Sanctioned Russian oligarchs linked to £800m worth of UK property

By Nassos Stylianou, Steve Swann and Will Dahlgreen
BBC News and BBC Panorama

Published
Related Topics
Alisher Usmanov, Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, Polina Kovaleva and Mikhail Fridman

A dozen sanctioned Russians are linked to an estimated £800m worth of property in the UK, analysis by the BBC reveals.

Multi-million pound country manors in the south of England and luxury flats in London's most expensive areas are among the homes which have been snapped up by figures linked to Vladimir Putin.

Some of the individuals deny ownership of the mansions, which may mean they are beyond the reach of the sanctions.

To get to the bottom of who owns what, we carried out a detailed trawl of leaked offshore documents, the Land Registry and court papers - as well as previous reporting.

Our findings highlight the UK's status as a place for super-rich Russians to set up home, and the difficulties of identifying the true owners of properties bought by offshore firms in tax havens.

In response to the BBC's findings, anti-corruption group, Transparency International highlighted how hard it is to track who owns what in the UK.

"Because of the system of secrecy here in the UK and in relation to the Overseas Dependencies it's really easy for people to hide their assets and their funds in the UK and not even the police necessarily have sight of where those assets are," Rachel Davies, head of advocacy at the organisation, told the BBC.

The UK, US and European Union have together sanctioned more than 1,000 Russian individuals and businesses, including wealthy business leaders - so-called oligarchs - who are considered close to the Kremlin.

Most of those listed below were sanctioned after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, although some were already on the government's sanctions list.

Properties linked to sanctioned Russians include:

  • A £230m ($302m) property empire of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich
  • A £65m Victorian mansion in north London with planning permission for a cigar room and wine cellar
  • A Surrey manor house at the centre of a legal dispute involving Vladimir Putin's former judo sparring partner

In early March, the British government imposed sanctions on the 55-year-old billionaire. The previous week Mr Abramovich had put Chelsea FC up for sale.

He has a vast property portfolio in the UK with more than 50 luxury residences, most on Fulham Road in west London. Through his UK company Fordstam Limited, he owns dozens of apartments in Chelsea Village, plus the hotel and residential complex around Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium, according to the Land Registry.

His most expensive London property is a 15-bedroom house on a street that is nicknamed Billionaires Row. With its vast stucco-faced Italianate mansions, it is home to royalty and ambassadors - as well as oligarchs.

Mr Abramovich bought the property in west London using an offshore company in 2011, reportedly paying £90m. In 2016 he was granted planning permission for a £28m refurbishment, including a subterranean pool, although this did not go ahead.

In planning documents submitted to the council, its existing pool was described as a "miserable space" that was "too small to afford comfortable or meaningful swimming".

In 2017, Mr Abramovich used Fordstam Limited to buy an apartment just off the King's Road for £8.7m. In 2019, he paid £22.3m for a three-storey penthouse apartment on the former Lots Road power station site in Chelsea.

Mr Abramovich did not answer the BBC's requests for comment.

The UK government imposed a full asset freeze and travel ban on Alisher Usmanov on 3 March, citing the Russian billionaire's "close links to the Kremlin". This followed a similar move by the EU.

The Uzbekistan-born businessman and former Arsenal shareholder has been a close associate of Everton's majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, who resigned as chairman of Mr Usmanov's USM Holdings in early March following the imposition of sanctions on the oligarch. Everton have suspended all dealings with Mr Usmanov's businesses, including USM's sponsorship of their training ground.

His wealth has been estimated at $18.4bn (£14bn), including "Beechwood House in Highgate [north London]… and the 16th Century Sutton Place estate in Surrey", the UK government said.

But a spokesman for Mr Usmanov said most of the billionaire's UK property, plus a $600m (£456m) yacht, had already been "transferred into irrevocable trusts", potentially putting them beyond the reach of sanctions.

Tracing the ownership of the two houses targeted by the UK government is extremely difficult. They have been held through a complex web of trusts and companies registered in places like the British Virgin Islands which, until recently, did not require the ultimate owner to be disclosed.

Image source, Shutterstock
Image caption,
Beechwood House, London

Mr Usmanov bought Beechwood House for £48m in 2008 using an offshore company. As part of an investigation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the BBC has seen a document showing Usmanov secured a mortgage in 2005 to part-finance payments for Sutton Place via two firms in Cyprus.

His two nephews each own multi-million pound properties in north London.

When the UK government imposed sanctions on Oleg Deripaska, they described him as worth £2bn and a "one-time business partner" of Roman Abramovich.

In early March, a court heard that he has a multi-million pound property portfolio in the UK, including the art deco mansion Hamstone House in Weybridge, Surrey. Sitting in eight acres of grounds, the Grade II listed property was acquired for £7.1m by a Cyprus-based company, Edenfield Investments Limited, in 2001.

Mr Deripaska also owns a large home in Belgrave Square that was occupied by protestors. However, a spokesman for the billionaire at the time said the property belonged to family members.

There is evidence suggesting Mr Deripaska owns a building five minutes' walk from Buckingham Palace. The 17th-Century terrace house was bought in 2004 for £4.7m by Astibe Limited - an offshore shell company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, which appears in the annual accounts of EN+ (an energy and metals group that Mr Deripaska has a stake in). The property is listed as the address of the company, according to research by Transparency International.

A judge has frozen UK bank accounts operated by a British businessman amid allegations they are linked to Mr Deripaska - National Crime Agency investigators believe the accounts were being used to help the oligarch avoid sanctions.

A spokesperson for Mr Deripaska said the sanctions were "deeply misguided" and based on "unfounded and hollow accusations".

"Mr Deripaska has never been involved in politics. It is wrong to suggest that Mr Deripaska is close to the Government of Russia and/or Vladimir Putin," the statement read.

"The decision to sanction him has nothing to do with justice or law, neither does the freezing of assets belonging to him or his family."

The UK-based billionaire oligarch Mikhail Fridman had his shares frozen in the investment firm LetterOne, which owns international health food chain Holland & Barrett, after the EU sanctioned him following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On 15 March, he was also sanctioned by the British government, which said he was "closely associated with President Vladimir Putin".

Mr Fridman told the BBC that the imposition of sanctions by the UK government left him "shocked" and that the statement he was closely associated with Vladimir Putin was "absolutely incorrect".

LetterOne, which is just under 50% owned by Mr Fridman and Petr Aven (see below), announced the business partners had "ceased to have any involvement with the company".

Mr Fridman, who is thought to be worth around $12bn, owns a huge property, Athlone House in north London, for which he paid £65m in 2016.

Image source, SWNS
Image caption,
Athlone House, London

Mr Fridman told his local newspaper, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, the building was originally designed for a Victorian industrialist, adding: "It felt like fate that I, as a businessman, would be similarly drawn years later to the same property and grounds."

Mr Fridman secured planning permission for a significant restoration, including the addition of a wine cellar, cinema room, swimming pool, yoga room and cigar room.

Mr Aven was named in EU sanctions as "one of Vladimir Putin's closest oligarchs" who "does not operate independently of the President's demands".

Along with Mikhail Fridman, the Russian billionaire's shares in LetterOne were frozen.

Land Registry records show a Cyprus-based company paid £8m in 2009 for his home, Ingliston House in Virginia Water, Surrey.

Image source, Rick Pushinsky
Image caption,
Petr Aven pictured next to his Henry Moore sculpture

Mr Aven reportedly owns an extensive private art collection, which includes works by Kandinsky, Louise Bourgeois and Henry Moore. He was photographed by the FT at his home alongside some of his pieces.

After he was sanctioned by the EU, he stepped down as a trustee at the Royal Academy, which returned a donation from him.

Image source, Rick Pushinsky
Image caption,
Petr Aven’s art collection

Mr Aven told the BBC that his family also owned a two-bedroom apartment and studio in central London.

He said he "strongly disagreed" with UK government's description of him as a "pro-Kremlin oligarch".

He said the sanctions against him were "understandable, but unfair", adding he saw no fair reason to be sanctioned and that he never operated under the demands of Vladimir Putin.

"My partners and I always tried to be out of politics," he said.

Born in Kyiv, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Mr Khan is "a close associate of Vladimir Putin who has been involved in destabilising Ukraine", according to UK authorities, which sanctioned him in March.

He and and his wife Anzhelika own several properties in England.

The Panama Papers revealed the couple have shares in the Seychelles company Apilosa Corporation. Land registry papers show it paid £62m in 2008 for two apartments near Buckingham Palace.

German Khan bought two more flats in the area in 2005. In 2018, they were transferred to his wife's name, according to Land Registry documents.

The couple also bought a mansion in Virginia Water, Surrey, for £26m in 2014. Records show that the mansion was sold on 24 December 2021 to Ravenmorrow Limited for £31m.

It is unclear who now owns the property. Ravenmorrow Limited was set up in December last year and no individual is identified on UK company records as the beneficial owner.

Mr Khan did not reply to the BBC's request for comment.

The UK government said Igor Shuvalov "is a core part of Putin's inner circle" when it imposed sanctions on him in March.

Officials confirmed his assets in the UK include two luxury apartments in Whitehall worth an estimated £11m. That was first reported by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, set up by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Land registry documents show the properties are owned by Sova Real Estate LLC in Russia, which - according to official records obtained by the Anti-Corruption Foundation - indicated they were owned by Mr Shuvalov and his wife.

In response to our questions, a spokesperson for Mr Shuvalov confirmed that ownership of the apartments had been transferred to a Russian company "controlled by the Shuvalov Family" in 2014.

The value of the flats significantly exceeds the £634,000 that Mr Shuvalov declared as his and Mrs Shuvalov's joint wealth to the Russian parliament in 2014.

Mr Shuvalov's spokesperson told the BBC that these issues "have been the subject of competent government audits", and that "no complaints were ever filed".

In August 2021, Mr Gutseriev was sanctioned by the UK because of his close relationship with Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko.

Mr Gutseriev was the founder of Safmar Group, a Russian conglomerate, but is no longer involved in the company. Mr Gutseriev's son Said, a British citizen who has not been sanctioned, now part-owns SFI - a company previously known as Safmar Financial Investments.

The Pandora Papers revealed Said Gutseriev owns a multi-million-pound City of London office block bought for more than £40m through a secret offshore company.

Said Gutseriev's representatives told the BBC he did not have "any business links with his father". His lavish wedding, which made headlines in 2016, featured performances by Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias.

Yuri Soloviev is a high-ranking executive at sanctioned Russian bank VTB and was sanctioned by the UK government on 15 March this year. The 51-year-old has Russian and British citizenship.

According to US Treasury officials, his wife Galina Ulyutina "was previously implicated in a golden passport scheme" in Bulgaria. Golden passport schemes allow nationals of one country to acquire citizenship in another through investment.

Mr Soloviev owns two London properties in his own name. One is a penthouse in Hampstead, the other is in Westminster. A third apartment near Kensington Palace was bought outright in the name of a relative for £2.2m in 2006 and revealed in the 2016 Panama Papers leak.

A spokesperson for VTB told the BBC that Mr Soloviev "left VTB group on 24 February 2022", the day that Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

"Mr Soloviev was not sanctioned by any countries while working at VTB," the statement added.

The chairman of the management board of state-owned Gazprombank, Andrey Akimov, was sanctioned by the US in 2018. He was sanctioned by the UK earlier this month.

According to Catherine Belton in her book Putin's People, he is a former intelligence operative and "one of the most important financiers behind Vladimir Putin's regime".

Working with the International Consortium of Journalists, the BBC has seen evidence in the Pandora Papers leak that link Mr Akimov to property in London.

Land Registry documents show that Mr Akimov's partner Marianna Chaykina owns an apartment in Knightsbridge. It was bought for £10m by British Virgin Islands (BVI) company Inma Investments in 2012.

Ms. Chaykina is listed as co-owner of a number of Mr. Akimov's firms in leaked corporate records and she has been described by Russian media as Mr. Akimov's wife.

The BBC received no response to its questions from Mr Akimov.

Polina Kovaleva is the stepdaughter of Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to the UK government.

Lavrov was sanctioned by the British government at the same time as Vladimir Putin. A few weeks later, on 24 March, the UK government sanctioned Ms Kovaleva too - saying she reportedly owns a London property worth £4m.

Land Registry documents show Polina Kovaleva bought an apartment in Kensington with no mortgage in 2016, when she was 21.

Ms Kovaleva did not reply to the BBC's request for comment.

Arkady Rotenberg is one of Vladimir Putin's closest friends - the pair sparred in the same judo gym in St Petersburg.

The US and the EU imposed sanctions on him in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea. He is also under sanction in the UK, with the government citing his "close personal ties to President Putin". His brother Boris and son Igor were added to the sanction list last month.

In July 2020, an investigation by the US Senate accused the Rotenberg brothers of using secretive purchases of expensive art to evade sanctions.

Upper Ribsden in the village of Windlesham was bought in 2012 for £27.5m by Ravendark Holdings Limited, a company registered in the BVI. It received a loan of over £30m from another BVI company said to be owned by Mr Rotenberg.

In November 2021, a High Court judge ruled the house was held on trust for the benefit of Mr Rotenberg by Ravendark. That was appealed and the case has yet to be decided. Mr Rotenberg did not reply to the BBC's request for comment.

The difficulty faced by senior judges and lawyers in establishing who owns a UK mansion illustrates how hard it can be to trace the assets of sanctioned oligarchs.

Update 27 May 2022: This article has been amended to clarify the business dealings of Said Gutseriev.

Additional reporting by Jon Kelly and James Oliver

Design by Jana Tauschinski

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