Amongst the NoblemenHow Russian Money Bought the British Class System
Charlotte Robinson explores the ways in which oligarchs have managed to embed themselves in the aristocracy
Russian oligarchs serve at the grace of their Tsar, Vladimir Putin. In most cases, the oligarchs’ wealth and status were bequeathed to them by Putin and, consequently, could be taken away just as easily. This is an environment that breeds insecurity, paranoia, and doubt.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the UK, and specifically London, have become a shelter for the paranoid masses. Since the 1990s, it has provided the stability they crave. The UK property market, its judicial institutions, and its education system have provided fertile ground for the blossoming of the Russian oligarchy.
In an attempt to legitimise their standing, they integrate with the upper echelons of British society and culture. Here, they take refuge in the oldest and most entrenched class system in the world, where they can hide among the aristocracy, offering a soft-power buffer between them, and the cut-throat reality of Putin’s regime.
And what better protection than a peerage?
In December 2020, the 40-year-old, Russian-born Evgeny Lebedev was appointed to the House of Lords, for his ‘philanthropy’ and ‘services to the media’. An Instagram post from his personal account accompanied the occasion – the caption read: “Muzhik [Russian peasant] amongst the noblemen”.
For Lebedev, proprietor of both the Evening Standard and The Independent, and son of billionaire former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev, the term Muzhik is a stretch. In fact, there is no relationship that better illustrates the cozy ties between the British ruling class and Russian oligarchs, than that of the Old Etonian Boris Johnson appointing the Russian scion to the House of Lords.
But Johnson’s decision was not without controversy. Byline Times reported back in 2020 that the Prime Minister had ignored the advice of the intelligence services – that Lebedev was a security risk – and took action to secure the media baron a peerage regardless.
Speaking to Byline Times, Thomas Mayne, a visiting fellow to Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, described Johnson’s decision as: “Ridiculous and shortsighted”.
“When you have somebody who is the son of a KGB agent, who retains Russian citizenship, there is surely a possibility that his Russian links could be used to put pressure on him. Could the Kremlin put pressure on him? Threaten him if he doesn’t behave accordingly?
“The British security services had concerns going back to when Boris Johnson was going to his parties in Europe. And questions are being asked again now around what was Johnson’s role in making Lebedev a Lord, questions which I think are warranted – I don’t think this was fully fleshed out at the time.”
Evgeny Lebedev, now Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, used a lengthy editorial in the Evening Standard last week to maintain that: “I am not a security risk to this country, which I love. My father a long time ago was a foreign intelligence agent of the KGB, but I am not some agent of Russia.”
In addition to his much-vaunted philanthropic endeavors, Lebedev’s Instagram exhibits the high-profile friendships he enjoys with Elton John, Prince William, Anna Wintour, and raft of other British celebrities. Between his elite social circle, the peerage, and his ownership of two British newspapers, Lebedev must feel that he has played the British class system, and won.
Lebedev is the first and only Russian-born peer – but he is not the first Lord with links to Russia.
According to the ‘Russia Report’, published by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in July 2020, “It is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state – these relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.”
Lord Mervyn Davies of Abersoch is chairman of LetterOne, an investment business founded by the sanctioned oligarch Mikhail Fridman, and Lord Nicholas Fairfax of Cameron is a director of Sovcomflot, a state-owned Russian shipping firm.
Some have recently broken their Russian ties: Lord Robert Skidelsky as non-executive director of the oil refining company Russneft, Lord Frederick Posonby of Shulbredethe as chairman of Eastib Holding and its Russian subsidiary RNG (although its website states that he hopes to return when the situation normalises), and Lord Greg Barker, who the Guardian revealed attended COP26 as part of the Russian Federation party, as executive chairman of En+ (founded by the sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska).
Then there’s Lord Peter Mandelson, who holidayed on the yacht of Russia’s former richest man, Oleg Deripaska, as well as Lord Peter Goldsmith, whose law firm states several occasions on which he represented the Russian Federation.
Given the supposed exclusivity of the British aristocracy, it’s interesting to observe its embrace of Russia – but such is the power of money.
Like many other populations, Ukrainian refugees are faced with the hostility of the British immigration system, while wealthy international investors are given a golden ticket. In the British class system, fairness is subsumed to money and privilege.
The Royal Family may not be available for 30th Birthday parties and bat mitzvahs, but it turns out they can be hired for a price. In 2021, The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches reported that Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s cousin, had been filmed at a meeting telling undercover reporters he could be hired for a fee to represent the Kremlin.
Prince Michael recently returned his ‘Order of Friendship’ award, one of the Kremlin’s highest honours, which was presented to him by the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009. He has Russian ancestry, but this doesn’t negate the fact that a member of the British Royal Family is seen as a ‘friend’ to the Kremlin, and has seemingly monetised his proximity to Putin’s circle.
Wealthy Russians have extended their influence into every area of British society, but many of these connections remain concealed. The aforementioned ISC report stated that their money was: “Invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment. In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”
The release of the report was stalled, raising eyebrows, and yet in its redacted form, it contained very little actual evidence – indicating the amount left to uncover.
Russian money, its provenance largely unknown, has permeated all parts of British society – academia, cultural institutions, politics, and finance. Whilst it has developed ties with many other countries, nowhere is quite as entwined as the UK. Our royalty, legislature, and aristocracy all welcome oligarchs with open arms; in turn potentially exposing British society to infiltration by a hostile Russian premier, waging war on European soil.
The inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Perhaps if there was a British equivalent in the Port of Dover, it would offer a welcome to the power-hungry, the wealthy, and those ready to open their wallets.
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