Spy attack shines spotlight on 'Londongrad'


London (AFP)

Rich, glamorous, with hints of a murky past, London's Russian community has long been the subject of intrigue and is back in the spotlight after the brutal attack on a former spy.

Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are unconscious in hospital after being exposed to a nerve agent in his home town of Salisbury on Sunday.

The 66-year-old was one of a sizeable number of Russians living in Britain.

The community is concentrated in London, where 100,000 have made their home, more than in any other European capital.

They are lured by the language -- English is the most popular foreign language in Russia -- as well as the ease of doing business and of moving large sums of wealth.

"The United States is far away, if you continue some kind of activity related to Russia you better be in Britain," said Yuri Felshtinksy, a historian and friend of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent and Kremlin critic who was poisoned with a radioactive agent in London in 2006.

"It's easier to establish business in Britain, and it's easier to be rich in London... in France, you'd probably feel slightly uncomfortable driving an extremely expensive car," he told AFP.

Of course, not all Russians living in London are rich -- a 2015 series broadcast in Russia, which coined the phrase "Londongrad", sought to show the diversity of the community.

But those who have wealth often flaunt it, as shown in a recently reissued BBC documentary, "Rich, Russian and Living in London", which revealed the glamorous world of oligarchs and multi-millionaires.

Their activities in London revolve around the exclusive districts of Belgravia, Mayfair and Knightsbridge, with luxury department store Harrod's a popular spot to pick up groceries.

They mingle with models and descendents of the last tsar, and adopt the habits of the British aristocracy, with annual balls, private schools and polo matches.

- Darker side -

But the recent BBC series "McMafia", which was broadcast earlier this year, has imprinted onto many Britons' minds a darker image of the life of Russians in London.

It follows the fortunes of a well-spoken, British-educated banker who gets involved in his family's feuds back in Russia, and is swept up into a world of organised crime and money laundering.

London -- with its network of financiers, lawyers and prime investment property -- has long had a reputation as a place to move dirty cash, although the government has been clamping down.

The Russian embassy has condemned the "cliches the BBC is spreading".

But security minister Ben Wallace told the Times the series was "very close to the truth, the international nature of organised crime and the impunity with which some of these people operate".

Roman Borisovich, an anti-corruption campaigner, told AFP that London is attractive for its culture and education facilities, but "it's primarily because of the ease of acceptance of dirty money".

The Russian businessman, who organises "Kleptocracy Tours" past luxurious homes he claims have been bought with ill-gotten gains, said the community in London was once younger and more diverse.

This changed after the 1998 financial crisis in Russia, and "since then London has been populated by rich Russians, their families, their staff members, their entourage", he said.

The presence of so many former Russian spies in Britain -- more than in France or Italy -- can be explained by the tradition of counter-espionage in Britain and the United States, Felshtinsky said.

"In the end, if you're not arrested, not killed, and you have a chance to emigrate, you go to a country for which you're working," he said.