But early last week that quiet was shattered by black-clad activists who occupied the creamy-white mansion at No. 5 and hung protest banners from its front balcony. They proclaimed that they were seizing the house, which reportedly belongs to a Kremlin-allied aluminum magnate named Oleg Deripaska, on behalf of Ukrainian refugees.
The police soon arrived to evict them, in a show of force that struck many observers as ironic. “There must be 20 police officers outside the Belgrave Square property occupied by anarchists, which is I reckon approximately 20 more than ever checked the provenance of the money that bought it,” Oliver Bullough, a British author and journalist known for his investigations into corruption, wrote on Twitter.
The protest was an unusually public outburst of a long-simmering fight over London’s status as a place where people like Deripaska, who acquired vast wealth via their relationships with corrupt post-Soviet governments, could launder their money and reputations without encountering inconvenient scrutiny from government regulators.
For years, anti-corruption experts have warned that accepting money from these individuals, often referred to as “kleptocrats,” threatened British democracy and supported hostile autocratic regimes abroad, including the one in Russia. But many of London’s law firms, property agents, charitable foundations and politicians welcomed the kleptocrats with open arms.
Now, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that has changed. Public opinion has hardened against anyone associated with Putin. The British government is cracking down, imposing sanctions on Deripaska, along with hundreds of others it described as oligarchs, political allies or propagandists for Putin, in an effort to isolate the Russian president from elite support.
But, experts say, it may be too little, too late.
‘Ten years ago, it was a different situation’
Trying to parse the relationships between Britain’s elite and Russian oligarchs, or between those oligarchs and the Kremlin, can feel a little bit like staring at a pointillist painting.
Up close, any single relationship or contact can seem ambiguous. British politicians, businesses and charities tend to insist that their contacts with wealthy Russians are merely business transactions or personal friendships. And Russian elites in London often bristle at claims that they might act on behalf of the Kremlin. In many cases, such defenses are probably true.