Filthy Lucre and the Londongrad Laundromat

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Oliver Bullough, in his new book, Butler to the World: The book the oligarchs don’t want you to read – how Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals, writes: “When dictators want somewhere to hide their money, they turn to Britain. When oligarchs want someone to launder their reputation, they come to Britain.”

Transparency International claims to have identified at least £1.5bn of UK property owned by Russians accused of financial crime or with links to the Kremlin. Even the Home Office admits that the UK has seen “a significant volume of Russian, or Russian-linked illicit finance”, which is spent on things like luxury property, cars and school fees, and sometimes as donations to cultural institutions, such as the Royal Academy (Petr Aven – a banking magnate and collector, close to Putin was a trustee), the Tate Gallery (Russian energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg was an honorary member of the Tate Foundation)  and universities (Oxford University has been urged to review its decision to accept £75m from Len Blavatnik, Britain’s richest man, to build the Blavatnik school of government.)

Len and Willie

Bullough runs Kleptocracy Tours of London showing tourists where the crooks and thieves live. Britain, he says has for too long been “easing their passage into global high society, hiding their crimes and generally letting them dodge the consequences of their actions.”  Bullough concludes: “They have real-life victims whose loss is far greater than Britain’s gain.”

Laughing Len

Russian Republic of Belgravia

Russia has been influenced by oligarchs since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the replacement of President Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1991. A lot of Russians made obscene amounts from the privatisation of Soviet industries, particularly petroleum, natural gas, and metal. They were greatly assisted in this by western accountants, lawyers and consultants, who descended on Moscow like locusts. Many Russian oligarchs found London attractive and found respectable British professionals very helpful and keen to share in their ill-gotten gains. London got a plague of locusts from Moscow in return.

John Sweeney wrote in Byline Times: “Six oligarchs who made their gold in the post-Soviet space and have been markedly opaque about Vladimir Putin have been markedly generous to the Conservative Party and/or Boris Johnson personally. They are, in alphabetical order: Vladimir Chernukhin and his wife Lubov, Viktor Fedetov, Alexander Lebedev and his son Lord Evgeny Lebedev, and Alexander Temerko. In plain English, they have all had snow on their boots.” 

Something Rotenberg in the State

Arkady Rotenberg was the owner of Stroygazmontazh, the largest construction company for gas pipelines and electrical power supply lines in Russia. He is a close friend of Putin since childhood and is his judo sparring partner.  Arkady’s brother Boris is another rich Russian living in London. Boris’s son Roman lived in the UK. His home address was given as a £3.3m house in Belgravia, which is owned via a Cypriot entity called Loktan Services. Alisher Usmanov has huge wealth all over the world and in UK had a big financial involvement in Arsenal and Everton football clubs.

There is no space here to give details of all the Russian oligarchs who have corrupted the UK with their obscene ill-gotten gains. Lootin’ with Putin is a report Richard Brooks and colleagues wrote for Private Eye, which can be downloaded free of charge as a pdf. More recent reports, such as Russian Asset Tracker project, provide yet more detail.

How Did They Get In?

Bullough writes: “Financial skullduggery isn’t just something that happens in the UK; there has been a concerted and decades-long effort to encourage it to do so.” As long ago as 1994, under John Major, the Conservatives introduced a “golden visa” scheme that handed residency rights to anyone who invested £1m. Tony Blair’s Labour government carried it on with enthusiasm and in 2008, Gordon Brown’s Labour government expanded the golden visa scheme.

Ken Livingstone, London’s leftist mayor from 2000 to 2008, said he wanted “Russian companies to regard London as their natural base in Europe”. In 2006, the same year that the Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London, Livingstone said that he wanted “Russian companies to regard London as their natural base in Europe”, and his office established a small department aimed at attracting Russian money to London.

When he was mayor of London, current prime minister Boris Johnson openly encouraged as many Russian oligarchs as possible to settle and spend money in London. Johnson said Russian billionaires should be encouraged to use British courts to settle disputes. “I have no shame in saying to the injured spouses of the world’s billionaires if you want to take him to the cleaners . . . take him to the cleaners in London. Because London cleaners will be grateful for your business.”

Reputation Management

In 2010, Gina Miller was approached on behalf of a Russian multimillionaire offering £30m to her philanthropic foundation. She declined and commented: “The ecosystem of enablers includes wealth managers, banks, private equity houses, accountants, lawyers – and the growing army of philanthropy advisers, lobbyists, and thinktanks – who have been complicit in the infiltration by those close to Putin of not just our political infrastructure, but our property market, businesses, charities, public bodies, arts, culture, and sports.”

It was a Tory MP, Bob Seely, a member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, who used parliamentary privilege to name oligarchs and the professionals who serviced them. He said they were “not just obscenely rich people who are mates with someone” but part of the Kremlin’s “structure of control and power whether it is in east Ukraine or in the UK”.

Suppression of Free Speech

Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People shows how KGB men created the world’s most dangerous rogue state. Belton is currently a special correspondent with Reuters and formerly worked for the Financial Times.  She is diligent and well-respected and her brilliant book contains many revelations. Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, three other Russian billionaires and Putin’s energy company Rosneft sued Belton and her publishers, HarperCollins.

The lawyers they employed to destroy Belton and prevent her book from being published included Hugh Tomlinson QC. Tomlinson has generally been regarded as one of the human rights good guys. In 2000 he became a founder member of Matrix Chambers. Other founding members included lawyers who, became deeply involved in human rights: Cherie Booth QC, Professor Conor Gearty, Ben Emmerson QC, Lord Ken Macdonald QC, and Philippe Sands QC.

Tomlinson is on the board of actor Hugh Grant’s organisation Hacked Off, a campaign for a free but accountable press, which says it wants to hold “power to account”, not act as its servant. HarperCollins settled out of court agreeing to make changes to the text most readers wouldn’t notice. Although it never went to a full hearing, the case, according to Observer columnist Nick Cohen, cost HarperCollins £1.5m to settle in private. In effect, HarperCollins was fined a small fortune for publishing an anti-Putin book. HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the villain Hacked Off was established to fight.

Browder Libel Case

Bill Browder had large investments in Russia with his company Hermitage Investments but became a crusader against Russian corruption. Sergei Magnitsky was a young lawyer working for Browder.

Magnitsky accused Russian officials of a massive tax fraud but was himself arrested and accused of the crime. While in custody he was tortured and died in 2009. Browder pointed the finger at Lieutenant Colonel Karpov, of the Russian Ministry of the Interior.

In 2013, Karpov hired a top legal team to sue Browder for libel through the High Court in London. The case was described as one of the worst examples of libel tourism – where foreign nationals, with little or no connection to the UK, use the High Court to pursue their disputes. Karpov’s legal team was led by top QC Andrew Caldecott, but he was instructed by the high-profile media lawyer Geraldine Proudler, who previously sat on the board of the Guardian‘s regulators the Scott Trust, which, in the words of CP Scott, the Manchester Guardian‘s great editor, exists to promote ”honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness and a sense of duty to the reader” at the Guardian.

Mr Browder won the defamation battle, Mr Justice Simon ruling, “His [Karpov’s] connection with this country is exiguous and therefore there is a degree of artificiality about his seeking to protect his reputation in this country.” Karpov refused to pay his £600,000 costs and remained out of reach in Moscow.

Slow Action

The British government is slowly imposing sanctions against the Russian oligarchs who have had such a poisonous influence on British life. The long-awaited Economic Crime Bill has been introduced to parliament. The government first committed to the changes six years ago. Even in January 2022, as Putin’s troops were amassing on Ukraine’s border, it tried to postpone the bill until at least 2023-4. It has taken a brutal invasion of a European country for the British government to act. It still shows no shame and continues to avoid the issue of whether Britain  wants a future where the nation is living off immoral earnings.