Last Thursday evening, March 10, Chelsea soccer club played away against Norwich City. It was a one-sided game: Chelsea are a very strong team, lying third in the English Premier League behind Manchester City and Liverpool. Norwich languish at the foot of the table, almost certain to be relegated to the division below, and Chelsea’s 3–1 win was no surprise.
But what the game will be remembered for more than the score was that a good number of Chelsea fans had made the 120-mile journey from west London to the Carrow Road stadium, where they chanted “Abramovich,” the name of their hero. Roman Abramovich is one of the more notable Russian “oligarchs” (and who ever thought up that name? As in “Ali Baba and the Forty Oligarchs”). That is, he’s one of the group of Russians who together and in blatantly corrupt fashion looted their country in the 1990s amid the wreckage of the Soviet Union, making colossal fortunes by acquiring monopolistic control of oil, gas, iron, and the other natural resources that are just about all the Russian economy consists of. And following the assault on Ukraine by Abramovich’s friend Vladimir Putin, the Chelsea fans’ hero had just been sanctioned by the British government, along with several of his compatriots whose international assets are now frozen.
Who these people were and how they had made their money came into the category coined by the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole. Riffing on Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns,” O’Toole has added that there are also “unknown knowns.” He means disgraceful things that are hiding in plain sight, obvious to anyone who looked hard. In his own country, that included the fact that Ireland had the greediest bankers and the most corrupt politicians in Western Europe, not to mention the most powerful and repressive Catholic Church.
In the same way, we in England could know very well who and what the oligarchs were, but we chose to unknow it while they swarmed into “Londongrad,” as our capital has been sardonically named. They didn’t force their way in. We begged them to come; we fawned and groveled. While we slammed the door on tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, up to and including desperate refugees from Ukraine this month, both Conservative and Labour governments offered “golden visas” to anyone who would invest enough of his somehow-gotten gains in England and buy the place up.
So they did. Oliver Bullough has described how Londongrad became the capital of Moneyland, the title of his riveting book that preceded his latest, Butler to the World. This relates how the bankers, accountants, and lawyers of the City of London have done everything they could to enable rich foreigners, notably but not only Russians, to come here and make London the money-laundering capital of the world. Russians have bought countless hugely expensive houses across London, from Belgravia to Highgate: truly countless, since feeble English laws allow property to be owned anonymously by shell companies, and nobody can really say who owns what.
And no one welcomed the oligarchs more than our politicians. This unlovely connection was personified in the summer of 2008 by Peter Mandelson of Labour, Tony Blair’s original consigliere and a once and future Cabinet minister, and the Conservative George Osborne, later chancellor of the exchequer, and later than that adviser to the BlackRock hedge fund, which paid him a humble 650,000 pounds (almost $850,000) a year for one day’s work a week. That summer, the two of them were spotted being entertained aboard the megayacht owned by Oleg Deripaska.
These vast, hideous ships, the oligarchs’ favorite “boys’ toys,” along with their private jets, have long visually polluted the oceans, although since the European Union responded to the invasion of Ukraine by sanctioning a number of Russian billionaires and sequestering their property, several yachts have been impounded. Abramovich’s own yacht was last seen in the Caribbean and is still at large. Maybe he’ll end like the Flying Dutchman, endlessly sailing the seven seas.
Our politicians have smartly jumped after the assault on Ukraine. A week ago Boris Johnson wrote a column in The New York Times, summarized on the front page of the Mail on Sunday here as “Boris’s six-point plan to defeat Putin” (yeah, sure). One of his points was: “We must go further on economic sanctions … to peel back the facade of dirty Russian money in London. We must go after the oligarchs.”
We must do what? And who says so? This is Boris Johnson, who in 2014, when mayor of London, took a bung (as football coaches would say) of 160,000 pounds from Lubov Chernukhin, whom one scarcely needs to label, so that Mrs. Chernukhin could play a game of tennis with the mayor. Evgeny Lebedev is the son of a prominent oligarch who was, like Putin, once a KGB officer. Two years ago, by which time he had become prime minister, Johnson insisted—against the urging of the security services!—on conferring a peerage on the younger Lebedev.
As to “the facade of dirty Russian money in London,” Johnson’s Conservative Party has been relentless in its pursuit of the dirty money he now deplores. He appointed as party vice chairman in charge of fundraising Ben Elliot, a nephew of Camilla, the Prince of Wales’s wife, and, like Johnson, an Etonian. Elliot runs the Quintessentially Group, the exquisitely named “concierge service” that provides every imaginable or even unimaginable “luxury lifestyle management” facility for people who can pay enough, not least Russian billionaires. The firm has many offices abroad, including one in Russia that was quickly closed when Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, although not before quantities of Russian money had made its way into Tory coffers.
But nothing better illustrates the glistening corruption of our age than sports, internationally and in England. When Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, a BBC interviewer observed that, since he was only 36 and hugely rich, some people might be understandably suspicious of him, to which he gave the wondrous reply, “There are lots of rich young people in Russia. We don’t live that long, so we earn it and spend it. And I’m realizing my dream of owning a top football club.” Having realized it, he poured vast sums into the club, buying a raft of brilliant players and winning the Premier League pennant five times and the European Champions League twice, among many other trophies.
Besides that, his friendship with Putin was all important in securing for Russia the 2018 World Cup from FIFA, the gloriously corrupt international soccer body that, even more outrageously, awarded this year’s World Cup to oil-rich, democracy-poor Qatar, both fine exercises in “sportswashing,” or using sports to prettify the image of unlovely regimes. And Abramovich set a fashion in English soccer, which has welcomed foreign money whatever its provenance. Two more rich Russians have invested in other clubs, Manchester City have triumphed while owned by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates, and Newcastle has just set a new standard for what the soccer authorities facetiously call “fit and proper persons” who can own clubs when it was sold to the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia: In practice that means “MBS,” the famous or infamous Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the country’s crown prince and enforcer. My first reaction to the sale was to hope that, if Newcastle lost any more games, the manager wouldn’t be summoned to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. We’d still like to see him in one piece. On Sunday, Newcastle played Chelsea, and the day before, their new owners showed what they thought about namby-pamby Western concerns over human rights by executing 81 people. Why, that’s almost one for every 90 minutes of a soccer match!
As for Chelsea, their repulsive fans, who still live in a moral cesspit, held up a banner on Sunday with the old leader’s face and the slogan, “The Roman Empire.” In reality, Chelsea is now in complete financial limbo. Abramovich can’t sell the club but its assets are frozen, the club’s credit cards are stopped, its sponsors have jumped ship, no new tickets can be sold for its home games at Stamford Bridge, and the club may shortly be unable to pay the huge wage bill of its millionaire players. (For full disclosure, as a lifelong Arsenal supporter, I tried to keep a smirk of schadenfreude from my lips as I wrote that sentence.)
And it’s all too fitting that this should have happened to a club in Londongrad. “The blood of the Ukrainian people is on their hands,” says Liz Truss, our absurd foreign secretary, about the oligarchs. “They should hang their heads in shame.” No doubt so, but so should many others, from politicians to lawyers to football fans, who have cheered as a once great city became at last what Philip Larkin foresaw: “First slum of Europe, only fit for crooks and tarts.”