The fall of Londongrad

Russian debutante ball © Alamy
Russian debutantes in happier times

Tense politics mean Russian tycoons are no longer welcome in Britain. Their money will be missed.

Quintus has always appreciated the influence our Muscovite chums have had on London – from Lenin and Trotsky plotting revolution in the British Museum to the recent flood of millionaires and billionaires who have pumped money into the capital’s restaurants, nightclubs and boutiques.

So he is sorry to learn that Roman Abramovich – the man who has been “the very avatar of Londongrad”, as Bloomberg puts it, “hasn’t been seen in London since the UK government failed to renew his visa in the spring”. Apparently Abramovich is sufficiently frustrated by this and concerned about the risk that America expands its sanctions against wealthy Russians to include him that he is even considering selling Chelsea Football Club, which he bought in 2003 for £140m.

The British government’s ingratitude must seem galling to a man who has spent a good chunk of his reported $14.7bn fortune over here. While Quintus doesn’t think that the decision to invest an estimated $1bn in Chelsea over the years was the best use of his money, surely one cannot but be grateful for the way he has propped up the property market by paying £90m for a mansion near the Russian embassy in Kensington in 2011 and £30m for a penthouse earlier this year.

This all shows how attitudes to wealthy Russians have changed from a few years ago, when they were considered the “ideal go-betweens between Russia and the West”, says Max Seddon in the Financial Times. Just as they “saw no contradiction in sending their children to Eton”, UK politicians “had no qualms about staying on their yachts or serving in their boardrooms”. Yet today, “feeling equally at home in London’s Soho and Moscow’s Soho Rooms” is “considered a liability”.

Oligarchs are now “like hipsters with even worse dress sense: nobody will admit to being one, even if you know them when you see them”. Perhaps they are rediscovering the truth of an old Russian saying: “If you sit on two chairs, something vulgar will happen to you through the crack in the middle”.

You shall not go to the ball

And it’s not just the tycoons who are suffering – “the entire UK oligarch service industry”, as Seddon puts it, is feeling the pinch. Take the news that the annual Russian Debutante Ball has been called off. This Viennese-style ball is where the daughters of Soviet-born businessmen are “ushered into adult society in an atmosphere of frothy pre-Revolutionary nostalgia”, says Ellen Barry in the New York Times.

It had become one of the highlights of the social season: places are so in demand that potential attendees have to audition and then pay $380 to $780 “based on distance from the dance floor”. But its organiser, Elisabeth Smagin-Melloni, has cancelled this year’s festivities after potential attendees complained of difficulties getting visas. She hopes the event will return next year. For now she “is shifting her attention to China, a nation whose yearning for Viennese balls is, if anything, more ardent”.

Tabloid money… a right royal price tag

• Some people might have a problem with the fact that Zara Tindall, the eldest granddaughter of the Queen, is the new brand ambassador for iCandy prams, says Karren Brady in the Sun on Sunday. They might well ask whether members of the royal family should be allowed to be “influencers”.

The reality is that Zara, who doesn’t get a penny from the public purse, has to make a living somehow – and this is, after all, a very modern way to go about it. If she doesn’t get paid by us, then she can do what the hell she likes. However, what I did raise an eyebrow at was the price of the product she is endorsing – iCandy prams cost £1,500. Who can afford to spend that on a pram?

• There’s no “Brexit uncertainty” as far as Chanel is concerned, says Fergus Kelly in the Daily Express. The fashion house is transferring its corporate functions from New York to London, having decided against expanding in Paris. London’s central location, English language and strong corporate governance were all cited as reasons. Chanel’s decision shows that the UK is hardly likely to become the economic basket case that the EU Jeremiahs insist is our fate after Brexit.

Besides, most “Leavers” are aware that the country’s economic success depends on being a place where businesses will want to come. One wonders whether some firms are using the smokescreen of “Brexit uncertainty” to camouflage their own incompetence.

• On a visit to the countryside, I could not believe how many sloe berries, blueberries, apples, pears, crab apples and blackberries were growing in the hedges, says
Jeremy Clarkson in the Sun. Millions of them. Yet the Co-op is importing tasteless blackberries from Guatemala, 5,500 miles away. Yes, the Co-op is a sort of socialist operation, which means it doesn’t really think straight, but surely bringing blackberries to Britain is akin to sending coals to Newcastle.

The simple solution would be for some enterprising children to fill a million carrier bags and sell them to the supermarket. But that wouldn’t fulfil all of the health and safety requirements, of course, which means we can’t eat food that’s actually tasty and good for us.