Evgeny Chichvarkin is looking 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 born in St. Petersburg, back when it 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. Chichvarkin and his business partner sold Evroset for a reported cut price $400 million, and after successfully fighting extradition proceedings, he now lives in exile. In London, he has enjoyed a coda as businessman, restaurateur, and thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, supporting democratic causes in Russia and its periphery by funding opposition parties and issuing scathing critiques.
“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 is a flamboyant, iconoclastic example of the Russian wealth that has flooded into Britain over the past two decades. 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 a 2022 report from Transparency International, Russians with Kremlin links or who have been accused of corruption own at least $1.9 billion of British real estate. The U.K. parliamentary intelligence committee has dubbed London a “laundromat” for dirty Russian money.
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.
When it comes to support for Ukraine, Chichvarkin goes further than U.S. 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 itself for Russian billions has deep roots. 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 enjoys the luxurious fruits of London living as much as any of them, even crossing mallets with princes William and Harry on the polo circuit. 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.)
Still, British lawmakers are suddenly waking up to the possibility that they sold Putin the rope with which to strangle their democracy. Since Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019, his party has accepted £2 million in Russian funding. In 2020, 14 members of his government received Russia-linked donations.
Chichvarkin argues sanctions need to be laser focused on Putin, his immediate family and the military generals and financiers surrounding 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, while an armada of billionaire yachts fled the E.U. for more hospitable waters in the wake of the sanctions, the bloc is still buying 40% of its gas from Russia, worth some $390 million every day.
Infamously, Russian agents attacked two of Putin’s enemies, Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, in very public incidents in England. These likely represent simply the cap 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 knows only too well the brutal machinations of Putin’s “bulldogs,” as he calls them. He maintains that his own mother, whose bloodied and bruised body was discovered in her Moscow apartment in April 2010, was murdered by state agents in an attempt to lure him home for her funeral. (The Kremlin denies involvement, and the official verdict was that she died of a heart attack.)
That has not cowed 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.”
Is that the only hope for Russia? “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 twists his mustache contemplatively and eventually looks up. “Ukraine winning the war would help.”