Londongrad is an up to the minute account of the Russian Invasion, one of the many names given to the influx of moneyed “New Russians” into the United Kingdom, primarily London, hence the name. It’s also a thorough, extensive (as far as possible in view of tight, constant security surrounding them), well-researched look into their lives, their vanities and their frailties, and their run-ins with the man who was to become their nemesis, Vladimir Putin. It’s a story of how they dodged the Russian tax and legal authorities, and how some have paid the price. And it’s a story of how one man came to control billions of dollars worth of industry, property and investments on their behalf, and paid the ultimate price. It’s also a story about a few who got the goldmine, but then got the shaft.
Londongrad is primarily the story just four of these oligarchs (although it’s sometimes difficult to limit to those four): Boris Berezovsky, Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Oleg Deripaska. It’s a story of how these four, probably the best known to the Western press, outsmarted, outfoxed and outmaneuvered their rivals, and how they’re still attempting to keep out of the clutches of former Russian president Vladimir Putin and his successor. It also touches on the events surrounding the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who had history with some of the major players, and Stephen Curtis, who was lawyer to many of England’s moneyed Russians, and who all but predicted his own death. Only one week before a helicopter crash killed Curtis, he’d told a close friend, “If anything happens to me in the next few weeks, it will not be an accident.”
The influx of Russians was actually several influxes, and is, to a significantly lesser extent, still ongoing. While there have been stages of the influx, the end result is still the same: Moneyed Russians scooping up desirable properties, oftentimes at cut-throat prices, where they will simply outbid everybody else just because they can, and with little or no regard of the true, intrinsic value of the property.
These New Russians, or oligarchs, as they’re often called, are viewed both with awe and disdain by the British and the world, which seems to bother them little, if at all. The attraction is also, as a friend of mine said, like the Chicago of 1929 and the 1930s, with Al Capone and Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables” going head to head. The Chicago Mob was feared, respected and lionized. Most people wouldn’t dare cross them or be caught prying into the Mob’s private affairs, but those same people hung on ever news article, every hint of gossip, every nuance, about them.
The American equivalent would be movie stars, sports stars and some musicians, although in most cases these categories of people move into the moneyed ranks at a much younger age than the Russians have. Also, they’re mostly “only” millionaires, but with the oligarchs, we’re talking about billionaires!
One of the first sentences in the teaser accompanying this book says: “Following the collapse of communism a group of Russian oligarchs stripped Russia of its wealth. In 2004 a World Bank report showed that 30 individuals controlled 40% of the $225 billion output of the Russian economy.”
Think about that: 40% of $225 billion owned by 30 people. If split evenly, that’s roughly $3 billion per person. Now think what just one billion dollars can buy you. Most of us can’t think that far. Think of a Maybach, which is one of the most expensive cars in the world, running around $300k per copy for the “stripped-down” version. With just one billion dollars, you could buy 3,333 of ‘em! Think of a million-dollar home; now think of a thousand million-dollar homes. And that’s with just one of those three billion dollars lining your wallet.
This book also covers to some degree the insider gossip; some London geography, particularly the neighborhoods the Russians are scooping up; and some people, both Russian and British, who interact with the oligarchs and their families from time to time.
Londongrad also gives readers an otherwise downplayed (especially in the US) view of how both Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin “bought,” with orchestration and funding by the oligarchs, their presidential elections. [One of the reasons these events were downplayed in the US was because much of the planning and the questionable tactics used were thought up and implemented by a team of Americans brought in to do just that.) The story also tells us how Yeltsin gave away even more of Russia’s riches, those that hadn’t already been given previously to oligarchs, while Putin turned out to be something else entirely.
A gripping, compelling read that will keep you entertained, disgusted and amused throughout.