Press Article

Forget the prostitutes, the bling and the potatoes

There are only two types of Russian in Britain: the dodgy billionaire with his bad breath and the mini-skirted prostitute with her amazing legs. So bad has this popular perception become that the Russian Ambassador, Yuri Fedotov, has finally come out and accused the British police of treating Russian residents and tourists like criminals.

“It is hard to say,” Fedotov exclaims, “whether it is some kind of Russophobia or whether it is a particular case of xenophobia that is developing here.” He is not alone among Russians in thinking that.

Aliona Muchinskaya, founder of Red Square public relations in London, puts it thus: “It went from one extreme with everyone thinking that Muscovites spend their days picking potatoes in the fields, to people thinking that . . . all the women were here because they were prostitutes and all the men wore gold chains and came from mafia land.”

In reality, there are some 400,000 Russians living in Britain and, of these, the overwhelming majority are ordinary people who do not run brutal extortion rackets or sleep with unpleasant sweaty men for money.

Or rather, the majority of Russians here are not ordinary – they are extraordinary. They are the ones with the verve, courage and talent to leave their newly hijacked mother country to settle in a foreign city and make a go of it. And they despair of the typecasting that Abramovich and his ilk have fomented.

There are the dancers, the journalists, the cleaners, the restaurateurs, the rock bands, the builders, the doctors, the city analysts, the minicab drivers, the decorators . . . just about every sort of person you can imagine. And they do not all support Putin – any more than all Americans support Bush.

Two examples. My mother, who is herself half-Russian and an agent for classical musicians, used to represent a young fellow called Sergei. He is the best pianist I have ever heard. He is also totally skint. To combat this problem, he plays church halls with pompous fourteenth-rate English orchestras on wet Tuesdays. Or there’s Larissa, a friend, who fills in the time while waiting in dispiriting queues for awful modelling jobs (toothpaste, leg wax) by playing Scrabble in her third language. (She has to play with other European girls, incidentally, because the British models can’t spell.)

I have stayed in Russia a fair bit and I can confirm that the Russians don’t treat all British people as Hackett-wearing, lap-dancing junkies who can’t take their drink and start whining the minute anything scares them. So how about a bit of quid pro quo on the not-taking-stereotyping-seriously front? And if it’s better legs you fancy, you could always try exercise and eating less.

Edward Docx’s novel Self Help, set in St Petersburg and London, is published by Picador