EVgeny Chichvarkin looks agitated. He’s just heard a whisper about some potential stock going cheap and so politely declines my suggestion we leave his bustling wineshop in London’s tony Mayfair district in search of somewhere quieter to chat.
But Chichvarkin isn’t dashing off in pursuit of another 1774 Jura vin jaune, which sells for a precise £72,553.80 ($95,308) at Hedonism Wines, the store he set up in 2012 to be “the world’s best wineshop.” Instead, he is preparing to inspect a consignment of military fatigues and battle wear at a warehouse in the nearby town of Slough—worth some $650,000, he tells me conspiratorially. “It belongs to a rich Russian who had his assets frozen and needs to sell. If it works out, I’ll send it straight to the Ukrainian army.”
Chichvarkin isn’t your typical wine merchant. In fact, with his Salvador Dalí mustache, billowing pantaloons, gold tooth earring, and pink leather winkle pickers, the very idea of typical seems anathema to the 47-year-old entrepreneur, who has lived in London since fleeing his native Russia face down in the back of a car in 2008.
Chichvarkin was a St. Petersburg native, in the days when Leningrad was still Leningrad. He rose to become one of his nation’s youngest billionaires, by founding cellphone retailer Evroset in 1997, which swelled to 5,000 stores by 2007. But he fell afoul of local officials who accused Chichvarkin of kidnapping and extortion—charges he has always called bogus. After successfully fighting extradition proceedings against Chichvarkin’s business partner, Chichvarkin sold Evroset at a reported $400 million discount. He has been a successful businessman and restaurateur in London.
“Russians are not Putin,” he says, fixing me with piercing blue eyes. “He doesn’t represent us. We didn’t elect him. We don’t support him.”
Chichvarkin, a charismatic and iconoclastic representation of the Russian wealth flooding into Britain in the last two decades is an example. The deluge of illicit cash scrubbed clean in the City of London has led to allegations that Putin’s cronies have penetrated Britain’s political, economic, and legal systems, prompting tags like “Londongrad” and, Chichvarkin’s personal favorite, “Moscow on Thames.”
According to reports, several Russian property-owners have purchased luxury homes in Chester Square in London.
Richard Baker—In Pictures/Getty Images
Transparency International reports that Russians linked to Russia or accused of corruption have at least $1.9 billion in British property. The U.K. parliamentary intelligence committee has dubbed London a “laundromat” for dirty Russian money.
Learn More British Oligarchs are Under More Pressure from the U.K. Critics say it’s too late
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared, “We must go after the oligarchs.” His government has sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and businesses linked to Russia and new rules are in the pipeline to end the anonymous ownership of assets to send a message that those who profit from the Putin regime are no longer welcome.
Chichvarkin takes Ukraine’s support further than either the U.S.A. or E.U. leaders: he advocates for “immediately” sending NATO soldiers and enforcing a no-fly zone, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly requested. But he says the punitive economic measures targeting supposed Kremlin allies are so broad as to amount to “discrimination.”
“It’s a dirty game,” he says. “Javelin missiles and NATO troops can end the war. Not seizing a yacht in Monaco. That will only help a particular politician get re-elected.”
Britain’s prostitution of itselfRussian billions are rooted in the ground. Following World War II, the U.K. was verging on bankruptcy until the City of London began cozying up to the Soviet Union, which didn’t want to keep dollar reserves in American banks so instead chose British. These banks, in turn, began lending those “eurodollars” to one another in an unregulated market, which eventually spawned today’s opaque offshore finance system. London boomed.
More recently, rich kleptocrats—lured by top-notch schools, a plaintiff-friendly defamation system, and so-called golden visas that allow applicants who invest £2 million in the U.K. to gain residency—have parked their private jets on British runways. Chichvarkin is as happy as anyone else to enjoy the luxury of London life, including crossing the mallets on the Polo circuit with Princes William and Harry. He describes the Russian diaspora as “probably the best ever” to have set up in the capital, pointing to the companies saved, jobs created and taxes paid. “They predominantly follow the rules and laws,” he says. “The only problem is Russian ex-wives lying in court!” (In 2018, Russian oligarchs had some $44 billion stashed in British tax havens, five times more than in the U.K. mainland, according to advocacy group Global Witness.)
Learn More ‘There’s an Atmosphere of Fear.’ Russians are fleeing Europe by train
British legislators are now realizing that Putin may have bought them the rope to endanger their democracy. Since Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019, his party has accepted £2 million in Russian funding. Fourteen members of Johnson’s government were awarded Russia-linked grants in 2020.
Chichvarkin says sanctions must be focused specifically on Putin and his immediate relatives, along with the military generals as well and financial gurus around him. “Sanctions must target Putin’s wallet and his real friends,” he says, “not people who made money and probably had to give half to Putin just to keep the other half.”
Oliver Bullough, Author of Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away With Anything, disagrees with Chichvarkin’s argument that wealthy Russians don’t necessarily have Kremlin ties. “In general, if you are wealthy and your business is inside Russia, you are only in that position because you’ve come to an accommodation with the Kremlin,” he says. “Otherwise, you would have had your business taken away.”
Chichvarkin’s dramatic flight from Russia is a case in point. But he is on safer ground with his assertion that sanctioning oligarchs will have little effect on Putin—especially after the autocrat’s growing isolation during the pandemic. After all, an entire armada billionaire yacht owners fled the E.U. The bloc continues to purchase 40% of its natural gas from Russia every day, which is worth approximately $390 million.
Infamously, Russian agents attacked two of Putin’s enemies, Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, in very public incidents in England. These are most likely the top of the vodka bottle. U.S. intelligence officials suspect at least 14 people have been murdered on British soil in recent years by Russia’s security services or mafia, which sometimes work in cahoots, according to a 2017 investigation by BuzzFeed News.
Chichvarkin talks into a megaphone while he is joined by protestors opposing Russia’s presidential election process, outside the Russian Embassy in Kensington (London), March 18, 2018.
Chichvarkin knows only too well the brutal machinations of Putin’s “bulldogs,” as he calls them. His mother was found bloody and battered in her Moscow apartment. He claims state agents tried to kill him in order to bring her back for the funeral. (The Kremlin has denied any involvement. The official verdict was that she had a heart attack.
This hasn’t frightened Chichvarkin. In March 2018, in the weeks before Putin’s widely disputed re-election landslide, he stood outside the Russian embassy with a handful of fellow dissidents, denouncing his regime through a megaphone. Asked whether he fears for his own life, he shrugs: “I’m too tired to be afraid,” he says. “I drive around with the sunroof open.”
It’s brio that chafes with an increasingly bleak reality. On the day we met, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny—who narrowly escaped death after poisoning by suspected Kremlin agents in August 2020—had the sentence for his widely condemned corruption conviction increased to 13 years at a maximum-security prison.
“When Putin dies he will be free,” says Chichvarkin, who has funded Navalny with over $100,000 of donations since 2010. “Everybody’s waiting for Putin to die. The possibility of freedom only comes after his death.”
Does that seem like Russia’s only chance? “Well, one of Putin’s friends could bind him and bring him to the Hague,” he chuckles. “Russian history is quite dark with a lot of very strange examples of changing power.”
It’s such a slim glimmer that Chichvarkin falls silent. He twirls his mustache in contemplation and finally looks up. “Ukraine winning the war would help.”
Here are more must-read stories from TIME