We’re at the Park Lane Hotel at the absolute height of the Russian Season — the Seasonski if you like — during which preened oligarchs congregate to drink Stolichnaya Elit and eat foie gras surrounded by their ravishing wives and daughters.But what’s this? A short vole-like man scuttles across the carpeted foyer.
“Oh, God. Totally Russian,” drawls a tall blonde bilingual beauty, rolling her eyes. To me the man looks just like a short, vole-like Englishman. How can she tell he’s not? “This gentleman is soooo completely Russian,” says Katya, the blonde, wrinkling her pretty nose. “It’s his hair, his face, the expression on his face. I don’t know how to explain it.”
We try to analyse our rodent-like quarry in greater depth. He is short, balding and wearing an unflattering dark suit. He is furtive-looking. Not immediately rich. But what about this man is typically Russian?
“The way he’s bald. He’s bald in a different way from how an English person would be bald,” Katya decides. “He’s pretending not to be bald [this is an allusion to the rodent’s only partially successful comb-over]. He is bald in a typically Russian way!”
Are Russian men different from British men on the inside too?
“Oh, God!” says Katya who decided in the end to marry a Brit. “Russian men are absolutely fascinating. They’re men of extremes. If they love you, they love you for ever. They like magic, fantasy, romance, champagne. And they always find the right words. If you want true romance, go out with a Russian. But if you want a good marriage, find an Englishman.”
But what if you want to marry a billionaire? The richest men in Britain are rarely British these days. The wealthiest Englishman, the Duke of Westminster, is worth £6.5 billion, while Philip Green is said to have made around £5 billion. Britain’s richest man is not Russian, he is the Indian-born steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, worth almost £15 billion. But not far behind is the 39-year-old Siberian, Roman Abramovich, orphan and high-school drop out turned Russia’s richest billionaire, now worth just shy of £11 billion.
Abramovich isn’t here tonight but the family of his former mentor and compatriot, Boris Berezovsky (estimated worth £800 million), sit at a table sipping lobster and langoustine velouté. They are here because Berezovsky, a former professor of maths, somehow amassed his fortune acquiring lucrative stakes in Russian oil, car and media industries in the 1990s before selling them at a vast profit. “Somehow” is a word often darkly associated with rich Russians in their adopted country of choice, England. “I love English people,” Katya says. “They’re the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
So here’s Tatiana, the striking wife of an oil dealer and neighbour of Mittal’s on The Bishop’s Avenue, where houses cost a minimum of £5 million. Over there is Irina, a more earthy beauty and wife of the Russian finance minister, Alexei Kudrin. In a way, Kudrin is the Russian equivalent of Gordon Brown although Gordon Brown — salary: £135,337 a year — has never sat on the board of two state-controlled Russian power companies. Perhaps that’s why Gordon Brown isn’t married to a conspicuously attractive woman with a serious cleavage and hair down to her waist.
But it was at Prudence’s invitation that the Russians are here in this room in the first place, having followed the example set by Margaret Thatcher’s Government in the 1980s and turned Britain into a virtual tax haven for the super-rich. The “non-domiciled” tax rule exempts those who have earned their money abroad from paying tax on it. If you are one of the estimated 500 in the world who now have assets of more than £162 million, Britain is an obvious choice. For all their talk of English culture and the lovely people, super-rich Russians choose London over Paris or New York for economic reasons. One thousand Russian millionaires are now thought to live here.
So when Russians talk about The Season they don’t mean watching a boat race down the Volga. They mean Ascot through to Cowes with the odd fundraiser thrown in. Charity, in a former Communist state, never begins at home. Charity begins at places such as the Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly, where guests pay £250 a ticket to help to support Russian orphanages. By the end of the evening an impressive (sic) £26,000 has been raised.
The current vogue among rich fashionable Russian women, I’d been told, is for understated dress, “You know, a little black Prada number that looks like it’s made on a conveyor belt”. This may have something to do with the occasionally humiliating, often invisible, snobbery of high-end Brits. In Britain, where jeans and trainers have become mandatory even at the theatre, Russians felt shamed by their fur coats and weakness for flash.
“They feel an inferiority — they didn’t know anything about rules,” says Elena, who has lived in Britain for 15 years. “English people are more discreet. Russian people’s emotions are out straight away. English people are more reserved, not quite so exposed, perhaps more reliable. With English people emotions are like an illness.”
Russians, are show-offs?
Like the Italians, then.
“Not like the Italians. The Italians are like Georgians: all talk and nothing ever happens.”
The dress-down rule only half applies at the Park Lane Hotel, where everybody else is Russian too so it’s only natural to want to push the boat out. Anyone with breasts and hips — that’s everybody who hasn’t been roped in from the Maryinsky Ballet — have them defying gravity from beneath elaborate jewellery, or tightly swaddled in metres of silk and sequins. The look — French manicures, hairdos and lashings of killer red — is what you might call Melodramatic Call Girl if you were the kind of person who attended only British garden parties, where the women are bony and primary colours are banned. It’s a look that rather grows on me, it being daring and fun and somewhat amoral.
“Your dress, it’s over the top baroque!” smarms a photographer at beautiful Tatiana, glittering in pearls and a halter-necked floor-length dress.
“It’s Cavalli. Russians love Roberto Cavalli. Gabbana, Cavalli, Versace . . .” She reels them vaguely off the top of her head.
Already at 27 Tatiana has three children all of whom are being sent to British schools. She doesn’t dare bring them up in Russia because of the risk of kidnapping. “I think sometimes it’s not very patriotic to leave the country,” she says. “I am a really patriotic person. But when the plane lands in London it is a relief.” Even over here the family employs bodyguards.
If you’re hoping that because Tatiana is rich and beautiful, she can but be as thick as a brick, note that her bedtime reading is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin biography. Dilyara, a 22-year-old black-haired, pale-skinned Snow White from Togliatti (where Ladas are made) is reading Dumas in English translation. Before that she finished Crime and Punishment for the third time. She has strong views on Chekhov and ticks me off for asking which of his short stories she prefers: “It’s not a favourite, it’s a matter of pleasure!” What are Richard Branson’s children reading, I wonder, as Dilyara ponders the theme of sacrifice in Chekhov’s work. What are Tina Green’s views on Shakespeare or Dickens or Waugh. Then again, Mr Bean seems to be every Russian’s favourite film.
“It is very important in Russia to look good if you are a woman,” says Marina Boldenkova, an immaculate blonde Russian journalist with plucked eyebrows. “You try to be well dressed. Even on the street there is a lot of competition between Russian women. Russian women are looking for rich husbands.”
And once she’s got him, a Russian woman knows how to keep him, says her colleague, Nicholas Ageyev. Unlike English women. “Russian women respect men more than English women.”
What’s wrong with English women? “They’re too independent.”
What’s wrong with independent?
“A Russian woman is always pretending to be one step down from her husband. Russian women are charming, much more charming that English women.”
“English people are quite insincere,” chips in Marina. “When they smile you’re not sure if it’s a sincere smile. What we do in Russia, we can open our hearts. We are more sincere in expressing our thoughts and feelings. If our friends are hurt, we suffer with them.”
Is it the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, revolutions, autocracy, communism, poverty? Marina doesn’t know.
Nor does she know where all the money comes from; that’s what so irks the English. Ask any rich Russian what he does for a living and he opaquely replies: “Byusnismyan.”
In England we have something called middle-class guilt. Does it exist in Russia?
“We don’t have middle class.”
Oligarch-class guilt, then. Does it exist?
Nicholas interjects, surmising neatly: “Poor people think they stole it but rich people don’t think so.”
Russia’s 100 richest people have a combined wealth equal to one quarter of its GDP. Interesting how many fervent capitalists were born behind the Iron Curtain. They want memberships to private nightclubs and lots of beautiful cars with blacked-out windows. They want to “hobnob with the members of European royal families, British aristocracy and Russian celebrities over a sumptuous four-course dinner”, so the bumf for our Park Lane evening tells us. What they don’t want to do is divide their cash out among the less privileged. But then nor does the Duke of Westminster.
Nicholas says: “As a Russian you never know what’s going to happen the next day. That unfortunately comes across negatively. They’re not secure with their wealth.”
Marina puts it another way: “They’re just enjoying their lives, that’s it.”