New capitalists' head for the Moscow borough of London
By Terry Kirby Chief Reporter08 February 2003
Once, Lenin and Trotsky arrived as exiles, to plot in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Later, White Russians fled to London from the Bolshevik revolution. After the downfall of Communism, the "new capitalists" of Moscow and St Petersburg bought into the property market, and mafia gangs sought control of the capital's drugs and vice rackets.
Now a new wave of Russians has arrived. Bright, businesslike and aspirational, they revel in London's cultural and social life, want the best schools for their children and seek the ultimate goal: British citizenship. The Russian middle classes are here.
The thriving Russian community in London now numbers at least 200,000, far more if Georgians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other former Soviet bloc countries are included. They have three newspapers, a radio station and an orchestra as well as websites, special nights at discos and scores of restaurants, shops and businesses to serve them.
And although Russian arts companies and performers such as the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets have always visited London, other artists are regularly on show, from dance troupes to stand-up comedians. Michael Zhavanetskiy, known as Russia's Billy Connolly, will be arriving soon and the highly regarded but relatively unknown Abalian Choir from St Petersburg is to appear in the autumn. Britain seems to like the Russians, too.
Not only are there warm relations between Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin, but Britain has streamlined visa procedures at the Moscow embassy, which led to a 13 per cent increase in applications. In 1991, just one person from Russia was granted British citizenship. Ten years later the figure had risen to 790, among the highest for any country, with most of the increase in the previous two years.
Although the new Russians cannot be pigeonholed into one particular type, no one talks of Gucci loafer-clad gangsters flashing gold watches any more. Many work in banking or commerce for established companies with Russian links or live in London to study. Many have set up businesses, often in the media or similar professions. Some find the ideal climate for their entrepreneurial skills.
Ten years ago, Natasha Chouvaeva, 36, arrived from the closed Soviet-era town of Gorki, where her working-class parents did manual jobs. Her husband, Yevgeny, was with her, working for what was then a fledgling Ukrainian bank. Mrs Chouvaeva was a translator until she had saved enough money. In 1994 she started a newspaper to serve the growing Russian community. So the London Courier was born.
It is now published twice monthly from offices in Edgware, employs several full-time staff, has a circulation of 15,000, with a mixture of Russian and international news and the activities of the expatriate community. It has advertisements for a wide range of Russian and Russian-speaking businesses, from travel agents to language schools. Her husband runs the technical side of the business.
Mrs Chouvaeva says: "I think we are typical of the new Russians here. They are much more settled and middle-class, and they come here because they like Britain and its history and want a decent standard of living. For many, British citizenship is the ultimate goal."
Like many Russians, the couple, who now live in the Hertfordshire commuter belt, are educating their six-year old daughter, Marie, at a local independent school. "Russians like the British education system and will spend their last penny to get the best for their children." Paradoxically, she said, many sought the same high educational standards that once prevailed during the old, Soviet-era days.
Although the couple are proud to be Russian and proud of their cultural heritage, like many in their community, they are not inward-looking and sit easily between both cultures. They are just as likely to be found at an English social or cultural event as a Russian one; they eat mostly French-style at home, but will buy Russian food for special occasions. And they are worried Marie does not speak enough Russian.
Mrs Chouvaeva has not been back to visit Gorki, although her parents, now retired, have visited them. "They didn't understand why I am here. But I told them I couldn't do what I am doing in Russia."
The couple have recently published the second edition of The Russian Directory, a glossy guide to Russian businesses and services in London packed with advertisements for designer goods and private schools, and helped form the Russian British Cultural Association to help promote Russian performing artists in London.
Also involved in the association is Olga Balakleets, a pianist, who began the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London some years ago. She finds the number of Russian musicians in London has grown to a point where they can often drop the "chamber" bit. "Being able to perform as a full orchestra demonstrates the size of the Russian community in London," she says. "But we perform for Russians and British people."
London's newer arrivals appear to have meshed easily with the older, more established emigre community of Russians and residual monarchists, international socialites and businessmen.
Count Andrei Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, a relative of Leo Tolstoy, a Russian events organiser and long-time pillar of the older community, welcomes the arrivals. "It's a very, very active group of middle-class business people."
They have boosted the congregation at the recently built cathedral in Chiswick of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that split away in 1917. Although it was largely completed and has been used for worship since 1998, work on the internal decoration is still continuing. Count Andrei, who is in charge of fund-raising for the church, says: "Although the church was planned in the early Eighties, long before the collapse of Communism, most people who worship there now, alongside the last vestiges of the old White Russian community, are the arrivals."
Someone who sees it from all sides is Aliona Muchinskaya, who arrived in Britain as a 19-year-old correspondent for Moscow Komsomoletz, organ of the Moscow Community Party's youth league. Now 31, she runs Red Square PR (motto: "It's hip to be Square") from her Muswell Hill home, deep in the heart of middle-class north London. She married a Briton and they have a four-year-old son at a nursery school. She still writes for Russian papers and is also involved with First Russian Radio, said to be London's only Russian radio station, which broadcasts for an hour each day, a mixture of music, news, sport and serious interviews.
Although the image is trendy public relations, Red Square has been involved in publicity for events involving Faberge, the Tsarist-era jewellers, as well as promoting last year's Russian Stand-up Comedy Festival. She says: "When I first came here I loved London. I though it was the most fantastic place and even the burger bars I thought were wonderful, because we had nothing like that in Moscow.
"Now many of my Russian friends work in the city, in banking or stockbroking. When they go out they are just as likely to go to a normal nightclub, like Chinawhite, as they are to go to a Russian restaurant. I love the diversity of culture and the education; my son knows a thousand times more things than I did when I was four. For a person with brains and ambition, London is a great place to be."