Meet the real Russians

The Fox channel has launched what the British media has immediately dubbed the tackiest reality TV show: “Meet the Russians”.

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Natalia Mikhaylenko

Fox TV promises viewers a glimpse of “a jaw-dropping world of unbelievable riches and extraordinary characters never before seen on television”. They’ll be disappointed to learn that a Russian TV channel has beaten them to it by already showing an 18-episode series on “Oligarchs’ Wives”. What might have been jaw-dropping to less fortunate Russian viewers was that the gilded life did not seem to be a happy one.

“Meet the Russians” is a fly-on-the-wall series about the super-rich who came to London from various parts of the former Soviet Union.

 

There is an aspiring pop-diva, Kamaliya, from Ukraine with her Pakistani born billionaire husband, who made his fortune in the Ukrainian metals industry.

Serg Ivo came from Estonia and provides private concierge services to rich compatriots.

Masha Pogrebnyak, the wife of the Reading FC striker Pavel Pogrebnyak is determined to become the Russian Victoria Beckham.

Dmitry Oskin is a fashion photographer from St. Petersburg who is fascinated by London’s gay culture.

The series filmed last summer airs on Fox every Wednesday at 9pm.

'Meet the Russians' launch promo. Source: Youtube

 

Moving images

There was a time when any Russian coming to Britain was labeled a KGB spy, then came the stories of “gangsters” with suitcases of cash, and of “oligarchs” with bottomless bank accounts. Now the great British viewing public is being entertained by a bunch of unbelievably ostentatious individuals who are supposed to represent the essence of Russia.  They may not be out of place among the natives of Essex or Chelsea but they happen to come from that huge land in the East that is associated with Russia, despite quite a number of other countries having sprung up there after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A popular myth has it that there may be as many as 400,000 Russians living in the UK, mostly in London. Had that been the case and had they been as rich as they are purported to be, some London street names would be in Cyrillic by now. Or at the very least, there would be a lot more decent Russian food outlets, with proper borsch and no tears. The UK Office of National Statistics puts its estimate of Russians resident in the UK at a meager 27,000. According to the ONS, there are twice as many arrivals from Latvia and half as many from Ukraine, with a trickle from other former Soviet republics. 

Not so long ago, most settlers in the UK from those republics were at pains to distance themselves from Russia. But somehow, on their own, they appear to have failed to catch the imagination of the popular British press, hooked on silly money and bling. Waves of super-rich US bankers, Arab oil sheikhs, Japanese, Hong Kong Chinese, and, at the opposite end of the money spectrum, Polish plumbers, have rolled over London since the 1960s to keep the tabloids busy. Now it is the turn of the “Russians”, even if their Russian is not much different from their Pidgin English.

Their gravest sin, according to the tabloids, has been to push London property prices so high as to price the locals out of the market. Makes one wonder how many locals were planning to buy palaces worth tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds before the “Russkis” elbowed them out. Who actually profited from such sales: the British sellers, solicitors, estate agents, or were they all Arab or Chinese?

The real world Russians have stories to tell of how very British estate agents were only too eager to peddle multimillion properties to them, even though they were looking for a modest two-bed maisonette. A Russian sounding name or accent is enough to send pound signs spinning in an estate agent’s eyes, and gazumping is not unusual.

Historic links

There have been Russians in London since the 19th century: from the blue-blooded and well-heeled, to scholars and writers, to revolutionaries. Waves of Russian immigrants made Britain their home and are no longer considered Russian. But if Dame Helen Mirren’s story of rediscovering her Russian roots is anything to go by, they retain a measure of Russian soul deep down inside.

London has long been seen as a haven by those fleeing from the turbulence and vagaries of life on the Continent, Russia included.  Generations of Russians were raised on great British literature, even at the height of the Cold War, and the British were strongly associated with fairness, honesty, sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior.

Probably this explains why so many Russians fell foul of unscrupulous British entrepreneurs when they first encountered them. A number of well-established and ostensibly reputable British companies made millions in the 1990s by selling fictitious services and products to Russian businesses and individuals, for whom anything British carried a hallmark of quality.

Reality shown?

The current crop of Russians in the UK are not that gullible but they are also contributing millions of pounds to the local economy by creating value, paying taxes and spending their hard earned cash in the UK. Most of them are not nearly as fascinated by opulence and bling as the tabloid journalists appear to be. They would rather go to the likes of the Tate or Pushkin House, a Russian cultural centre in London, than to the designer boutiques and night clubs of Knightsbridge or Mayfair, where most paparazzi tend to congregate. Or they may do both without losing their dignity, unlike City types on a Friday night.

Fox has been actively promoting the series on Facebook but, judging by initial reactions to the show, the British public is not easily duped by media stereotyping. As Matthew Steeples commented on Facebook, the Fox series should have been titled “Meet the Pun”.

The London Russian community has been waiting for the series with trepidation, but hope as well. Vassili Tsarenkov, whose family was filmed for the show, says they thought it was for a serious documentary.

Another protagonist, Karina Baldry, who runs a small charity for children, says: “I thought they were actually going to show the real Russian people, those who have their own little businesses, do charity work, do something interesting. They are not those who like splashing money and flying over here and over there.” She goes to a lot of gala parties, not to splash out but to raise funds for her charity, and she is hopeful that her story will not be edited out to make way for more pseudo-Russian bling.

Living the dream

Bling or no bling, Russian money appears to be welcome in London. Mayor Boris Johnson is on record welcoming more of it. After all, he claims he has Russian roots himself.

To paraphrase one of his trademark quotes, the Russians looked at London and saw an opportunity to realise their dreams; some tabloid media looked at the Russians and saw an opportunity to play silly.

 

Are you watching Meet The Russians on FOX TV UK? Is this the REAL Russian London? Share your opinion in the comment section below!

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