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Why London loved Roman Abramovich He changed us more than we changed him

Will he miss watching Chelsea draw 0-0 at home to Watford? Credit: Clive Mason/Getty

Will he miss watching Chelsea draw 0-0 at home to Watford? Credit: Clive Mason/Getty


March 11, 2022   5 mins

For two decades Roman Abramovich embodied the ambiguity and vulgarity of London’s ties with the Russian Ă©lite. In a sense, he was Vladimir Putin’s unofficial, silent, constant ambassador to the city. The one Russian other than the President that anybody could recognise.

To impress the English you must be overly kind to dogs and horses, extremely wealthy, or gushingly enthusiastic about football. Abramovich was at least two of these. Previously unknown outside of Russia, his purchase of Chelsea FC in 2003 made him England’s favourite oligarch.

He stood for all the others. Like them, Abramovich bought Francis Bacons, yachts, and football clubs. He was expensively divorced. He purchased a Kensington townhouse for 90 million pounds, then plotted grandiose subterranean extensions to it. His security detail were told they were not allowed to bring firearms into the West London private schools his shoal of children swam through. His weirdly thin background, like his face, was enigmatic. His trajectory — from penniless orphan, to middling rubber duck salesman, to billionaire tycoon — mirrored the unlikely CVs and fluke-strewn ascents of so many mega-wealthy products of Russia’s insane Nineties. Unlike Abramovich though, many of his old rivals and partners from that time met
 abnormal ends.

But so what? Abramovich entered London high society when views of Putin’s Russia were charged with hopeless optimism. Putin, wrote Neal Acheson in 2004, was an “agent of sweeping change”. His reforms might one day make “a relatively law-abiding and governable Russia” a fact, rather than a dream. In the academy, favourable verdicts (grandly blessed by Perry Anderson in 2015) rained down on Russia. It was a vibrant, investor-friendly middle-income country; it was a respectable member of OECD; it was less statist in its control of energy markets than Brazil! Abramovich then, was an envoy from a developing country, not a one-man image-softening operation sent from an anguished, ramshackle, authoritarian state, still held together and animated by the most salient, deathless force in Russian political history — imperial ambition.

These wonky arguments added a watery academic gloss to London’s embrace of Russians like Abramovich. Ever since John Major’s Conservatives introduced ‘Golden Visas’ that fished for millionaire investors in the Nineties, every British government, and London Mayors Johnson and Livingstone, had courted Russian money. A butler class formed to enthusiastically count the cash.

Behind the biscuit tin version of London — Union Jacks on the Mall, Notting Hill selfies, and recumbent deer in Richmond Park — was a bleaker reality. To arrive here from Russia was to find networks of bankers, estate agents, accountants, wealth managers, PR flacks, politicians, and a legal system all eager to take your money, over-educate your children, Harley Street your wife, Isle of Man your taxes, gag journalists, and angelify your reputation.

None of them cared where the money came from. London could bury your secrets for you. “This country’s nothing but an off-shore laundry”, spits Logan Roy in Succession, “for turning evil into hard currency.”

That quiet part was rarely said out loud. The English are a discreet and sentimental people after all. In 2005, Ken Livingstone, at a Westminster address to 1,200 Russian political and business leaders, invoked the “warmth and sympathy” the English felt for their old wartime ally against Hitler. Sympathy was a sound basis for deal-making: “Russians,” he said, “are welcome in this city, both as individuals and for the business that they bring.” Since 1998, according to anti-money laundering groups, around a hundred billion pounds of Russian money has washed through London, and into property and commodities. The welcome was accepted.

If Livingstone represented the grasping yet oddly dewy-eyed side of Londongrad’s rise, his successor articulated the jokey cynicism the English felt towards the oligarchs. Boris Johnson was just as enthusiastic about Russian money as Livingstone, but prepared to laugh — like so many other toff-adjacent Brits — at Russian vulgarity too. In 2012 he urged oligarchs to flood London’s courts with libel actions. “If one oligarch feels defamed by another oligarch, it is London’s lawyers who apply the necessary balm to the ego,” he told the CBI’s annual conference that year. “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
”

It was like a joke. Except the estranged wives and litigious oligarchs were components of Putin’s increasingly despotic regime. The key figures of Russian state capitalism, who were now building nests in London, had begun the 2000s calling the President Mr Putin. Then they called him Boss. Then — another joke, at least to begin with — Tsar. Abramovich found ways to deal with Putin. Against a backdrop where oligarchs were assassinated, exiled and imprisoned, the Chelsea owner did everything he could in order to keep himself safe.

The pair were close. Just how close was revealed by Abramovich’s successful defence of a landmark high court claim brought by his fellow oligarch and mentor Boris Berezovsky in 2012. “Mr Abramovich enjoyed very good relations with President Putin and others in power at the Kremlin,” the judgement recorded. “It was also clear that Mr Abramovich had privileged access to President Putin, in the sense that he could arrange meetings and discuss matters with him.”

That somebody who had folded so neatly into the scrim of English life — celebrated on Stamford Bridge’s terraces to the tune of the Only Fools And Horses theme, lunching on his yacht with Sir Paul McCartney — was so close to a despot ought to have caused alarm. The press preferred to write about his fleet of supercars, his record-breaking transfer deals, and a floated West End musical about Abramovich’s life. The Premier League’s attitude was summed up by its then chief executive, Richard Scudamore: “Football is not a business but a sport dependent on
 speculation
 there’ll always be rich men ready to pour more money into clubs just to be part of the game.”

Abramovich was not on equal terms with Putin, even as he became lauded in London. He was a boyar to Putin’s Tsar. “I don’t think there is a percent of independence in him”, said one analyst who knew Abramovich in the Nineties. He was just like the others. The oligarchs’ power and privilege was theoretical, and utterly dependent on Putin. He could ruin them on a whim, as he did to Boris Berezovsky soon after he came to power. The truth was that the oligarchs were more like hostages than independent actors, more like courtiers than policy-makers, and more driven by venality than belief. Putin made them dependents, and walked them over a plank with a very deep drop.

Perhaps English politicians such as Johnson and Livingstone thought men like Abramovich could be moderated by the West, and could help to remake Russia in its image, as the academics thought was already happening. None chose to see the umbilical cords that ran back to the Kremlin. As the 2000s passed into the 2010s, it looked like the West was becoming as corrupt and irrational and nihilistic as Russia, rather than bringing Russia in line with its rules based system. “It was as if a virus,” wrote Catherine Belton in Putin’s People, “was being injected into it.”

Now the virus is burning itself out. Two weeks of war have forced British politicians to shift 30 years of oligarch-tickling policy. They would no longer be able to take whatever they wanted. Abramovich has been hit with sanctions ranging from asset freezes to travel bans. Johnson says there will be no “safe havens” for Putin allies, not even in London’s courts. Yesterday’s West End final edition of the Evening Standard: “ROMAN’S EMPIRE IN RUINS.” Discarded copies, with crumpled Abramovich faces staring blankly out from them drifted through Berkeley Square.

Given his wealth and notoriety, Abramovich barely left a paw print on English life. Yes, he increased the bank balance of butler class functionaries; yes he will most probably leave Chelsea, his plaything and ornament, tarnished. But his wallflower shyness and refusal to be interviewed make him a ghost. Just as he reportedly moved through his A-List New Years Eve parties on St Barts barely saying anything, Abramovich’s time in England will be defined by his silences not his actions. He will not be ruined though. So much of his wealth is stored off-shore in secret bank accounts that there will always be a fallback for him.

Londongrad will be rebranded, and its lackeys will find new clients. Money from Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and above all China will need to be laundered. Their tycoons will need crisis PR. Their powerful urges to litigate against each other will need to be satiated. Other Romans are here already. They keep buying football clubs. Not even war will break London’s filthy habits.


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R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago

…well written, and much to agree with. But I can’t help but point out that feeling uneasy about wealthy foreigners with different beliefs and values “colonising” (mostly) London…is not significantly different in origin to people in much less wealthy and influential parts of the Country feeling uneasy about poor foreigners with different beliefs and values “colonising” (mostly) post-industrial towns and cities in the Midlands and North. But the first is apparently now virtuous…although I’m assuming the second remains hateful and “waycistttt!”
Just a thought to puzzle over…

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

This is one of those articles where the subject matter doesn’t interest me that much but I’m impressed by the quality of the writing. The same is true of Park Macdougald’s article on Kerouac in this edition of Unherd.
I sometimes wonder where Unherd is headed as a publication, and feel it has lost some of the sharp relevance it had back in 2020, but the quality of the articles is consistently high. I’m not sure why anyone becomes a journalist these days. There are so many talented people already in the profession and stable career paths are now so few.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

As an aside, I cannot understand why there has been so little comment and criticism of what the UK and other European governments are doing in seizing/freezing the assets of the Russian billionaires.

Many of the Russian oligarchs are in effect Mafiosi lords, as are many others from other countries not least the blood and oil soaked Arab billionaires. However, seizing Russian individuals assets with the flourish of a ministers pen, without due process and law and a right to fair trial, is just plain wrong. If you do that you are absolutely no different from Putin, and in fact provide justification for Putin. The UK in particular should *not* be going anywhere near such behaviours.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Many of the Russian oligarchs are in effect Mafiosi lords
So what is wrong with seizing their assets? I would have thought that it was a good start; the government can then move on to the blood and oil soaked Arab billionaires.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

The problem is not seizing their assets. The problem is seizing their assets without law and due process. The government needs to present proof in a court. If even a single one of them is legit, how would we know they haven’t got caught in sweep unfairly?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Doesn’t bother at all, especially if said ill-gotten gains are used to restore Ukrainia.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

I don’t think your average British person is pleased at all about any of this but as usual we are sold out by our elites who are only too happy to stuff their pockets with dirty money- the House of Lords has I think done well out of the Russians.

It’s the hypocrisy of it all I can’t stand. And that goes for football fans too – see the recent purchase of Newcastle by a Saudi led consortium to see how willing the fans are to forgive despicable regimes if it gives them a chance to get their hands on some silverware.

John K
John K
2 years ago

All this seems incredibly remote yet tawdry seen from the rural parts of the UK. London is a different country, almost a different world, to most of us yet thinks it’s the centre of the universe.
It reminds me why having been born and brought up in London and having gone back there for a decade in the late 70s and 80s I left with no regrets and go back as infrequently as possible.
Basically, I care not whether London rebrands itself and goes back to sucking money from rich idiots.
Ditto why the Premier League holds little interest to me.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

The British Empire was created by courting and flattering wealthy rulers, while slowly taking control. It’s a special London expertise.
From the 90s onwards, bankers in London, New York and Europe, helped create the oligarchs, funding their purchase of Soviet assets on the cheap, and then helped them launder and relocate their wealth. The same courting and flattery brought them and their money to the UK, to join the traffic jams of Middle Eastern-owned Ferraris and Rolls Royces cruising through Kensington.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
2 years ago

Abramovich is Russian, rich and Jewish, Three strikes and you’re out.

Paul Larcey
Paul Larcey
2 years ago

Can we start naming and shaming the QCs and lawyers?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Larcey

Should we do that? And perhaps also their doctors and dentists, the school teachers of oligarchs children, their interior decorators, gardeners, chefs?
To start naming minor individuals making a living by practising a perfectly legal craft , whatsoever it may be, is a very dangerous and slippery slope. In fact especially dangerous when it comes to the law as we are imposing the rule of mob rather than process.

Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Indeed. Call it sanctions sans frontieres….the worst of both worlds

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

How are you quite so certain that everything these “city professionals” did was legal ? Did they really check where the money came from as they are often obliged to do ?
Remember also that professionals like lawyers also have professional standards and ethics to maintain. So “being legal” is not always good enough.
At a US company I worked for, they talked about the “newspaper test” – “How would you feel if your behaviour were published in a newspaper ?”. I suggest this is a quite reasonable test to apply here and that “being legal” does not absolve individuals from personal and professional responsibilities and ethics.
So I strongly disagree with you.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ve worked in and with some of these firms. The tests are extremely stringent, and those very few who abuse those professional standards are quickly discovered in my experience. Which is not to say there aren’t a few greedy types who might try to get round the rules, but firms will boot them out fast – the financial and reputational penalties are too great to do anything other.

Oddly enough we too had a similar test to yours – “Would you feel comfortable if this were reported in the Sunday Times Business News?” It’s a good test

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

Are there not shades of branding here similar to how Jews were represented as cosmopolitan capital in Hitler’s Germany?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Speak for yourself, I never loved him. Switched my allegiance from Chelsea to Ipswich Town, it was that bad.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago

“He [Abramovich] bought a Kensington townhouse for 90 million pounds, then plotted grandiose subterranean extensions to it.”
Before asking British people to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, could Boris Johnson’s government not have first commandeered the gigantic residences of Russian oligarchs in Londongrad and elsewhere to help house these people, and thereby set an example for the ‘little people’ to follow?

Tony Lee
Tony Lee
2 years ago

And not just London and not just Russian money. There is something peculiarly English about taking the moral high ground, long after the horse has bolted. Others may be entitled to view such behaviour as hypocritical, and rightly so. The ‘disease’ of the West appears to be that it will bloat itself on all manner of self-indulgence, and then pull the walls down on ourselves.n No wonder the East considers us ridiculous.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Capitalists will sell the rope used to hang them — old saying.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago

Good article..I do think that Francis Fukuyama’s idea, or as it became widely understood, led to a period where with Russia, and China, the West thought it had won, history had ended, and all we needed to do was *business* and trade with them and they would slowly become like us.
That attitude led to the very ‘relaxed’ set of judgements about both countries that only slowly even began change, as the article says, in the last decade or so.
The war in Ukraine has revealed the reality under the surface glitz of modern looking Moscow and the Oligarch’s parties that will probably require another multi year, if not multi decade, cold war to finally remove the lingering mentality of the USSR generations