Thanks to notoriously strict libel laws in the UK and powerful image campaigns, the superrich not only silence researchers and the media, but also shape attitudes on the street. Using the example of two Russians, Elisabeth Schimpfössl, author of “Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie” (OUP 2018), traces the dynamics of this process.
Nobody else has done as good a job at rising and shining in British society as Sir Leonid Blavatnik, knighted by the Queen in 2016 for his philanthropic work after he donated at least £125 million to art and education. A friend of mine calculated the other day that, if you belonged to the poorest ten percent of British society and gave away £75 of your total wealth, you also, in theory, might deserve a knighthood. And the wealthier you get, the lighter the burden of such charity can be (particularly if the donations are tax deductible).
Blavatnik has done well in every respect. Born in the Soviet Union, he left the country with his parents in the late 1970s, was educated in the States, returned to his roots to join the great privatisation orgy of the 1990s, and, more quickly than most, he disposed of all his Russian assets. This gave him ample room to focus on what he likes. His tastes are diverse, reaching from the magnificent Soviet Art exhibition at the Royal Academy, which he sponsored, to financially supporting Donald Trump’s inauguration. His main business venture is Warner Brothers Sound.
Karl Marx versus Warner Brothers
With its headquarters in the heart of Soho, on Dean Street, Warner Brothers Sound occupies a 1960s office. This global powerhouse in the industry stands proudly opposite the Quo Vadis restaurant, once a squalid tenement housing London’s most notorious revolutionary, none other than Karl Marx. He lived his worst years in Dean Street, between 1850 and 1856, where three of his children died, one after another.
The most varied types of people appreciate this historical spot. In the last five years, every Sunday morning, and occasionally when there were school tours mid-week, the Karl Marx walking tour would stand in front of Sir Leonid’s headquarters, explaining Marx’s economic doctrines and linking these theories to the grotesque inequalities of our time.
One Sunday morning last spring, the tour guide and his audience were ordered to move along by Warner Bros staff, who claimed this spot as private land. In response, Marxist tourists, local Labour Party activists and passing citizens demanded their right to stand on the public highway. Blavatnik’s staff made a hasty retreat but then devised a cunning plan: to put huge plant boxes about a metre and a half in front of their property to block public access. The council, called on to inspect the planters, deemed them to be perfectly legal. And, thus, this compact but prime spot disappeared from the revolutionary history trail, sucked into the vortex of Warner Bros’ empire of sound.
Libel law and self-censorship
Whether Sir Leonid was aware of the whole incident or not, we will probably never know. He doesn’t do interviews, as a matter of principle. Public as his figure has become, he doesn’t allow commentators much leeway in what they say about him. It feels almost as if he had taken over control of what one can find when Googling him. He will sue anybody instantly if they make the mistake of calling him a Russian in public, especially if associated with the word “oligarch” – or so I was told by a number of journalists.
Writing down these lines, of course, I am thinking: what if he now takes me to the cleaners for writing them? Who among the journalists who entrusted me with their gossip stories will ever stand up in court to support me, rather than reprimand me for triggering such a stupid conflict? Would it really be worth sticking my neck out simply for the sake of calling Blavatnik a Russian oligarch rather than a British-American philanthropist?
And so the self-censorship begins – a process I researched for years together with a colleague and something I could observe in myself time and again when editing Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie. I was lucky. The book was published in the United States where, unlike the UK, libel law favours freedom of speech over money. I was doubly lucky. Oxford University Press hired a top libel lawyer who went through my manuscript line by line, and this allowed me to be more daring than I would have been otherwise, because I knew that an expert eye would go over it and take out the risky bits. Despite all this, many of my stories and analyses fell victim to the red pen.
A staffer at the London branch of Transparency International told me that many of their thoroughly-researched stories have long been shelved. To ensure that an investigation is sound, if challenged by the country’s best lawyers, who have the law on their side, is so tricky that any lightly-taken step along these lines, could easily risk killing the NGO’s UK branch once and for all. This gives a hint about how much extra effort there must be invested whenever reports finally leave Transparency International UK desks and make it into to the world.
Even where the law does not necessarily side with money, the Russian rich, again with the help of (usually very British) top lawyers, have become so confident and brash that they sometimes use intimidation as an instrument to silence journalists, knowing that there is not actually any legal basis to shut their critics down.
This happened after one of the first Kleptocracy Tours, organised by the anticorruption activist Roman Borisovich. People will know him from his Channel 4 documentary From Russia With Cash, where he, disguised as Russian health minister, exposed an astonishing level of corruption involving top UK property agencies. Kleptocracy Tours has visited grand London homes acquired by foreign buyers of dubious background.
One individual starring in that tour is a son of Vladimir Yakunin, a friend of Putin’s, who for years ran the Russian Railways. Andrey Yakunin is highly educated, well-spoken and sophisticated. When his house in Highgate was included in the tour, he appeared to have blocked out any general concerns about freedom of speech. And sure enough, a prestigious law firm Mishcon de Reya was hired to accuse the anticorruption activist and the media reporting about the tour of an unlawful campaign of harassment against Yakunin junior as well as a breach of the family’s privacy.
I remember that day very well. The threats went deep into the bones of many of the people who went on the tour and reported on it. Most of them were paralysed by the allegations against them. Small outlets who feared being destroyed deleted the story and wrote letters of apology. It took a day or two for even my bravest journalists friends to recover and realise that they were badly fooled by intimidating legal language.
A too easy surrender?
After the Skripal poisoning in March this year Theresa May told us there is no place in the UK for serious criminals and corrupt elites. We long know that this was hot air. The Russians know it as well. After 2013, both Russians and Chinese abandoned London’s high-end property market (at least to an extent that it was badly felt by the real estate agencies serving them), but apparently the Russians are returning in great number, so a Forbes Russia journalist told me whose piece on the very same matter will appear shortly.
Blavatniks and Yakunins have done nothing illegal in those incidents. All they did was exemplary within the letter of the law. At the same time, to me something seems to be wrong, not only with the legal system, but with a public climate where there is no expectation of noblesse oblige imposed on the rich. Philanthropy can obviously take people far, as we have seen in the case of Blavatnik (and here it does not matter that most of that money goes to an institution that attracts the privileged anyway, that is, Oxford University). But there is clearly not much pressure on them to acquire a bit of what is held so dear by the British, some self-irony and self-deprecation. Otherwise, why would Blavatnik not allow journalists to call him a “Russian oligarch” a hundred times, and prove – with the help all his money and UK’s top PR people – that he is “above” all these meaningless things? Why did Yakunin junior feel the urge and entitlement to hire an army of lawyers to shut down some activists who wanted to feature his house in their tour?
The worst of all, however, is how little ethical pressure is felt by all the law firms and PR agencies who put themselves at the service of the rich and play along with what is asked of them. No doubt, many of the lawyers and PR managers are simply doing their jobs, but those at the senior level of those agencies have plenty of leeway to choose whether or not to take on a specific client or cause.
As seduced as law firms, PR agencies and others must be primarily by the lure of good money, there might well also be an element of class war, symbolically raging on our streets. Of course it could just be an ironic misunderstanding that the Karl Marx walking tour was driven away from outside his former home in Dean Street. But what is it about walking tours? Controlling the image of the past and the present – consciously or not – evokes Orwell.