned how long the budding allergy to Russian wealth can possibly last, particularly where the governing Conservative Party is concerned.
Either way, in Belgrave Square the city’s Metropolitan Police had not received the memo. Within several hours almost a dozen of its vehicles were stationed outside the property, with some 200 officers involved at a cost of more than $ 100,000. Following a drawn-out period of door breaches, clashes atop a cherry picker, and harnessed hard-hats haplessly attempting to scale a balcony, the protesters were forcibly removed. They had by then found a “basement full” of booze (no food) and captured video of opulent interiors, with furniture from a company founded by David Linley (aka the Earl of Snowdon, Queen Elizabeth’s nephew), along with so much stuff that a normal human being should not have, ”as one anarchist remarked to a journalist. The Makhnovists left no damage, but four were arrested for squatting.
Deripaska, an absentee landlord, appeared displeased — and far from eager to be identified as the landlord at all. He insisted through a representative that it was in fact members of his family who own 5 Belgrave Square. British land-registry documents identify the home’s legal owner as a company called Ravellot Limited, registered in the British Virgin Islands. But a UK high court ruling in 2007 recorded the Belgrave Square house as belonging to Deripaska, and there are no indications its title deed has been transferred since. His spokesperson said the family was “appalled at the negligence of Britain’s justice system shown by Boris Johnson’s cabinet in introducing the sanctions and colluding with the sort of people who raid private property.” Back in February, Deripaska had predicted there would be no invasion of Ukraine; after Russia’s assault, he called for peace talks. By late March he called the conflict a “madness” in which “all sides are recklessly gearing for a long-term war that will have tragic consequences for the entire world.” But when UK authorities targeted his assets, he lashed out, declaring there is “not a single fact in support of Boris’ cabinet’s fantasies.”
Forget Robert Mueller III’s inquiry into the links between Kremlin figures and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The complex, intertwined relationship between Russian billions and modern Britain goes far beyond high-priced real estate. Successive Conservative prime ministers, from David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson, have been obliged to respond to repeated geopolitical provocations, including Crimea’s 2014 annexation and the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Salisbury. But at the same time, each has sought to avoid the kind of overt criticism that might impair their valuable relationships with a small coterie of wealthy political donors of Russian origin. February’s invasion of Ukraine made that already precarious tightrope nigh impossible to walk, however, and in the months since, government ministers have lined up to promote their anti-Putin bona fides with weapons shipments to Ukraine, yacht impoundings, property seizures, and bank freezes . The UK’s transport secretary — who famously fell victim to his own department’s COVID-related travel policies while on a family vacation — recently arrived at a London dock, news crew in tow, to publicize the detention of a superyacht called Phi. He said the vessel — with an “infinite” wine cellar and freshwater pool — had been “mired in all sorts of layers of almost deliberate, we think in fact deliberate attempts to hide its true ownership.” The Conservative government’s recent crackdown masks an insidious malaise, with a number of Russian chickens coming home to roost. As a Belgrave Square protester told reporters before police arrested him, “The same money that funds the Russia war machine funds the Conservative Party.”