Rich Russians' love affair with Britain
- 10 September 2011
- From the section Europe
In the countryside outside Moscow, an army of cement mixers is droning, churning and, quite bizarrely, helping to turn Russian fields into an English town.
They're building 200 "British-style" houses here and they've called the compound Hyde Park. It's one of several UK-themed residential areas popping up around Russia, for rich Russians with a soft spot for Britain.
On a tour of the village, I'm shown rows of big brick buildings with tall chimneys and English lawns. Each house has its own stylish title, like Dorchester, Park Lane and Windsor.
I'm invited into Oxford, where new resident Yuri Dranga shows me round. Yuri is particularly proud of his British kitchen, where the wallpaper is tartan and the tiles have pictures of Beefeaters, red telephone boxes and people queuing at a bus stop. Very tasteful.
Yuri admits to being a big fan of the UK.
"Britain is a very stable and a very conservative country," he tells me. "Just the kind of place Russia should be."
It's true that the political relationship between the UK and Russia has been strained in recent years. Particularly since the murder in London of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko.
There have also been spy scandals, financial disputes, and Moscow is annoyed by the number of anti-Kremlin tycoons who've taken refuge in the UK.
But none of that has dented wealthy Russians' love affair with the British way of life.
What's more, they're not just copying Britain - they're also buying up Britain.
You name it, the Russians have been coming over to acquire it: from football clubs, like Chelsea and Portsmouth, to newspapers like the Independent.
The book chain Waterstones is now Russian-owned - and so is the flagship Rolex store in central London.
It was tycoon Grigory Guselnikov who clinched the Rolex deal. Like many Russian businessmen, he feels it's safer doing business in Britain than back home in Russia.
"Some people like, I simply love your country," Mr Guselnikov told me when we met in a Moscow restaurant. "I don't know why, but when my plane starts to descend I feel safe and secure. I love London, the smell of the city, the way of life, and my every morning jogging in Hyde Park."
I ask him what it's like doing business in the UK compared with Russia.
"It's absolutely transparent. I feel very easy. Although sometimes you have to overpay a little bit to lawyers. Sometimes I think it's a country of lawyers."
Cuisine not a hit
Back in Russia, I'm reminded that a British lifestyle is available here, too - at a price.
In another gated community near Moscow I discover a giant English pub-restaurant. There's a photo of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the wall; the two leaders live down the road and popped round recently for a night out.
"We decided to build a restaurant in the English style because people who live in this village often go to England," pub manager Oleg Alyshev told me. "Some of them have houses there and some of their children study in England. So we think this place suits for this village."
I've never been to a pub quite like this one before. The beer is £8 a pint. And instead of fish and chips, there's pate de foie gras and gazpacho. So where's the roast beef and Yorkshire pud?
"Unfortunately, English style is more popular in Russia than English cuisine," Oleg told me. "That's why the restaurant has a European menu."
Still, English pubs and British homes - it's like a Little Britain for the few Russians who can afford it.