How London Became the Oligarchical Cesspool of "Londongrad"Breaking News
tags: British history, Russia, capitalism, London, Oligarchy, financial crimes, Money Laundering
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill and The Strange Death of Tory England.
Last Thursday evening, March 10, Chelsea soccer club played away against Norwich City. It was a one-sided game: Chelsea are a very strong team, lying third in the English Premier League behind Manchester City and Liverpool. Norwich languish at the foot of the table, almost certain to be relegated to the division below, and Chelsea’s 3–1 win was no surprise.
But what the game will be remembered for more than the score was that a good number of Chelsea fans had made the 120-mile journey from west London to the Carrow Road stadium, where they chanted “Abramovich,” the name of their hero. Roman Abramovich is one of the more notable Russian “oligarchs” (and who ever thought up that name? As in “Ali Baba and the Forty Oligarchs”). That is, he’s one of the group of Russians who together and in blatantly corrupt fashion looted their country in the 1990s amid the wreckage of the Soviet Union, making colossal fortunes by acquiring monopolistic control of oil, gas, iron, and the other natural resources that are just about all the Russian economy consists of. And following the assault on Ukraine by Abramovich’s friend Vladimir Putin, the Chelsea fans’ hero had just been sanctioned by the British government, along with several of his compatriots whose international assets are now frozen.
Who these people were and how they had made their money came into the category coined by the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole. Riffing on Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns,” O’Toole has added that there are also “unknown knowns.” He means disgraceful things that are hiding in plain sight, obvious to anyone who looked hard. In his own country, that included the fact that Ireland had the greediest bankers and the most corrupt politicians in Western Europe, not to mention the most powerful and repressive Catholic Church.
In the same way, we in England could know very well who and what the oligarchs were, but we chose to unknow it while they swarmed into “Londongrad,” as our capital has been sardonically named. They didn’t force their way in. We begged them to come; we fawned and groveled. While we slammed the door on tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, up to and including desperate refugees from Ukraine this month, both Conservative and Labour governments offered “golden visas” to anyone who would invest enough of his somehow-gotten gains in England and buy the place up.
So they did. Oliver Bullough has described how Londongrad became the capital of Moneyland, the title of his riveting book that preceded his latest, Butler to the World. This relates how the bankers, accountants, and lawyers of the City of London have done everything they could to enable rich foreigners, notably but not only Russians, to come here and make London the money-laundering capital of the world. Russians have bought countless hugely expensive houses across London, from Belgravia to Highgate: truly countless, since feeble English laws allow property to be owned anonymously by shell companies, and nobody can really say who owns what.
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