‘The climate is disturbing’: Russians in London unsettled by Skripal affair

Escalating diplomatic crisis between UK and Russia sparks fears of Russophobia

In the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints in Knightsbridge, flickering candles lit up the faces of about 200 congregants this week as haunting prayers were sung to celebrate the mystery of holy unction.

Worshippers repeatedly made the sign of the cross and bowed as they sought healing of the soul and forgiveness of sins. Despite the cathedrals location in one of the most affluent parts of London, it felt far removed from the world of oligarchs, espionage and deadly nerve agents.

But the impact of the escalating diplomatic crisis between Russia and the UK over the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, has unsettled Russians living in London. While ramping up the rhetoric against Vladimir Putins regime, Britains foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, cautioned against an outbreak of Russophobia during an interview on Radio 4s Today programme.

Dormition
Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints in Knightsbridge. Photograph: Claire Doherty/SIPA USA/PA Images

At Dormition Cathedral, Father Joseph said the Russian community in the UK were definitely concerned. The climate of developing Russophobia in the media is disturbing. There seems to be a construction of a narrative into which a whole series of events are being made to form a negative picture of the Russian nation, the cleric said.

Quick guide

Timeline: the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal

1.30pm

Police have confirmed that Skripal and his daughter were in Salisbury city centre by 1.30pm. It is not known if they walked from his home or whether they drove or were driven in.

Between 1.30pm and around 4pm

Skripal and his daughter strolled around Salisbury and visited the Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the nearby Mill pub. They are believed to have been in Zizzi for about 40 minutes from 2.30pm.

3.47pm

A CCTV camera at Snap Fitness in Market Walk captured two people initially thought to be Skripal and his daughter. The woman appeared to be carrying a red handbag. Later it became clear the pair were probably not the Russian and his daughter. Police have been keen to speak to the couple.

4.03pm

The same camera caught personal trainer Freya Church. She turned left out of the gym and in front of her saw Skripal and the woman on a bench at the Maltings shopping centre. She said the woman had passed out and the man was behaving strangely. Church walked on.

4.08pm

Footage that emerged on Friday from a local business showed that people were still strolling casually through Market Walk.

Approx 4.15pm

A member of the public dialled 999. The Friday footage shows an emergency vehicle racing through the pedestrianised arcade shortly after 4.15pm. A paramedic also ran through. Police and paramedics worked on the couple at the scene for almost an hour in ordinary uniforms.

5.11pm

The woman was airlifted to hospital; Skripal was taken by road.

5.13pm

Images taken by a passerby show that officers were still clearly unaware of the severity of the situation. They did not have specialist protective clothing and members of the public also strolled nearby.

5.48pm

Police told Salisbury Journal they were investigating a possible drug-related incident. At about this time officers identified Skripal and his daughter and by Sunday evening they were at his home in normal uniform or street clothes. At some point DS Nick Bailey, now seriously ill in hospital, visited the Skripal house, but it is not known where he was contaminated.

Approx 8.20pm

Officers donned protective suits to examine the bench and surrounding areas.

By 9pm

Officers were hosing themselves down. It was not until the next day that a major incident was declared.

Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP

Everyone wants good relations between our countries. But, on a political level, its not going very well right now.

The cathedrals congregation is part of growing community of people from Russia and other Russian-speaking countries in the UK. A survey carried out last year by Zima magazine, aimed at Russians immigrants, estimated there were 766,000 people from Russia and former Soviet countries living or based for at least six months in the UK.

A tiny, tiny number are extremely rich, said Zimas editor, Katya Nikitina. There are a lot of students, and many professional people in finance and IT, or lawyers. There are also quite a lot of investors. The UKs controversial investor visa scheme offers individuals residency in exchange for investing 2m in British bonds or shares.

For Russians, the draws are multiple: good business and investment opportunities, including property, what is perceived as an excellent education system, extensive high-end shopping and a short four-hour flight back to Moscow.

The UK is first choice for the growing number of people leaving Russia, said Andrei Formin, who runs Banya No 1, Londons first Russian-style baths offering traditional birch twig beatings and honey and coffee scrubs. Its a comfortable life here, and there are lots of opportunities to do business you cant ignore that.

Banya
Banya No.1 Russian spa club. Photograph: Neil Mockford/GC Images

In the first three months of last year, the number of Russians looking to buy residential and commercial property in London shot up by 30% compared with the same period the previous year, according to the estate agents Knight Frank. The biggest demand was in central London, including Chelsea, Westminster, Kensington and Mayfair.

According to Masha Karp, a Russian author and journalist who has lived in the UK for 26 years, Russians can buy property in London and no one asks you questions about where the money comes from.

Some fear such laxity could now become a casualty of the deepening chill between London and Moscow, along with tighter visa requirements.

Im disappointed in the whole course of events that has unfolded, said Formin. It does affect the way people look at Russians. I dont know what the impact will be, but there will be one.

The way these problems are dealt with by governments creates problems for ordinary people. We will be the ones that are punished, and that will help with Russian propaganda.

According to Karp: Russian migrs are the victims, not the perpetrators, of these attacks. The perpetrators are the Russian secret services. Even the oligarchs are not to blame for poisoning people, although many are friends with Putin, its true.

The measures taken by the British government were possibly too little, too late, she added. I dont know if its enough to be a deterrent on forces in Russia which are pushing this aggressive behaviour.

But Russophobia? Im sure Britons understand the difference between the Russian people and the regime.

Aliona Muchinskaya, the chief executive of Red Square, a public relations firm catering to the UK Russian community, criticised both countries handling of the Skripal crisis.

They are as bad as each other, she said. Britain has just jumped to accusations without solid evidence. Theresa May has lashed out. And Russias handling of the situation has not been diplomatic at all.

Both sides need to have cool heads and remember their actions have an impact on Russians in the UK.

Muchinskaya said popular stereotypes of Russians were mistaken. When I first came to the UK in 1991, I met people who couldnt believe I wasnt wearing a shawl and picking potatoes in a field, and that we didnt have bears walking up and down the streets of Moscow.

Ive spent 27 years making English friends and I hope Ive taught them quite a lot about Russia. But there are people who now think were all oligarchs, with poison hidden in our pockets.

She had not been shocked by the attack on the Skripals. These days you dont get shocked by anything, she said.

But people shouldnt mix reality with what they see on TV shows or in the movies. After all, are all Italians in the mafia? The trouble is people believe whats in the media more than what they see in real life.

At the Dormition Cathedral, at the end of the two-hour holy unction service, people filed out into the late winter evening, with women unwinding scarves covering their hair. This is my home now, said Anastasia, who had come to the UK with her husband. But Im not worried. We Russians are very strong. This is not a big problem for us.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/16/russians-in-london-unsettled-by-skripal-affair-diplomatic-crisis-russophobia

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