The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Knightsbridge, London is nestled in a maze of mews streets and embassy rows. It’s as much an expat social club as it is a place of worship, and on Sunday mornings it’s packed to the rafters. In what can sometimes look like one big game of Grand-mother’s Footsteps, the congregation of headscarved women and men in leather jackets quietly make a dash to circulate every time the priests turn their back, while old women maunder about kissing icons and hushing grandchildren.
Tatyana Ivanova was conspicuously aloof from all this. I first saw her one Sunday morning in a ray of stained sunlight, her face angelically upturned. She didn’t mingle like the rest; she stood stock-still facing the altar, careful to cross herself and mutter all the Amens at the appropriate moments; and at the end of the service, when all the prayers were said and done, she climbed into the back of a blacked-out Bentley and was swept away by her chauffeur.
For all her apparent reserve, Tatyana turned out to be an open and friendly woman. Both outsiders at the cathedral, we became friends. After a few weeks, we arranged to meet for coffee in a café by South Kensington tube station, where I found her wrapped in furs drinking red wine and accompanied by a man named Kirill, whose exact purpose there I never did quite discover. ‘Thomas,’ she whispered as I sat down, all smiles and handshakes, ‘you mustn’t be so ostentatious.’
Come this spring, Tatyana will have been in London for 20 years. She lives in Knightsbridge, vacations in the Maldives, and has a daughter who studies medicine in the States. Naturally, she is the wife of a very wealthy man. She insists that we speak in English, and likes to pepper her diction with idioms such as ‘Forgive me, I am away at the fairies today.’
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Tatyana. She may look the very image of a Russian wife in London that people now conjure thanks to programmes like Mc-Mafia and Meet the Russians, and a handful of high-profile billionaires like Evgeny Lebedev and Roman Abramovich. But she’s quite different.
Like many of the super-wealthy from Russia, Tatyana and her husband settled in the UK when they sent their daughter to an English public school. Education is the reason why rich Russians choose Britain over the US as their new nesting place. In London recently, the exiled billionaire and anti-Putin pin-up Mikhail Khodorkovsky said that Britain’s sole surviving claim to any substantial influence over Russia was derived from the fact that so many of its elite’s progeny were educated in British schools.
Though the sons and daughters of the land-grab fortunes of the 1990s assimilate with ease, their parents find it much more of a struggle. Tatyana is a case in point. ‘London is such a judging place, don’t you think?’ she said in a low voice. ‘People in London like to say that it is the Parisians who are unkind, but really they are talking about themselves.’ I asked if she has many friends here. ‘A few,’ she sighed, ‘but really not a lot.’
At some point Kirill sloped off to sit at another table, and Tatyana was noticeably relieved by this. ‘He is just someone my husband likes to have around,’ she said with a conspiratorial smile. She talked at length about her daughter, of whom she is immensely proud, but then, sensing perhaps that she had gone on a bit, changed tack and asked me questions about myself. For someone so seemingly sociable, I wondered aloud why it was that I had seen her so detached from the other Russians at the cathedral. She replies sadly: ‘We are all Russians and all grew up in the same situation. I was from a poor family just like them. But I was lucky and they won’t forgive me for that.’
The following weekend, Tatyana introduced me to two of her friends, Alyona and Maria, whom she knows from the hotel they all stay at in the Maldives. They are both younger than Tatyana, and brought with them on our walk around Hyde Park their two young sons, who in typical Russian fashion, had been wrapped up so tightly in their coats and scarves that they could hardly move. Looking after their children (with the aid of several nannies) is what takes up most of their time, and Alyona said she is dreading the day when her son goes off to boarding school, because she will have nothing to do.
I asked if they spend much time with their husbands, and they clammed up. ‘My husband is away a lot,’ said Maria after a long pause. The murder investigation into the death of Russian businessman Nikolai Glushkov had been announced only days before and it was clearly preying on their minds. They declined to answer whether or not they knew Glushkov, or indeed any others from the back catalogue of Russians who have died suspiciously over the years. ‘Under the circumstances, I think it would be best not to discuss this matter,’ said Maria.
We found a bench and sat in the winter sunshine, watching the boys throwing rye bread for the ducks. I pointed out that one of the characters in McMafia, the feckless billionaire-in-chief Dmitri Godman, is often seen feeding the park’s ducks too. ‘I did not like that show,’ Maria responded flatly. ‘The wife does nothing except buy clothes and cry.’
I asked what it is that they do, which must have sounded more accusatory than I’d meant it to, because Alyona angrily shot back at me in Russian: ‘This is what they think — that our lives simply revolve around money. Understand, we came here because we wanted a better life for our family and for our children to have a better upbringing than we did.’
After that, things were pretty frosty, and soon Alyona made her excuses and left. With his friend now gone, Maria’s son came over from the Serpentine and sat between us. She spoke to him in Russian but the boy responded in English. I asked him if the ducks were hungry today and he told me that they ‘gobbled up’ all of the bread, a phrase which Maria didn’t understand. The boy was suddenly delighted that he knew a word his mother did not. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘because you are an English boy and I am a Russian.’