Alexander Litvinenko killed in a spectacularly unusual way, poisoned with a tiny dose of the radioactive element polonium-210. But the routine of the former KGB agent on the day he ingested the stuff--a shuttle among elegant hotels, a sushi bar and exclusive offices in the heart of London--would be familiar to any number of affluent Russians who make the city their home. London is 31% foreign born, profiting from successive waves of the ultrarich--American bankers, Arab sheiks, Hong Kong Chinese. Now the Litvinenko case is making some Brits wonder whether the city has turned into Moscow-on-Thames, overly populated by secret agents and those who have struck it lucky at the roulette wheel of the former Soviet Union's rude, oil-soaked brand of capitalism.
"Londongrad" is abuzz with controversy in the wake of Litvinenko's ghoulish Nov. 23 demise and his deathbed accusation that his murder was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin's denial of involvement was complicated by the discovery that former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, a Putin critic, had fallen ill in Ireland the day after Litvinenko died. Gaidar has since tested negative for radiation poisoning. But Litvinenko's wife and an Italian security analyst who met him at the sushi restaurant the day he fell ill have tested positive for radioactivity.
London has no shortage of Russian heavyweights. Roman Abramovich, Britain's second richest person, made his killing in oil, bought the powerhouse Chelsea Football Club in 2003 and has spent so heavily on top soccer players that some team bosses complain they can't compete. Boris Berezovsky, a close ally of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, made his $1.5 billion mainly in cars and oil and was instrumental in making Putin the heir to Yeltsin. But his major preoccupation now is his loathing of the Russian President--one reason he employed Litvinenko, who accused Putin of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow to aid his presidential campaign and of ordering assassinations.
Most Russians in London are not nearly so rich or so flamboyant. They came to London precisely to ensure that they could live in peace and keep their money. They want a low profile.
Not superlow, though. To the best hotels, jewelry shops and fashion houses, the Russians are coming--and very welcome too. Wendy Lewis, a cosmetic-surgery consultant with lots of Russian clients, says, "I have one client, each time I see her, the fur that walks in the door costs more than my house." London boasts four Russian-language newspapers and a glossy Russian-language magazine, New Style, that advertises fat diamonds and kitchens in "walnut, white and platinum" and runs articles comparing the virtues of cars costing more than $200,000. Russians bought one-quarter of the central-London properties priced above $9 million that the real estate firm Savills sold this year.
Why cold, damp London for a second home? Unlike the U.S., Britain doesn't generally tax the income of resident foreigners unless they bring it into the country. Compared with the rest of Europe, Britain is seen as a country free of red tape, where it's easy to start a business. It's thought to be safe and cultured and a great place to educate children. Plus it's just four hours by air from Moscow.