I assume that soccer heads out there might be familiar with the story of Putin exiling Roman Abramovich to the Bering Strait, but I was not:
Roman Abramovich was thirty-four years old—baby-faced, vigorous, already one of Russia’s richest oligarchs—when he did something seemingly inexplicable. The year was 2000. Abramovich, an orphan and a college dropout turned Kremlin insider, had amassed a giant fortune by taking control of businesses that once belonged to the Soviet state. He owned nearly half of the oil company Sibneft, and much of the world’s second-biggest producer of aluminum. A man of cosmopolitan tastes, he favored Chinese cuisine and holidays in the South of France. But now, he announced, he was going to relocate to the remote Chukotka region, a desolate Arctic hellscape, where he would run for governor.
Chukotka, which is some thirty-seven hundred miles from Moscow, is comically inhospitable. The winds are fierce enough to blow a grown dog off its feet. When Abramovich arrived, the human population was meagre, and struggling with poverty and alcoholism. After he was elected governor—he got ninety-two per cent of the vote, his closest challenger being a local man who herded reindeer—he was confronted with the baying of his new constituents: “When will we have fuel? When will we have meat?” There was no Chinese food in Chukotka.
“People here don’t live, they just exist,” Abramovich marvelled. Shy by nature, he was not a natural politician. He pumped plenty of his own money into the region, but appeared to derive no pleasure from his new job. Nor could he explain, to anyone’s satisfaction, what he was doing there. When a reporter from the Wall Street Journal trekked to Chukotka to pose the question, Abramovich claimed that he was “fed up” with making money. The Journal speculated that he was working an angle—did he have a lead on some untapped natural resource beneath the tundra? Abramovich acknowledged that his own friends “can’t understand” why he made this move. They “can’t even guess,” he said.
Three years after gaining his governorship, Abramovich leapt from wealthy obscurity to tabloid prominence when he bought London’s Chelsea Football Club. In 2009, he settled into a fifteen-bedroom mansion behind Kensington Palace, for which he reportedly paid ninety million pounds. His mega-yacht Eclipse featured two helipads and its own missile-defense system, and he took to hosting New Year’s Eve parties with guests like Leonardo DiCaprio and Paul McCartney. It was a long way from Chukotka. Indeed, that unlikely interlude seemed mostly forgotten, until the publication of “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West” (2020), a landmark work of investigative journalism by the longtime Russia correspondent Catherine Belton. Her thesis is that, after becoming the President of Russia, in 2000, Vladimir Putin proceeded to run the state and its economy like a Mafia don—and that he did so through the careful control of ostensibly independent businessmen like Roman Abramovich.
When Abramovich went to Chukotka, Belton tells us, he did so “on Putin’s orders.” The first generation of post-Soviet capitalists had accumulated vast private fortunes, and Putin set out to bring the oligarchs under state control. He had leverage over government officials, so he forced Abramovich to become one. “Putin told me that if Abramovich breaks the law as governor, he can put him immediately in jail,” one Abramovich associate told Belton. A “feudal system” was beginning to emerge, Belton contends, in which the owners of Russia’s biggest companies would be forced to “operate as hired managers, working on behalf of the state.” Their gaudy displays of personal wealth were a diversion; these oligarchs were mere capos, who answered to the don. It wasn’t even their wealth, really: it was Putin’s. They were “no more than the guardians,” Belton writes, and “they kept their businesses by the Kremlin’s grace.”
Belton even makes the case—on the basis of what she was told by the former Putin ally Sergei Pugachev and two unnamed sources—that Abramovich’s purchase of the Chelsea Football Club was carried out on Putin’s orders. “Putin’s Kremlin had accurately calculated that the way to gain acceptance in British society was through the country’s greatest love, its national sport,” she writes. Pugachev informs her that the objective was to build “a beachhead for Russian influence in the UK.” He adds, “Putin personally told me of his plan to acquire the Chelsea Football Club in order to increase his influence and raise Russia’s profile, not only with the elite but with ordinary British people.”
The stark implication of “Putin’s People” is not just that the President of Russia may be a silent partner in one of England’s most storied sports franchises but also that England itself has been a silent and handsomely compensated partner in Putin’s kleptocratic designs—that, in the past two decades, Russian oligarchs have infiltrated England’s political, economic, and legal systems.
Keep reading for much more on the relationship between the UK and Russian oligarchs.