Europe

The London-based Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin

Yevgeny Chichvarkin
Image caption Businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin is backing the Russian opposition

It is not just in Russia that Russians have been stirring to the possibilities of politics in their home country. In London, some members of the expatriate community have a new-found urge to express publicly their opposition to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid to return to the Kremlin in Sunday's presidential election.

One of them is Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a millionaire businessman who used to own one of Russia's leading mobile phone companies.

He fled his homeland in 2008 after being accused of kidnapping and extortion - a case which he argued was a settling of business scores.

In 2010, the charges against him were dropped and, although he doesn't believe it is safe for him to return to Russia, he has decided to re-enter politics, indirectly.

He is sponsoring a pre-election London tour by "Citizen Poet", a satirical Russian theatre project which mocks Vladimir Putin through adaptations of classical Russian poetry.

It has already gained a large following on YouTube, which Mr Chichvarkin describes as "a weapon against Putin's regime".

He is now spending at least £20,000 ($32,000) of his own money to bring the project to London's Russian community.

The internet is enabling this community to follow - and even influence - events back home in ways that were not available to previous generations of emigres.

Mr Chichvarkin predicts that Russia's current political divisions will lead to blood on the streets and says his homeland is split between a new, internet-savvy generation and the majority, whom he describes as "zombies, who wake up after drinking beer and vodka and switch on the first (state-controlled) TV channel. They don't want to think, they don't want to work, they don't want to learn."

Image caption Protests spread to London in December

He says he does not have political ambitions himself, but he is supporting the billionaire businessman, Mikhail Prokhorov, in the 4 March vote.

Mr Putin recently suggested that Russia needed its own version of Hyde Park's Speakers' Corner - a place where Russians can freely express their political opinions.

At Speakers' Corner in London I met three other Russian expatriates, who have decided it is time to make their voices heard.

Konstantin Pinaev and his wife Natalia Bakhlina have been living in London for the past six years.

Mr Pinaev, who works in marketing, never paid much attention to Russian politics, until December's parliamentary elections when he saw images of thousands of middle class Russians marching in Moscow.

He "felt he couldn't sit still" so he organised a protest in London, which he says gathered around 600 people.

That is a relatively small number, and many London-based Russians continue - openly or tacitly - to support Mr Putin. But the protest was another example of previously apolitical Russians becoming engaged in the political process.

Natalia Bakhlina says Russian politics used to concern her only when work colleagues would tease her about the prime minister's macho photo opportunities.

She says she would return to her desk to find a picture of a bare-chested prime minister.

Now she shares her husband's engagement in what is happening back home.

Hedge fund owner Sergei Grechishkin has lived in England for 14 years but he is far from being a natural opponent of Mr Putin.

"If Putin had left office after his first two terms in the Kremlin, he would probably have been seen as one of the great guys, alongside Peter The Great," he says.

"But he decided to stay on - and I think that was the point that people got very disillusioned with Russian democracy."

The parliamentary elections persuaded him to protest on London's streets as well.

Mr Grechishkin says politics used to be dull and was of interest only to older people and those struggling financially. But he believes a fundamental change has been made, now that celebrities discuss politics.

Image caption Konstantin Pinaev and Natalia Bakhlina were inspired by protests in Moscow in December.

With Vladimir Putin's re-election all but certain, Mr Grechishkin believes little will change soon and that his current message to his supporters - that external influences want to weaken Russia - still strikes a powerful chord.

Konstantin Pinaev and Natalia Bakhlina agree. Natalia says some of their old friends in Russia consider them unpatriotic for living abroad, while Konstantin sounds exasperated by Mr Putin's pre-election warnings about the malign influence of the outside world.

"What really winds me up is that it's exactly the same story as 40 years ago," he says.

"In the early 1990s people realised we were surrounded by friends, not enemies, and life is not that difficult. And now, 20 years later, the same rhetoric, the same messages are back.

"I think Putin is giving an early warning. He knows he will struggle to be seen as a legitimate president internationally, so he's saying to the Russian public: don't listen to them."