Press Article

Want the Londongrad lifestyles


MARINA Starkova is looking for a Scottish castle. It has to be privately owned (preferably by the family that built it), extremely old and, if possible, haunted. It will also need to offer an exceptionally high level of luxury for a group of people who want to stay for a few days during the summer.

The proposed house guests are rather demanding, accustomed to the best of everything. They will fly in by private jet and transfer to a helicopter which will convey them around the Highlands to enjoy what Marina calls "the Scottish experience".

For this, and a few nights in a proper castle, the group is paying Pounds 250,000.

They can afford it. They are all Russiansmembers of Moscow's new business elite. They, and their fellow oligarchs, entrepreneurs and financiers, have made millions ( perhaps billions) in Russia's post- Soviet dash for wealth and they are spending like nothing seen since the Middle East oil boom.

And most of the spending is being done here in London. Marina Starkova is at the forefront of an industry which, in the past few years, has sprung up around a new Russian craze for everything British.

She and her partner, Aliona Muchinskaya, founded their company, Red Square Projects, to cater for a phenomenon which this week led Forbes, the American business magazine, to dub the capital "Londongrad".

"There is hardly a Russian with money who doesn't want to come here, own a house here, send their children to school here or simply visit, do business and have a good time," Marina said. She should know. She does what she describes as "lifestyle management" for Russians who come to London.

"They adore London life," said the 37-year-old Muscovite, who first came to London as a TV sports commentator.

"The Soviets wiped out much of Russian culture and history, but here it is everywhere. It could be tea at Claridges or simply shopping. I took a client to Berry Bros and Rudd, the St James's wine merchant, to buy a bottle of port recently. It cost him Pounds 900."

Her lifestyle management services cost from Pounds 150 an hour, but money is never a problem. Last month, when Mayor Ken Livingstone was among British politicians to address a conference of Russian business leaders in Westminster, he stressed that the new wave of moneyed Russians was especially welcome for the business it brought to the capital.

He didn't know the half of it. Later, a group of delegates decided they would have a dinner party: "They asked us to organise it," Marina said. "They wanted vintage Dom Perignon, the finest cognac at Pounds 300 a bottle and a five-star menu. And they wanted Liza Minnelli to sing. We flew her in from the States and she sang for an hour."

The dinner was held in Spencer House, the magnificent 18th- century home of an ancestor of Diana, the late Princess of Wales, in rooms used by the government and foreign heads of state to entertain the Queen. The bill is being kept secret, but there was unlikely to have been much change out of Pounds 500,000.

We have become accustomed to the presence of such fabulously wealthy individuals as Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, and the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. But new names are arriving almost daily.

In her penthouse in St John's Wood, Alsou Safina takes in a view that includes Lord's cricket ground and a huge swathe of north London. Alsou, 22, is a superstar in Russia where her records sell in the millions.

But she has made London her home: "I love it here," she said. "I talk to my parents on the phone every day. They know I'm at home here and nothing threatens me." That, of course, is an important consideration for many rich Russians. Alsou's father is Ralif Safin, a founder of one of Russia's biggest oil companies, Lukoil. Mr Safin also owns property here, but he keeps the location secret. He places a very high premium on personal security, having made his fortune during the capitalist years of recent Russian history. Mr Safin, 51, was identified two years ago as a possible bidder for Manchester United. He instructed bankers in the City, but no bid was made. It is believed, however, that he still has ambitions to own a British football club.

Another Russian with property and business interests in London is the intriguing Umar Dzhabrailov, a Chechen who has become one of the most powerful figures in Moscow. Mr Dzhabrailov is a frequent escort and ardent admirer of the supermodel Naomi Campbell. He is also believed to be the real-life model for the ruthless Chechen godfather in Frederick Forsyth's novel, Icon.

MR Dzhabrailov has been falsely accused of being involved in some of Moscow's murkier events, including the machinegun hit on his former US business partner and an assassination attempt on Moscow's deputy mayor.

He laughed off these false allegations and told me they were concocted by his political enemies. In London, of course, he has no enemies and that is one of the city's main attractions for many newly rich Russians. They also see citizenship as one of the best investments they can make.